A foreign princess whose family is in a phase of exile leads a very boring existence in New York City. Her uncle sends her to an ambassador’s ranch in San Francisco, to be among the horses. She’s given a sleeping pill to take on the plane for her fear of flying.
Ensconced in her berth, she asks the stewardess for another sleeping pill, then the pilot as he walks by, and finally the co-pilot, who gives her two. The plane returns to New York because of fog, but she is unconscious.
Barely roused, she is walked off the plane, thinking she’s in Paris. A helpful diner proprietor, hearing her say “if only I could sleep”, gives her more sleeping pills in the coffee she’s guzzling, while the co-pilot tries to locate her family in the phone book, from her pseudonym on the flight manifest. “In twenty minutes,” the proprietor tells his wife, “boom, like a rock.”
This is the introduction of the film, the rest is in two parts. The co-pilot’s name is O’Rourke, his friend the pilot is Campbell, they’re enlisted in the Air Force and report for duty in two weeks. Mrs. Campbell is asked to come over and undress the princess at O’Rourke’s apartment. Next morning, the princess is in pajamas much too large for her, in an apartment full of handwritten signs advising her of a new toothbrush and a rendezvous later, the last one exclaiming, “What a place to have a birthmark!”
The rendezvous is a public contretemps owing to a misunderstanding over the previous night’s sleeping arrangements. The princess is invited to Mrs. Campbell’s Red Cross meeting in the basement, a lengthy sequence forming the centerpiece of the work.
The two men play handball outside, it’s their day off. The princess can’t cook or sew, but insists on volunteering anyway. Two teams of women practice bandaging her. A supply truck driven by two burly WACs pulls up on the makeshift handball court, O’Rourke and Campbell are dragooned into unloading sand. It’s sweaty work, the janitor suggests a steam bath, he has one rigged up next to the boiler room. “When I die,” says Campbell in the steam, “I don’t want to go to heaven. I like heat.” The princess advises Mrs. Campbell to change the regular schedule of the air raid drill, surprise is better. The lights are turned off, the men stumble out in the next room and when the lights come on find themselves surrounded by women. Mrs. Campbell in the foreground remarks on a weight gain.
The dramatic pivot comes at a nightclub in Chinatown, with the song “Honorable Moon”.
each night I sing a song of sorrow:
how soon before that new tomorrow?
When will come an end to weeping
and to broken lullabies?
When will come an end to flaming dragons
over China skies?
smile on my man where he is fighting—
and then when life's worth living
send him home, send him home to me.
May Honorable Day come soon,
Endymion falls in love, but the princess cannot marry him. The second part is the magical resolution.
The royal family is aware, and one twitching suitor has shown, the stock of viable matches in Europe is depleted. A Secret Service man follows the princess everywhere, moreover her uncle has engaged a private detective who finds that O’Rourke comes from a family rich in sons. A political alliance is sought, for thirty years the uncle has thought of America, though he always had in mind a concord with the president’s family.
O’Rourke is busy acquiring a minuscule diamond ring, Mrs. Campbell is scouting up an icebox, hard to find in wartime. This goes by the boards as the royal largesse descends. The nuptial agreement is to be signed at the White House, where the princess is a welcome guest. A State Department representative explains the lengthy document to O’Rourke, who among other things must renounce his U.S. citizenship. He refuses, the uncle is adamant, the princess is called a slave by her fiancé, who storms out.
Locked in the Lincoln Bedroom, where she has been told the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the princess slips a note through the double doors to Fala, who carries it to FDR. Immediately a civil ceremony is held, the two are married. O’Rourke wonders if it’s legal and is told that the elderly gentleman in nightshirt, slippers and overcoat, who hurried them along saying “my feet are cold”, is a Justice of the Supreme Court.
As they leave the White House, the groom is troubled by a guard he bumped into. The bride explains that was no guard, that was the president. “I tipped him a dollar,” says O’Rourke, “and he took it!”
A film of a thousand jokes. The first one has a delivery man whistling the score as he enters the lobby of the princess’s hotel carrying a hatbox. The Secret Service man goes up in the elevator with him, bends down to listen to the hatbox, hears ticking, seizes the box and opens it. “It’s a hat,” he says. “Certainly it’s a hat,” the delivery man replies, “what’d you think it was?” The Secret Service man soberly asks if he’s wearing a wristwatch, and he is.
This scene makes Cocteau one of Krasna’s two witnesses for the civil ceremony, with his play and film L’Aigle à deux têtes. The other is John Ford, in The Rising of the Moon.
There is a reverberation of Mrs. Miniver in the film, and those White House stairs from Yankee Doodle Dandy. Insofar as The Man Who Came to Dinner is a spoof of FDR and his critics, it’s reflected here as a secondary theme. My Girl Tisa is more to the point than Roman Holiday. Handball turns to football in M*A*S*H.