Romances Between Royals and Regular Folk, Hollywood Style

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in 'Roman Holiday'

When Britain’s Prince William and fiancée Kate Middleton exchange vows on April 29, you can bet that Hollywood will be paying attention.

A royal falling for a commoner – blue-blooded William and just plain Kate began their romance while both college students at St. Andrews University in Scotland – is catnip to movie makers. Hollywood has a long tradition of making films about exactly that, albeit revolving around fictional characters.

There is even a name for the genre: Ruritanian romances. These are movies that track the romantic and political maneuverings of royals who hail from fictional countries; the object of the titled character’s affections is rarely to the castle born.

The name is derived from The Prisoner of Zenda, a popular British novel by Anthony Hope, first published in 1894. The book is set in Ruritania, a made-up kingdom somewhere in central Europe. When Ruritania’s king is drugged and then imprisoned, a vacationing, lookalike Englishman – he’s a distant cousin to the monarch – saves the day by temporarily impersonating the ruler. He also falls for Princess Flavia, the king’s fiancé.

Over the years, there have been a half dozen celluloid versions of Zenda, the most notable ones being the 1937 film with British matinee idol Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll, and a 1952 version starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. There was also a BBC mini-series in 1984. (Last and least, Peter Sellers starred in a not very funny, comic take-off in 1979.)

For connoisseurs, the single best movie about a romance between a royal and a regular Joe is 1953’s Roman Holiday, which launched Audrey Hepburn to stardom and earned her a Best Actress Oscar. In this comic romp, she plays the princess of an unnamed country who, during a stopover in Rome while touring European capitals, beguiles, and is beguiled by, an American newspaperman (Gregory Peck). My favorite line: a slightly tipsy Hepburn confesses to Peck, “I’ve never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it’s most unusual.”

Less sparkling examples include 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl, a sadly stolid comedy with Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe (he’s royal, she’s the showgirl); 1988’s Coming to America, in which Eddie Murphy portrays an African prince who travels to New York City to find a wife; and 2004’s The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, in which American teenager-turned-royal princess Anne Hathaway, reprising her role from the hit 2001 comedy, falls for Chris Pine (while not a commoner, he’s merely a Lord).

The royal characters in those movies all hail from fictional kingdoms.  Coming a little closer to William and Kate’s own story is 2004’s The Prince and Me. In this slender comedy, a Danish prince (Luke Mabley) becomes smitten with an American classmate (Julia Stiles) while attending college incognito in Wisconsin. (The movie is loosely based on The Student Prince, a 1924 operetta by Sigmund Romberg famous for its “Drinking Song.”)

The continuing popularity of such films is easily explainable: they offer variations on a Cinderella theme, minus the sweeping out of the ashes and the glass slipper. But whether old or new, all of these movies are cognizant of the fact that real life isn’t a fairy tale. Without offering any spoilers, let’s just say that in many of them, bittersweet endings tend to hold sway, with duty or ambition trumping love.

Here’s hoping that William and Kate manage to give their own story a happy ending.