A full decade before ROMAN HOLIDAY won the Academy Award for Best Writing, another tale of an incognito princess finding love won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. PRINCESS O'ROURKE, written as well as directed by Norman Krasna, is not as well-remembered as ROMAN HOLIDAY, but it is a delightful movie which has been rather overlooked in the years since its release.
Olivia de Havilland, at her loveliest, plays European Princess Maria, forced into exile by WWII. Maria lives a secluded life in a New York City hotel, shadowed by the American Secret Service wherever she goes, and fussed over by her uncle (Charles Coburn) and secretary (Gladys Cooper, in a miniscule role). When Maria's planned solo airline trip to San Francisco goes awry, she meets Eddie, the pilot (Robert Cummings), and, as "Mary Williams," she enjoys a day on the town with him free of the usual royal protocol and restraints. They fall in love, of course, but duty calls for each of them -- Maria must return to her secret life as a princess and Eddie has recently enlisted in the Air Force. As one might expect, true love wins -- with a little help from FDR and his dog Fala.
Jack Carson gives one of his more low-key, appealing performances as Cummings' co-pilot and best friend. Carson and Jane Wyman, playing the girl Carson had married after a whirlwind courtship, have the best scene in the film. During a meal with Cummings and de Havilland in a Chinese restaurant, they explain in a half-joking, half-combative way how they'd met and quickly married; their verbal jousting is belied, however, by the moving way they hold each other when dancing. This one scene was to provide a major break in Wyman's career; she had spent many years in random second female lead roles, but Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder decided to cast her as the leading lady in THE LOST WEEKEND on the basis of her performance in PRINCESS O'ROURKE, in particular the restaurant scene.
Just a few years later Wyman would be vying with de Havilland for a Best Actress Oscar -- de Havilland's performance in TO EACH HIS OWN beat out Wyman in THE YEARLING that year, but within a couple more years Wyman took home her own award, for JOHNNY BELINDA.
Charles Coburn is always entertaining; his best moment here comes as he rhapsodizes over the dynastic possibilities when he learns that Cummings comes from a family which has produced large numbers of boys. It's also a treat to see Harry Davenport turn up in the last sequence as the Supreme Court Justice, who is rousted from his bed in the middle of the night.
A side note of interest: Nan Wynn, who sings "Honorable Moon" in the Chinese restaurant scene, is best known to some as a singing double in various musicals, notably dubbing Rita Hayworth in MY GAL SAL and YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER. In the latter film she introduced the Jerome Kern standard "Dearly Beloved."
Writer-producer-director Norman Krasna specialized in writing "fairytale" romantic comedies, which also included BRIDE BY MISTAKE, BACHELOR MOTHER, and THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES. He also wrote the screenplays for Hitchcock's MR. AND MRS. SMITH, with Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, and for the beloved WHITE CHRISTMAS. Krasna focused mainly on writing and producing; PRINCESS O'ROURKE was the first of his three directorial efforts.
It's interesting to note that while the film may be unknown by many today, PRINCESS O'ROURKE was so highly regarded by some American soldiers during WWII that a plane was named for the film; de Havilland's picture was painted on the nose. The PRINCESS O'ROURKE was part of the 32nd Bomb Squadron. The plane's history can be read here.
The original New York Times review of PRINCESS O'ROURKE can be read here.
PRINCESS O'ROURKE runs 94 minutes and was filmed in black and white.
PRINCESS O'ROURKE is, unfortunately, not yet available on video or DVD. We can only hope that one day it will be part of a DVD set of DeHavilland films -- hopefully including a featurette on the plane! In the meantime, it can be viewed on Turner Classic Movies. It next airs on February 28 and April 21, 2007.
May 2009 Update: PRINCESS O'ROURKE is now available on DVD via the Warner Archive.