By 1957 Marilyn Monroe’s film career had reached a sort of stalemate. She proved her critics wrong with a knockout performance in Bus Stop, yet still was battling studio heads to escape the tired, though lucrative role of the dumb blonde she perfected in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or How to Marry a Millionaire. The solution was for Monroe to produce her own films, so she partnered with Milton Greene and formed Marilyn Monroe Productions. Its sole product was this romantic comedy, based on Terence Rattigan’s drawing room comedy about a fictional central European prince who falls in love with an actress. Monroe scored a major coup by securing theater giant Sir Laurence Olivier as her costar and director of the film. Initially the two got along well, though tensions between the two film legends made the making of The Prince and the Showgirl quite a chore for all involved. Olivier began to feel as if he were slumming and the slight material was beneath him. Monroe, on the other hand, was suffering from her usual bouts of crippling depression and low self-esteem, no doubt exasperated by Olivier’s patronizing as well as the pressure of producing a film for the first time. Despite all the backstage drama, that inspired books, the film comes off as quite effortless, and none of the tension shows.
The Cinderella story is rather simple. Charles, the Prince Regent (Olivier) of a fictional central European country is in London, for diplomatic reasons, to attend the coronation of the King. He goes for an evening to a nightclub and catches the eye of an American actress, Elsa Marina (Monroe), and invites her to dinner. He tries to woo her, but initially fails. There is some minor political intrigue, as the Prince’s young son, Nicolas (Jeremy Spencer), plans to take over the kingdom. Elsa is on hand to try and mend fences with the Prince and his son. She also wins him over and his court with her frankness and candor, even going as far as lecturing Charles on the benefits of democracy over dancing.
The film is so airy it almosts floats off the screen. The primary reason to watch the film is Monroe. She is captivating, acting circles around her costars. It’s a bit gratifying that Elsa is an intelligent and thoughtful character, given the string of ditzes Monroe was forced to portray before this film. She shows a masterful grasp of comic timing, putting the normally dominating Olivier in her shadow. That is not to say that Olivier doesn’t impress, either — he’s solid, if a bit artificial. The rest of the supporting cast works well, especially Dame Sybil Thorndike as the Dowager Empress, though this is Monroe’s show from start-to-finish.