At last, one of Marilyn Monroe's most overlooked films gets a Blu-ray release...and it was worth the wait. The Prince and the Showgirl may be a featherweight confection that struggles to sustain itself for two hours, but it contains one of Monroe's most natural and endearing portrayals. Laurence Olivier also shines in this sophisticated romantic comedy that's been given a breathtaking makeover by Warner Archive. The brand-new 4K master struck from the original camera negative will knock your socks off and makes this disc well worth a purchase. Highly Recommended.
Pairing the world's greatest actor with the world's biggest sex symbol certainly looked good on paper, but could Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe live up to the hype? Both stars try their best in The Prince and the Showgirl, but the lightweight material buckles under their considerable auras. Adapted from The Sleeping Prince, a mildly successful play by Terence Rattigan (Separate Tables) that starred Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh, this comedy of manners and mores rolls amiably along, but a wispy plot and leisurely pacing keep the film from catching fire.
A frothy bit of romantic fluff packed with royal pageantry, The Prince and the Showgirl takes place in 1911 London at the time of King George V's coronation. The recently widowed Charles (Olivier), the Grand Duke of the Balkan state of Carpathia, arrives to attend the ceremony with his crusty, elderly mother-in-law, The Queen Dowager (Sybil Thorndike), and wily 16-year-old son, King Nicholas VII (Jeremy Spenser), for whom he acts as regent. While attending a theatrical performance, Charles' roving eye settles upon Elsie Marina (Monroe) and he invites the bubbly American actress to a party at the Carpathian Embassy.
That "party" is really an intimate dinner in his private quarters that Charles hopes will lead to a night of passion. Elsie quickly sizes up the situation and despite Charles' best attempts to ply her with vodka, she resists his advances. Smarter than she seems, Elsie keeps Charles, who was a Hungarian prince before he married the Queen of Carpathia to form an alliance, at arm's length while she chips away at his stiff, often brusque veneer. In a weak moment, Charles admits he has never known true love, and in a clever twist on the age-old fairy tales, Elsie brings the sleeping prince to life with a kiss.
The two fall in love, but can a prince and a showgirl forge a future together? Their union seems impossible under the best of circumstances, but with the winds of war swirling around Europe and Charles' rebellious son in their midst, it's especially complicated.
The Prince and the Showgirl runs about 20 minutes too long and try as we might, it's tough to fully invest ourselves in the flimsy story. We're never really sure why Elsie falls in love with Charles; it literally happens overnight and without any personal transformations or epiphanies. Is it because Charles didn't take advantage of her after she passes out on the drawing room floor or is Elsie merely honoring the prediction she made after downing several vodka shots: "You know what's going to happen?" she tells Charles while in a drunken haze. "I'm gonna fall in love with you, because I always, always do." And because that's what always, always happens in romantic comedies.
Not surprisingly, what went on behind the scenes of The Prince and Showgirl generated more interest than the film itself. (The off-screen drama even inspired a movie, 2011's My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, and Kenneth Branagh.) Olivier's dictatorial directing style and condescending attitude toward Monroe coupled with her chronic lateness, crippling insecurity, and dependence on her acting coach for guidance created a tense on-set atmosphere and friction between the two stars. Monroe also suffered a miscarriage during shooting and had to deal with the pressures that came with mounting the first (and only) movie under the aegis of her newly formed production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions.
Amazingly, none of those stresses affect her performance, which is arguably her most natural and definitely one of her finest. While the previous year's Bus Stop showcased her dramatic ability, The Prince and the Showgirl allows Monroe to display the breadth of her talent in more subtle ways. Always an adept comedienne, her timing here is spot on and her nuanced line readings, carefree demeanor, and genuine sincerity combine to create a full-bodied, charming, utterly captivating portrayal. All the film's laughs - and there are plenty of them - emanate from Marilyn, but she never forces them. Though Monroe is certainly a larger-than-life screen presence, The Prince and the Showgirl proves subtlety is her strong suit.
