Princess O’Rourke (1943, Norman Krasna)
Some may have a low tolerance for this sort of Hollywood cutesiness — unfailingly pleasant and breezy and trading in unabashed wish-fulfillment — but for those who can get a little misty at the thought of a great movie romance (“the rest of us,” let’s say), Princess O’Rourke is the kind of robust and rich entertainment that makes a night out at the movies one of the most intensely pleasurable things in the world. In the case of this particular frothy love story, there’s an added twist: as in so many films of the early ’40s, the conventional trappings of a rote Hollywood scenario rub up against the context of wartime to give everything a strange air of uncertainty and sadness. For those who bristle at the sentimentality of something like The Human Comedy, this decidedly wistful chronicle of much more palpably adult relationships is a worthwhile alternative, as it must have been at the time.
The idea here is that an exotic and perpetually stifled princess of Bandrika, wasting away stuffed up inside a hotel room during an exile in the United States, gets a chance to wander about on the town after one too many sleeping pills keep her out cold after a canceled flight. One of the pilots of that same flight turns out to be an affable enough guy and the two of them fall in of-course-forbidden love, a fate complicated ever more by the princess’ insistence to him that she is a homeless, poor refugee. You probably know the rest, with the strange flavor of the time — manifested first of all in the fact that pilot Eddie and his pal are headed off to the Air Force after they’re done with the movie here, then by Princess Maria’s interest in amusingly limited-scope volunteer work — intermingling with all the light comic pratfalls you might expect. The script by director Norman Krasna is tight and carefully constructed, and he makes plain his affinity for his characters in the way that he shoots the film, even if he hasn’t the literary gifts of a Preston Sturges.
If you’re a reasonably grizzled film watcher, right now you’re thinking Roman Holiday. William Wyler’s film, made about a decade later and forming a star out of Audrey Hepburn, indeed liberally cribs from this one, though the reverse-Cinderella parallels inherent to the structures of both films suggest that they simply amount to an idea that’s easy to set up and execute. All the same, Roman Holiday can frankly be decried as the slick and flamboyantly expensive version of this scrappier, more directly emotional film. It’s not flashy, and it comes to a far more optimistic and crowd-pleasing conclusion than Holiday, but that seems like a hard-won achievement. Audiences saw Roman Holiday as mere entertainment, but no one knew better than that film’s director that sometimes magic and easy pleasure are what people need, and Princess O’Rourke feels like a salve for a civilization in duress, a knowing and good-natured chronicle of things going well and people smiling through them, only acknowledging in soft knowing glances that they have no idea if they will be alive to see one another in a year’s time. Those stakes are much higher than Roman Holiday‘s even if you don’t buy that the central relationship is more realistic.
Olivia de Havilland, nearly universally known now for her dramatic roles, is a revelation as Maria — her comic timing, sarcasm and youthful energy are wonderful and hint at more sophistication than the script even has time to cover; she is more believably throttled by the world outside her cultivated isolation than Hepburn (in a performance nearly as grand) later would be, but also exhibits stronger control and presents as a confident and controlled woman in her element. Her crisis is being unsure of where that element is; but whether lamenting being trapped like a bird in a cage, giving vent to her lustier impulses, or being genuinely in love and scared about it, she captures a feeling of maturing and change that is much more universal than is typical of the female half of archetypal romantic comedies. She’s hilarious, and unflinchingly erotic; the nude bathtub scene, in which she wonders how the writer of a bawdy anonymous note (who, in a later note of probably-accidental progression, turns out to be a woman!) knew about the location of her birthmark, is almost worthy of pre-code Claudette Colbert. To say it’s unusual to see material like this in a ’40s studio picture is an understatement.
It’s sort of unfortunate, though not fatal, that de Havilland’s leading man in the role of the pilot Eddie O’Rourke is the somewhat bland Robert Cummings, as charming a goofball as ever but hardly in a league with his costar. He takes the wheel for most of the last act and redeems himself eventually with this charmingly boyish reaction to the way the rug of his life and now pending marriage is continually pulled out from under him, to his perpetual bewilderment. Cummings was ideal for certain kinds of rules and could perhaps have been a significant comedic actor, but he simply doesn’t have much presence — and while he is somewhat believable as a fundamentally decent future fighter pilot, it’s hard to imagine his tentative, wiry wisecracking causing a fascinating woman like Maria to be swept off her feet. Then again, perhaps the point here is that his “ordinariness” is a respite from her life of diplomacy.
By the same token, it’s worth praising how this film skirts the typical format of the Hollywood romcom — any viewer will likely believe several times in the first hour that he or she knows where the story is headed, but those expectations are repeatedly circumvented. The last act of the film does, in the end, come across as a harmless and fitfully funny patriotic semi-screwball descendant of It Happened One Night — nothing especially new, then, except its weird and highly of-the-time appropriation of the mythical FDR as an unseen force in the closing comedy-of-errors marriage. Entertaining as it is, that’s a pity because for the first two thirds, the film’s wit comes easily and unforced somewhat in the manner of Sturges, and the scenes involving Jack Carson and a never-better Jane Wyman as a bickering couple quietly grieving their pending separation have an aching sadness to them that seems to come from nowhere, undoubtedly a consequence of the fraught period that generated this film. Their love seems real, felt, true. This gravity is unexpected and gives the film a dimension — a completeness to its bubbly world — that one wouldn’t necessarily expect.
Much like the lurching, strange, lumpier yet Arise My Love, this is a fascinating portrait of its era and how Hollywood dealt (complete with far more eyebrow-raising racy humor), but it’s pleasing enough in sum total that it really deserves to be more widely known — the early sleeping pills sequence alone makes it crucial, especially for fans of de Havilland, whose “act drunk” showstopping is sincerely impressive. Modern critics like Leonard Maltin decry the film’s datedness, but it’s this very element that makes it so interesting. And at its worst, this is still a pretty nice time — I even thought the extremely easy final gag, subject of many reviewers’ groans, was pretty funny; maybe I’m the easy one.
[As usual now with Warner Archive releases, I couldn’t take screencaps for this. So these stills and random caps were found on the internet. To be honest, it’s griping me because it takes away the entire point of having caps on display here. Should I stop including illustrations? Your calls after this.]