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Prince of Players

Prince of Players(1955)

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Prince of Players (1955) is ostensibly concerned with the life of nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, but it also weaves in the stories of his alcoholic, somewhat mad, actor father, Junius Booth, and his infamous brother, John Wilkes Booth. The project began as a bestselling book by Eleanor Ruggles, which was acquired by Twentieth Century-Fox and turned into a screenplay by Tony-winning playwright Moss Hart.

The script reflected Hart's love of the theater, reveling in the nature of old-time acting styles and laden with such evocative sequences as Richard II being performed at a western mining camp before an unruly mob. Excerpts from Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear and others are also woven into the film. Producer-director Philip Dunne later said the idea was for the excerpts to function almost like musical numbers.

This was Dunne's first movie as director. He'd had a long, distinguished career as a writer at Fox, with such credits as Suez (1938), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and Anne of the Indies (1951). He'd also produced a few films, and Darryl Zanuck initially assigned him Prince of Players as a producing project. Dunne met with Moss Hart several times to discuss rewrites, but as Dunne later recounted, after each meeting Hart left it to Dunne to do the actual writing. Looking for a director, Dunne rejected every suggestion made by Zanuck until the studio head, exasperated, finally said, "All right, since you know so much about directing, you direct the damn thing." And Dunne did just that.

According to a Life magazine interview, Richard Burton prepared for the role of Edwin Booth by standing in the Pacific surf and shouting Shakespearean verse to American blues music. The standing, he said, "strengthened [his] footwork," while the shouting to blues tunes "sharpened the wit and strengthened the throat. You sound like nothing at all. Then you go in the studio and deafen the sound men."

Also in the cast: Raymond Massey as the elder Junius Booth, John Derek as John Wilkes Booth (whose assassination of Abraham Lincoln is portrayed on screen), and Maggie McNamara as Edwin's wife, Mary. McNamara was at this time riding high: she had just appeared in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) after being Oscar-nominated for her previous (and first) film, The Moon is Blue (1953). But her career fizzled tragically after Prince of Players. She got divorced, was besieged by mental illness, and was cast in just one more feature, The Cardinal (1963), and a few television shows. She plunged into clinical depression and by the time of her suicide in 1978, she was working as a typist.

Reviews were mixed, with The New York Times praising the "vivid clarity and historical accuracy" of the Lincoln assassination sequence and applauding Burton and Massey's performances. Variety deemed it "a very fine production" and made special note of the CinemaScope photography: "one of the handsomest and most perfectly composed CinemaScope productions to date... [Makes] full and intelligent use of the wide 'Scope screen. It is Hollywood using its cameras to very best advantage." The Hollywood Reporter observed that the film showed "how perfect CinemaScope can be as a dramatic medium for the director who knows how to get intimacy out of it."

But Prince of Players was a box-office bomb, "the first production in CinemaScope to lose money," Dunne ruefully noted. Dunne and Zanuck attributed the failure to the fact that Burton was not yet a screen star, though Burton himself attributed it to the script, which he called "a disgrace."

One indisputable high point, however, was the strong score by Bernard Herrmann, whom Dunne selected on the basis of Herrmann's work on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir eight years earlier. According to Herrmann biographer Steven Smith, "the two men spent a week discussing the score's placement in the film, agreeing...that the film's recreations of Edwin Booth's Shakespearean performances would not have music."

By Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:
Philip Dunne, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics
Steven C. Smith, A Heart At Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann
Michael Munn, Richard Burton
Melvyn Bragg, Richard Burton

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