Olivier may have been frustrated by her antics and apoplectic about the amount of time and cajoling it took to get what he wanted, but she delivers the goods. Years later, Olivier would admit he didn't appreciate Monroe at the time or realize her singular gifts, and that what showed up on film was far different - and much more magnetic and moving - than what he saw in person. Together, Marilyn and the camera make magic and she single-handedly makes The Prince and the Showgirl worth watching (more than once), despite its myriad deficiencies.
Olivier is wonderful as well, but the luminous movie star consistently upstages the master thespian. Despite their off-screen problems, the two create a delightful on-screen chemistry that may lack heat, but brims with a buoyant playfulness that sustains the film when the plot sputters and pacing flags. The Prince and the Showgirl, perhaps to its detriment, largely adheres to its rigid theatrical structure (Rattigan adapted his own play); the lone exception is the lengthy coronation scene that, though majestic and beautiful, considerably slows down the action. Olivier's stagy direction is also devoid of flair, but Jack Cardiff's lush Technicolor cinematography and the gorgeous production design keep the eye engaged. (Oh, do they ever! See the video review below.)
There's a lot to love about The Prince and the Showgirl, but as Shakespeare once famously wrote, the play's the thing, and Rattigan's play, which was written to coincide with and capitalize on Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, struggles to connect outside of that milieu. Monroe truly sparkles and it's just a shame the film's faults have kept her exceptional work from receiving the exposure it deserves. If you only know Marilyn as Lorelei Lee and Sugar Kane, you must give The Prince and the Showgirl a spin. The movie may be meh, but MM is mah-velous.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Prince and the Showgirl arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The misleading cover art tries to put a modern spin on the period tale, but Monroe doesn't wear anything nearly that revealing in the film. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Fans of The Prince and the Showgirl have waited years for a proper home video release, and at last they get one. Presented for the first time in its original widescreen aspect ratio and awash in lush, vivid color, the film looks absolutely smashing on Blu-ray. A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative yields a scrumptious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that celebrates the gorgeous cinematography of Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for Black Narcissus and also photographed The Red Shoes. Cardiff's mastery of Technicolor is second to none and this dazzling transfer celebrates that expertise. Perfectly timed and beautifully balanced, the hues leap off the screen. Primaries pop and an array of cool pastels provide glorious shadings that keep the eye dancing around the frame. (I've never seen purple so impeccably rendered.) Never does the color look garish, never do flesh tones look anything less than natural, and rarely - if ever - has Monroe been photographed with as much care.
Grain is evident, but it provides essential texture that maintains the feel of celluloid, while process shots and newsreel footage are nicely integrated. Excellent clarity and contrast allow us to drink in all the details of the ornate sets and costumes, depth is palpable, and top-notch shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. The rich, inky blacks offset the bold color, but even more impressive is the crisp appearance of the white embroidered gown Monroe wears throughout most of the movie. Whites can sometimes bloom and details can be indistinct, but not here. And oh those close-ups! Sharp yet slightly diffused, they enhance Monroe's natural luminosity to breathtaking effect.
No nicks, marks, or scratches mar the pristine source material and no digital anomalies crop up. Say what you will about the movie itself, there's no denying this is a superior transfer that will thrill Monroe and Olivier devotees and anyone who appreciates the preservation and restoration of classic films.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is generally quite good, but I had a fair degree of trouble deciphering some of the dialogue early on. (Olivier's thick European accent didn't help.) It took a while to achieve the right balance between music, dialogue, and effects, but I eventually settled on a lower volume level and that seemed to resolve the issue. Excellent fidelity helps Richard Addinsell's music score fill the room and a wide dynamic scale handles its highs and lows, as well as Monroe's impressive soprano vocals on the song "I Found a Dream," without any distortion. The track is free of any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle.
The only extra is the film's two-minute original theatrical trailer that proclaims "Laurence Olivier was never better" and advertises "Marilyn Monroe in her happiest role."
The Prince and the Showgirl may not stand as one of Marilyn Monroe's best movies, but it contains one of her best performances. The wispy romantic comedy looks fantastic on Blu-ray, thanks to a brand new HD master in the proper aspect ratio that's struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Solid audio and the original theatrical trailer complete Warner Archive's impressive presentation of this long-neglected Monroe treasure. Highly Recommended.