Thursday, January 14, 2010
The 1950s Princess - Part 1
It could be said that the 1950s was an era obsessed with princesses. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 marked a profound response by media and fascinated commoners around the world newly linked by fast developing communications technology.
What part the backwash of World War II could have had in this fascination is intriguing. There are several factors to consider. First, in the United States at least, there was a fairy tale aspect to the swarm of returning veterans building suburban dream houses for sweethearts who had waited for them, women who had now left the grind of the war plant to set up housekeeping in long planned for and idealized homes of their own with modern gadgets. Peacetime at the end of several years of hardship, worry, and terror, was the happy ending. Americans have always been addicted to happy endings.
Home, and the children who followed in the happy ending, were considered primarily feminine concerns, a woman’s realm, but the post-War woman seemed determined to avoid being the kind of household drudge she may have regarded her mother. Gadgets and modern appliances were part of the modern woman’s campaign to keep her station elevated, but there was something more. It had to do with fashion, and icons, which perhaps had to do with advertising.
The film begins with a kind of “Citizen Kane” jolt of realism with a pseudo-newsreel opening. Audrey Hepburn, as Princess Ann, attends various functions on a European tour to promote trade for her tiny country.
Like our cliché American not needing to know which country the princess comes from because we will likely be ignorant of it anyway and who cares (when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Americans went scrambling for their atlases), is the occasional reference to the Italian lire as being extremely devalued compared to the American dollar. On a few occasions, Gregory Peck flips through large bank notes worth thousands of lire and notes with a smirk it is worth about a dollar and a half. Such commercial observations brings the fairy tale and the travelogue to a halt.
Its being shot in black and white probably adds to this suggestion of realism compared to later films of this similarly lighthearted vein shot in Italy, like “Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954) and “Summertime” (1955), which were more like picture postcards with a plot. (Ten-year-old Jackie Coogan remarked on a visit to Rome and an audience with the Pope in 1924 that Rome was "the best place in the world for shooting pictures, after Hollywood." Out of the mouths of babes.)
But the ball is dreary for a young person. Retiring for the evening in the ornate bedroom of her country’s Roman embassy, Audrey stands on the enormous bed, moping and brushing her hair, dressed in a voluminous and somewhat old-fashioned nightgown, looking like a pouting child, “I hate all my nightgowns and all my underwear, too.”
She is overwhelmed and overtired, depressed and anxious, ready for a breakdown, as every moment in her life is booked up. Her youth, her charm is perhaps her beleaguered country’s ace in the hole. She is sent on the public relations tour, doing the work of seasoned diplomats, but completely unarmed for the rigor of being both politician and icon.
Margaret Rowlings plays the Countess, her lady in waiting who has the charge of Audrey and, like the rest of the staff, plays her role with splendid warmth and tightly controlled comedy. Needing to get the nearly hysterical girl calm, she first pleads,
The phrase "your highness", as much as it is a respectful grand gesture, will always carry a glint of dismal foreboding in all these three films, a reminder of the limitations of being a princess.
She is remorseful, “I’ll bow, and I’ll smile, and I’ll improve trade relations!” but asks if she can keep just one light on when the doctor gives her a sedative and puts her to bed, like a child again. But, the child will run away, as children sometimes will, (and something princesses occasionally seem to do, as we’ll see in our next two posts) dressed and clutching her white gloves, before the sedative knocks her out, and will return in 24 hours a princess of maturity and authority.
But if this had been filmed in the 1930s, the golden age of screwball comedy, we likely would have had a different story. We would have had a studio back lot Ruritanian setting, not the real streets and warm velvet night of Rome. We would have had more Cinderella and less trade relations. We would have had a different ending. This is the 1950s when life, and especially princesses, has to be taken more seriously. After World War II and the atomic age, you can’t really go back to fairy tales and believe them.
More great moments: The funny bit when loopy Audrey, being taken home by him, is about to knock on a neighbor’s door and he grabs her wrist just in time.
“Is this the elevator?” she wonders at his dingy one-room apartment with sleepy dignity. She speaks with precise diction, and gentle awareness of her difference to people who are not royal.
“I’ve never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it’s most unusual.” Her line is delivered in a manner not coquettish, just pondering, which makes it all the funnier.
“Your royal highness?”
“Yes, what is it?” she sleepily responds, and we sense Peck’s triumph because he’s now sitting on the story of the year. In a way, we share his glee, because she is a real princess, and we hear the soft mist of some middle European folk theme playing in the background, which we associate with the young princess. She is who she is. As royalty, she is her own destiny.
