Terrence Rattigan’s THE SLEEPING PRINCE, written to coincide with Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation, was poached by Marilyn Monroe and producing partner Milton Greene as their initial film project. (It was also their last.) Your basic Ruritarian romance, but set in a London embassy, it stars Laurence Olivier as a chilly, charmless Regent, running his little country till his son comes of age, and Monroe (in a role Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh played on stage) as the young, spirited actress he hopes to seduce. It’s a tired bit of fluff that Olivier, as director, makes worse by stuffing it with ‘cinematic’ treats (a coronation parade & ball) that make Rattigan’s tidy play look tinny. So much pomp, so little circumstance. Worse, he’s so cold to the touch, we can’t fathom Monroe’s attraction. (When he does warm up, halfway thru, he’s suddenly very funny.) Famously troublesome to work with, Monroe does fall into the same rhythm on speech after speech, and Olivier makes things harder with pointlessly fussy camera moves he hoped would enliven this stagebound vehicle. Still, Marilyn’s natural gift for light, romantic comedy, especially when she doesn’t have to play dumb or dramatic, always comes thru. Lenser Jack Cardiff lights her like a ripe peach, softening that overly-determined chin, quite unlike the lacquered look she’d been getting at 20th/Fox. And the sway of her body line in her formal gown, with the lower abdomen slightly curved, is spectacularly sexy. Monroe's acuity may have been debatable, but she definitely had a certain cunning about herself, or rather, about her self-presentation. (Shocking to think she only had three more films in her.) What a shame these two great stars hadn’t come together on William Wyler’s CARRIE/’52. Monroe was born for the Jennifer Jones role and Olivier’s greatest film perf would have gained the visibility it deserves. (Plus, instead of Monroe wearing everyone down, multi-take task master Wyler would have worn her down.)
DOUBLE-BILL: The film about this production, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN/’11 doesn’t quite hold up, though Kenneth Branagh is often spot on as Olivier even when they have him quoting dialogue from John Osbourne’s not yet written THE ENTERTAINER/’60 as self-criticism. A real cheap shot, that.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The current Warners DVD advises that the print has been ‘Modified to Fit Your Screen.’ Not so. This is one of those Academy Ratio films that would have been shown either in the old-fashioned squarish frame or slightly cropped by the projectionist, probably down to a modestly wide 1.66:1. So don’t let the notification bring out the purest in you.