Three cinematic thoughts on the late Duke of Edinburgh - and a bonus:
1) He has been played by many fine actors on screen, but generally in very tawdry films, mostly about Charles and Diana - first in the early-Eighties "fairytale" tellings, then in the Nineties jumpin'-the-tracks mini-genre. The two chaps who've played him in The Crown, Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies, are both very good at aspects of Prince Philip - Smith as the young action man piloting his own choppers and sailing his own ships around the Commonwealth; Menzies as the Duke in middle age, restless but stoic. But neither, I reckon, gets anywhere near the full range of the man;
2) If you're a Royal consort, you wind up going to a lot of nights out you have not the slightest interest in, like the Royal Command Performance and the Royal Film Premiere and the like. In November 2002, arriving at the Royal Albert Hall for the world premiere of the James Bond film Die Another Day, His Royal Highness was informed by an excited person in the welcome line that Madonna would be singing the title song. He turned to the Queen, and remarked drily, "So we'll need earplugs then."
He was quite right. Shirley Bassey had neglected to bring hers, and so, just a few minutes later, the opening titles and the song ended, and Dame Shirl yelled from the stalls, "Rubbish!" She was quite right, too.
But Prince Philip was right in a wider sense: Die Another Day marked the fortieth anniversary of Cubby Broccoli's lucrative franchise, and a film with a rather tedious plot and an undernourished and frankly risible villain went to a lot of trouble with the anniversary hommage to its hero's indestructability. In Cuba, Pierce Brosnan's Bond poses as an ornithologist, after glimpsing a copy of A Field Guide To Birds Of The West Indies - written by the real-life James Bond, whose name Ian Fleming appropriated because it sounded so dull and anonymous. The Union Jack parachute recalls The Spy Who Loved Me. The new Q (John Cleese) pays tribute to his predecessor (the late Desmond Llewellyn) by rummaging with Bond through all the old gadgets, including Rosa Klebb's From Russia with Love stilettoed flatties . Goldfinger's final flight is evoked. Roger Moore's daughter appears as a British Airways trolley dolly.
007s have been mostly not-quite-top-tier actors pared to their essence: Roger Moore is the world-champion eyebrow-cocker; Timothy Dalton takes everything far too solemnly, which is understandable for a bloke who's spent most of his life with socialist nutter Vanessa Redgrave; Daniel Craig is an Essex nightclub bouncer who made a midlife career switch to MI6... Pierce Brosnan played Bond as an Irish chancer, which I kind of enjoyed and regret that he didn't stick around longer. If some not quite sufficiently taut abs had to be CGI-ed out, so what? He was very good even amidst the drivel.
But some things are just too silly: Q gives 007 an invisible car. How can you have a car chase when one of the vehicles cannot be seen? More to the point, a Bond car isn't just for chases, it's part of the 007 style: What's the point of a flash motor that vanishes at all the points people should be most impressed by it?
Yet of all the lows in this film the song and Madonna's cameo as a fencing instructor were the lowest - and the ones that showed a kind of contempt for the series' inheritance. David Arnold was a fine heir to John Barry on the score, and our friend Don Black had done the lyrics for the two previous pictures, and they should have written something non-rubbish for Shirley Bassey. Or at the very least the producers should have hired some allegedly blockbuster pop star willing to meet the Bond sound halfway, as Bono had done a decade earlier and Adele would do a decade later. In his throwaway line, the Duke of Edinburgh got to the nub of the matter.
3) The Queen has been reigning since long before most of her realms became independent, and even with the older ones she has, for example, sat on her Australian throne for well over half the federation's existence. So it is difficult for those who have never known her in anything other than middle-age or older to appreciate that she and her consort were once the most glamorous couple on earth - so much so that in 1951 MGM made a splashy musical set in London four years earlier. In America it was called Royal Wedding, which was felt to be a bit inappropriate in London, where they changed it to Wedding Bells. It has a decent score by Burton Lane, composer of "(I like New York in June) How About You?", and Alan Jay Lerner, lyricist of "Almost Like Being In Love" and "(I was born under a) Wand'rin' Star".
