The Princess Comes Across introduces us to its cast of characters as they board a ship that looks a lot like—but fortunately for them isn’t—the Titanic.
There’s glamorous Swedish Princess Olga (Carole Lombard) who is traveling to America to make a movie. She condescends to have her photograph taken, and in her heavy accent reminiscent of Garbo she tells the interviewing press that her favorite American actor is Mickey-Mousey.
Then we’ve got concertina player and band director King Mantell (Fred MacMurray), a handsome man with a checkered past who knows how to turn on the charm when rich dames are within his grasp.
Unbeknownst to the Princess and Mantell, there’s also a killer loose on the ship and a cadre of international detectives after him.
But the killer isn’t the only one hiding something.
When Princess Olga and her companion Lady Gertrude arrive to find Mantell in their cabin, sparks—and tempers—flare. The ship accidentally booked them both in the royal suite, and Mantell had refused to leave. He changes his mind once he sees the beautiful princess, and he’s not put out a bit when she imperiously orders him out of the cabin.
Her thick accent brooks no argument, and he’s still trying to impress her as he backs out of the door.
Once he’s gone, the Princess surprises us by turning to Lady Gertrude, relaxing her shoulders, dropping her accent, and saying in perfect Brooklynese:
“I’d like to smack that guy right in the kisser.”
And just like that we see the Carole Lombard we know and love. The Princess is actually Wanda Nash, a broke actress who is parading around as a princess to get fare to America and a shot at a part in a film.
And she doesn’t need some trouble-making concertina player blowing her cover.
Despite much of the humor coming from Wanda laboring to keep up the charade of Princess Olga (After she tells King to scram in a fit of pique, she insists she said “scrom,” the Swedish word for the interview is ended), the film plays more like a nineties rom-com than a traditional screwball comedy.
The plot takes its first turn when it turns out there’s a blackmailer on the ship who has dirt on King and knows Princess Olga’s true identity. He shakes them both down.
The plot turns again when he winds up dead and Olga and King are the prime suspects.
Now the odd couple must work together to clear their names.
Lady Gertrude isn’t happy about the Princess collaborating with King.
She implores the Princess to tell him to “scrom”: “I have travelled at home and abroad, and never, never have I known any good to come out of a concertina.”
But they’re stuck together, for better for worse, and it turns out neither one of them minds a bit. The Princess finds she rather likes the sound of the concertina, and King finds that the Princess is more down to earth than he might’ve imagined.
The third act is filled with murder, dragging bodies around, dark and misty nights, humor and romance.
What more do you want?
Lombard and MacMurray deliver again.
- Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. 1975.
- “Fred MacMurray: The Guy Next Door.” The Hollywood Collection. Documentary.