But we don’t really want them to be one of us. We want them to be special, perhaps only so we may exploit them.
Another interesting play on reality versus fantasy is that throughout their day’s adventure together of sightseeing in Rome, Mr. Peck pretends not to know she is a princess, and allows her to pretend not to be one. Ostensibly, his motive is to catch her with her guard down, but as the day progresses, it becomes a kind of courtesy they extend to each other, not to shatter their pleasant outing with the hard truth. This is much better than if she had revealed at the beginning she is a princess out for a spree. It is a secret we share with both of them separately. We, too, want to see her let her hair down, but we don’t want to see her hurt.
More fun moments: the cleaning woman played by Paola Barborni berating Audrey in Italian for her loose morals, having found her wrapped in a towel in Gregory Peck’s bathroom. Also the janitor, who suspiciously frowns at Mr. Peck when he thinks Audrey is a prostitute.
Though the movie is less concerned with the setting than the plot, we do get glimpses of the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum. We get a more profound view of what it is like for a princess, who never carries money, to have her hair cut or buy an ice cream. She is helpless in the real world, princesses are. We have to take care of her, shelter her. Keep her as an inspiration, a muse, but never let her do for herself. Keep her from being independent, but for her sake or for ours? How many sheltered 1950s American suburban princesses brooded over the same thing about themselves?
Her first independent action, in having her hair cut, is to change her own appearance. She wants to be different, even if only the illusion of being different.
Back in his apartment, she is in his paisley bathrobe, primping in his bathroom, waiting for her clothes to dry, where the disapproving cleaning woman had earlier accused her of naughty things. Gregory Peck has changed into dry clothes, a freshly knotted tie around his neck, because real men wear ties.
They listen to a radio bulletin about the sick princess. The palace has issued a fake report hiding the fact that she is missing. It seems a modern touch, this simple spin doctoring, this manipulation of the media. It is her first inkling that people are worried about her, that others might suffer for what she has done.
We learn the Princess has been taught to cook, and sew, and clean, and iron as part of her education. “I just haven’t had a chance to do it for anyone.” She never will as a princess, unlike her American suburban princess counterparts.
They nearly confess both their love for each other and their real identities, embracing with longing and desperation, but with an ultimate self discipline that keeps them from doing either. What they share will end forever the moment they talk about it, and they know that.
“Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and my country, I would not have come back tonight, or indeed, ever again.” Her commanding voice shakes at the last bit with barely repressed emotion. She dismisses them, not with haughtiness, but with the authority that is her birthright, that she has discovered, ironically, by running away from it.
She is left alone in her room with its baroque accoutrements, walking in a stately manner to the window, not galloping there as a curious child like she did only the day before.
Arnold pleads, “She’s fair game, Joe. It’s always open season on princesses.”
What might have been written as a comic line carries a hard and unsavory truth to it. Princess Diana would one day discover that, too.
Perhaps the grandest moment of the film is the end, when all the press meet in the ballroom of the embassy where the Princess will hold a press conference. She shows up, her staff in tow, no longer in her fairly princess evening gown, but dressed for business, a 1950s variation on the Juliet cap planted on the top of her short hairdo, a modern stateswoman.
Comforted by his gesture of gentlemanly discretion, the Princess deviates from the script when she admits that her favorite city on her tour has been Rome, “I will cherish my visit here as long as I live.” It is a grand declaration, and a personal one. Then, alarming her staff, she presses the flesh with the (real) journalists, just so she can touch Peck one last time. Mr. Albert slips her the candid photos in an envelope. He will keep their secret, too.
For all its dignity, it is one of the most romantic moments in the film.
Then she moves down the line, and we see him swallow with emotion. The press, captivated, applauds her act of humanness. She has won them over with a handshake. She has done her diplomatic mission by being what people want her to be: a Princess, and yet one of them. A fine line to walk.
Had this been filmed in earlier decades, they might have ended up together, either she giving up her throne or he being discovered to secretly have been a prince all along. Or, a combination of the two. After all, Britain’s King Edward VIII gave up his throne for the woman he loved a generation earlier, but still got to remain a Duke. Having one’s cake and eating it, too.
Had the movie been made in later decades, we might have none of the nobility (not of bloodlines but of spirit), or the heartbreak of self denial. Self denial has long been out of fashion.
Come back next Monday for Part 2 of the 1950s Princess when we have a look at Grace Kelly in “The Swan,” which she made while, unknown to her colleagues on set, she was being secretly courted by a prince.