It wasn't exactly "about" the 1947 marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip, but the film-makers used it as a background for a plot based on a bit of Fred Astaire's family history. In 1931, Fred's sister and dancing partner Adele Astaire had retired from the stage to wed Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke of Devonshire. In the MGM version, Fred's sister and dancing partner was played by Jane Powell and she was wooed around Royal London by a fellow called "Lord John Brindale", played by Peter Lawford. Meanwhile, Astaire's character romanced an English gel, "Anne Ashmond", played by Sarah Churchill, the real-life daughter of the real-life Leader of the Opposition and a real-life guest at the real-life Royal wedding, Winston Churchill.
The screenplay was not Alan Jay Lerner's finest hour. As he put it:
Although Burton Lane wrote some spiffy songs and Fred danced in a way that made all superlatives inadequate, my contribution left me in such a state of cringe that I could barely straighten up.
Decades later, I quoted this bleak self-assessment to the film's director, Stanley Donen. "He's right," said Donen. "It made me cringe, too." Nevertheless, the score contains the distinction of having the longest title of any movie song. Motoring to the studio one morning, Lerner said to Lane, "You know how Fred loves to do vaudeville numbers? Why don't we write him a song called something like 'How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life?'"
"Great," said Lane, at the wheel of the car. "And it should have a tune that goes something like this..." And he sang the title phrase.
"Not something like that," said Lerner. "That!"
As Burton Lane explained it to me, the problem was trying to remember the tune for the rest of the commute until he got to MGM and could write it down.
Lane also contributed a wonderfully lilting and quintessentially Astaire melody to which Lerner put a somewhat ordinary travelogue lyric, "You're All The World To Me". The keeper from the film was a rueful intimate ballad called "Too Late Now", subsequently nominated for an Academy Award. "It lost to a song you don't even hear anymore," Lane told me. "In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening", by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. On the other hand, "Too Late Now" grew in popularity over the ensuing half-century into a second-tier semi-standard.
By then MGM didn't care. The new guys were so indifferent to films in general and their own glorious back catalogue in particular that they neglected to renew the copyright on hundreds of pictures. So Royal Wedding is now out of copyright, and if you've no plans for the next hour-and-a-half enjoy the non-cringe parts on me:
My personal favorite from the picture was also the only song in the score explicitly about royal romance. In the plot, Astaire and Jane Powell are starring in a West End hit called Every Night At Seven - the show within the film, as it were. In this number, Astaire is a bored monarch fighting vainly the old ennui. First we meet the ladies of the court:
Your Majesty, what shall we wear to the dance?
Lamé or satin or silk?
Sequins or jersey or maybe perchance
That stuff they're making from milk?
To which King Fred responds:
My royal day can be a royal bore
It leaves me colder than a basement floor
The only moment I keep waiting for
Is when the day will be through...
And eventually Astaire and Jane Powell rise from their thrones and go into their dance:
Ev'ry Night At Seven
You walk in
As fresh as clover
And I begin
To sigh all over...
A long time ago, I hosted a show that began at seven in the evening and commissioned a big swingin' version of Lane's splendid tune for the theme song. I've always loved it - the music, that is. But the lyrical premise isn't strong enough for a love song, nor does it quite hold up as anything else. Still, this is as close as anyone got to a speculative duet for the young Princess Elizabeth and her dashing duke. If I can find the tape of "Ev'ry Night at Seven", we may use it the next time I do Fox News Primetime.
4) A bonus: to make up for what Shirley Bassey called the "rubbish" of "Die Another Day", here's a genuine Bond song as delivered by Shirl to the Duke of Edinburgh on his eightieth birthday. As you can tell, by the time she gets to "Hey, Big Spender!", he's enjoying this far more than he did Madonna:
~If you're missing, as we all are, our peerless picture columnist Kathy Shaidle, do check out our new Shaidle at the Cinema home page for the full archive of our late friend's work: It's a grand collection of the best writing on films and film-makers.
Mark will be back tomorrow for another of his Sunday video poems - because, as he always says, video poetry is where the big bucks are. If you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, do please share your view of our movie feature in the comments section. If you're not a member of The Mark Steyn Club, we're fast approaching our fourth birthday and would love to welcome you to our ranks.