Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Thirty Day Princess (1934)

Two nights, two wonderful fairy tales from the pen of Preston Sturges.

Last night I watched THE GOOD FAIRY (1935), which was written by Sturges, based on a Molnar play. When I chose tonight's movie, I had no idea until the opening credits rolled that Sturges had also cowritten its screenplay -- with Frank Partos -- about a starving actress hired to play a THIRTY DAY PRINCESS.

Crown Princess Catterina (Sylvia Sidney) is about to embark on a goodwill tour of the United States which is intended to drum up support for a large loan to her tiny European country. When Catterina comes down with the mumps upon her arrival in the U.S., banker Richard Gresham (Edward Arnold) determines the tour must go on and convinces actress Nancy Lane (Sidney, in a dual role), who is a dead ringer for the princess, to make the tour on behalf of the ill princess.

Of course, matters become complicated when the imposter princess falls head over heels in love with a commoner, newspaper publisher Porter Madison III (Cary Grant).

The movie breezes along in a fast-paced 74 minutes. The interwoven stories of the real and faux princesses are deftly told in a minimum of time, with a very nice payoff at the end. Although the princess and commoner plotline isn't original, and has been done many times since -- PRINCESS O'ROURKE and ROMAN HOLIDAY being just two examples -- the script is witty and inventive, ultimately touching as well as entertaining its audience.

Although I was familiar with Sylvia Sidney due to her TV work in the latter part of her career, when she guest-starred on shows like WKRP IN CINCINNATI, EIGHT IS ENOUGH, and THIRTYSOMETHING, I believe this was the first time I'd seen her in a movie. I had no idea what to expect -- I remember some of her TV roles as edgy, bossy, wisecracking types -- and thought she was absolutely wonderful as both characters. The scene where she must play yet a third part, an uncouth version of the real Nancy Lane, was particularly impressive. She was a delight in this film.

Cary Grant, of course, was...Cary Grant! Marvelous as always. He began in films in 1932; he and Sidney had appeared together in 1932's MERRILY WE GO TO HELL, his fourth film. MERRILY WE GO TO HELL is part of the new Pre-Code DVD set from Universal. THIRTY DAY PRINCESS, in fact, was released just a few weeks before the Pre-Code era ended in mid-1934.

The film has a terrific supporting cast. Edward Arnold is excellent as the American banker trying to save his big business deal. (Sometimes I'm amazed by the way an "old" movie ties in with current events; at one point Arnold sighs "We don't boast about being bankers these days. We're all in the doghouse.") Henry Stephenson, one of my favorite character actors, plays King Anatol, Catterina's father. Robert McWade is particularly good as Grant's managing editor.

The only character I didn't care for was Vince Barnett as bubble-headed, lisping Prince Nicholeus, who was played so broadly as to be unbelievable. (Surely the King would never have asked his daughter to consent to an arranged marriage with this ding-dong, even if it would have benefited the nation...) This character was the only sour note in an otherwise delightful piece of whimsy; fortunately his screen time was relatively brief.

THIRTY DAY PRINCESS was directed by Marion Gering. Gering's fairly short list of credits includes RUMBA (1935) with Carole Lombard and George Raft.

THIRTY DAY PRINCESS is part of the Cary Grant Screen Legend DVD collection. Two of the films, WEDDING PRESENT and BIG BROWN EYES, both released in 1936, have been reviewed here previously. The other titles in the set are WINGS IN THE DARK and KISS AND MAKE UP.

Having seen the vast majority of Cary Grant's films over my lifetime, it was a real treat to discover this charming film for the very first time. THIRTY DAY PRINCESS is highly recommended for film fans who love Cary Grant or '30s romantic comedies.

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