Maria (Olivia de Havilland) is a princess of a small, unnamed European country that has been overtaken by the Nazis. As the war rages on, she and her uncle, Holman (Charles Coburn), have settled into a posh New York apartment, where Maria spends her days reading in relative solitude. Though Holman pressures her to marry and produce male heirs for their eventual return to their country, Maria repeatedly declines the courtship of an eligible count (Curt Bois), who sports an unfortunate facial tic.
To get her out of the apartment and back in the “real world,” Holman sends Maria, traveling under the name “Mary Williams,” to a ranch in San Francisco. Maria is a nervous flier, and when she cannot fall asleep on the plane, she ends up taking one too many sleeping pills, which knocks her out completely. The fog causes the plane to turn back around to New York, and the pilots, Eddie O’Rourke (Robert Cummings) and Dave Campbell (Jack Carson), cannot rouse Maria. Since she is traveling incognito and there is no address listed for her, Eddie takes a groggy Maria to his place to sleep off her stupor until she can tell him where she lives.
Maria wakes up the next morning in Eddie’s over-sized pajamas, having been put in them the night before by Dave’s wife, Jean (Jane Wyman). A series of notes directs her to meet him in front of the house later that day, but she first returns to her uncle, who has been searching for her. She lies and tells him she slept in the ladies’ lounge of the airport, but later tries in vain to ditch her Secret Service agent (Ray Walker) on the way to meet Eddie again, who is thrilled to see her. Maria is evasive about her background, leaving Eddie in the dark about her true identity, and the two go over to see the Campbells, with the agent in tow reporting every move back to Holman via telephone.
After a busy afternoon of first-aid classes, handball games, and air raid drills, the couples go out to dinner. Jean is very emotional because Eddie and Dave are heading off to join the Air Force in a mere two weeks, and those feelings rub off on the entire group when they decide to dance. Maria bursts into tears, and Jean takes her to the ladies’ room, where she confides that she believes Eddie will ask Maria to marry him before the night is through. Sure enough, after the couples part ways, Eddie nervously pops the question, and Maria gently but firmly turns him down. But Eddie refuses to take no for an answer, and Maria reluctantly acknowledges that she does want to marry him.
Meanwhile, Holman investigates Eddie’s background, and is intrigued to learn that Eddie is from a family of nine boys, as producing a male heir is Maria’s sworn royal duty. Holman contacts Maria’s father and obtains the king’s approval for Maria to marry Eddie under the guise of “securing relations” between their country and the United States. The only problem is, what will Eddie think when he learns the truth about Maria’s identity–and how will he respond to the inevitable life adjustments necessary when marrying into royalty?
Princess O’Rourke is a warm and heartfelt romantic comedy, a cute reversal of the Cinderella story with slight elements of slapstick, a good dose of wit, and some pretty cheeky and suggestive humor for 1943. The film’s director, Norman Krasna, won an Academy Award for his clever screenplay. Princess marks Krasna’s debut as a director, and he would go on to direct two more films during his career. But his main bread-and-butter was as a screenwriter, producing the scripts for such comedic classics as Bombshell (1933), Bachelor Mother (1939, also featuring Coburn), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, also co-starring Cummings and Coburn), and White Christmas (1954), among many others.
By the time filming began on Princess, Olivia de Havilland had had her fill of Warner Bros. During the making of the movie, de Havilland, suffering from bouts of exhaustion, began showing up late and leaving early, creating multiple delays and putting the production days behind schedule. Two months before the release of this film, de Havilland sued the studio, which had tried to extend her seven-year contract by tacking on extra time due to previous suspensions. Though other stars, including Bette Davis, had attempted to take on the studio system before, de Havilland was the first one to be successful, and the resulting decision in her favor made it illegal for studios to add extra time to their players’ contracts.
Before filming began, de Havilland tried to refuse the lead role in Princess,which she initially considered overly frivolous (like many of her Warner-designated roles). While she finally did agree to be in the film, the actress soon realized that she did not particularly trust her director. As recounted in the collection American Classic Screen Interviews (2010), in later years, de Havilland explained that Krasna “tormented one of the character actors constantly, even though he had been doing better take after take” (a comment likely referring to Coburn). Witnessing this, she claimed, made her “lose faith and confidence in [Krasna] as a person of sensitivity, taste, and genuine strength.” In a move that echoed her off-set work with George Cukor during the making of Gone With the Wind (1939)–in which she and Vivien Leigh would go to see their fired director for guidance on playing their roles–de Havilland conferred with director John Huston about her part in Princess. She explained: “During lunch breaks, I met him in his car and we’d go over the script. He would say, ‘Now I would do it this way,’ and he would play [the role], and I would go back to Warner Bros. and play it the way John had played it in the car.” Still, whatever problems she had with Krasna, de Havilland would work with him again thirteen years later–seemingly without difficulty–in The Ambassador’s Daughter (1956).
Despite whatever reluctance she may have displayed on set, her displeasure with the studio is not apparent in her performance. Maria is a wonderfully charming role, and de Havilland is charming in it, deftly depicting Maria’s inner struggle between love and responsibility with every glance. Early in the film, Holman muses, “Maria, sometimes I wonder if you realize your position.” But de Havilland’s Maria is a woman who understands her position all too well. She knows she is trapped in a gilded cage; to drive the metaphor home, she even briefly pictures herself taking the place of her canary, chirping a few notes as she reflects upon her loneliness. She stoically refuses to accept Eddie’s proposal, and when she does finally give in, she is determined to break their engagement–at the expense of her own happiness–in order to fulfill the duties associated with her royal role.
Robert Cummings, borrowed from RKO for this film, plays well opposite de Havilland in a role originally intended for Fred MacMurray. As the American who finds himself suddenly thrust into the position of prince-by-marriage, he is by turns confident and clumsy. Cummings, never a particularly effective leading man, is typically overshadowed by his female co-stars in many of his pictures, but he manages to hold his own throughout most of Princess. Eddie is an inherently patriotic character, intended to stand in for the audience during a time of war; indeed, his indignant speech refusing to renounce his status as an American for the sake of the marriage plays directly into the wartime ethos of Hollywood: “I’m not giving up any American citizenship. I’ve never gotten over how lucky I was to be born here in the first place!”
The supporting cast is rather remarkable, including the great duo of Carson and Wyman as the loving yet snarky Campbells and ubiquitous classic character actor Harry Davenport as the Supreme Court justice called in to save the day. But the standout among the supporting players is Coburn, who is wonderful as the heir-obsessed uncle, marveling over and over again about the O’Rourke family’s tendency to produce male offspring and repeatedly losing his monocle in various fits of surprise. Coburn, a welcome patrician figure in any number of films from the late 1930s through the 1950s, appeared in Princess O’Rourke six months after his celebrated comedic performance in The More the Merrier, which would ultimately win him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (he had previously been nominated in 1941 for The Devil and Miss Jones, and would score a final Academy Award nomination in 1946 for The Green Years). According to Roger Fristoe’s article about the film on the TCM site, by the time he began filming Princess, Coburn suffered from difficulties with his memory which required a number of retakes, particularly in his many scenes opposite de Havilland (and, as mentioned previously, may have prompted the ire of his director).
Though the movie boasts an incredibly noteworthy cast, it is also notable for a “cameo” by the American President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, an element that adds to the patriotic undertones of the film. According to an October 18, 1943 article in LIFE magazine, Princess O’Rourke marked the President’s seventh unofficial big-screen cameo in a Warner Bros. film (following other films such as 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy). But Roosevelt was not the only White House resident depicted in the film; the President’s dog, a Scottie named Fala (portrayed by a dog actor named Whiskers), plays an important role in ensuring the film’s happy ending.
This post is an entry in the ongoing “Summer Under the Stars Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Make sure to check out the other entries that have been dedicated to the funny, fantastic Charles Coburn today.