Prince of Players

Prince of Players is a 1955 20th Century Fox biographical film about the 19th century American actor Edwin Booth. The film was directed and produced by Philip Dunne from a screenplay by Moss Hart, based on the book by Eleanor Ruggles. The music score was by Bernard Herrmann and the cinematography by Charles G. Clarke. The film was made in CinemaScope and in DeLuxe Color.

Prince of Players
Original film poster
Directed byPhilip Dunne
Produced byPhilip Dunne
Written byMoss Hart
Based onPrince of Players
1953 book
by Eleanor Ruggles
StarringRichard Burton
Maggie McNamara
John Derek
Raymond Massey
Charles Bickford
Elizabeth Sellars
Eva Le Gallienne
Music byBernard Herrmann
CinematographyCharles G. Clarke
Edited byDorothy Spencer
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • January 11, 1955 (1955-01-11)
Running time
102 min
CountryUnited States

The cast featured Richard Burton, Maggie McNamara and John Derek, along with Raymond Massey, Charles Bickford, Elizabeth Sellars and Eva Le Gallienne.


Edwin "Ned" Booth is the son of the noted thespian Junius Brutus Booth and the older brother of another actor, John Wilkes Booth. Beginning In 1848, as a boy, and into early manhood, he travels with and assists Junius, who is often drunk and seems at times on the brink of madness.

Several years go by. A theater owner, Dave Prescott, eagerly anticipates a Junius performance in San Francisco, but the actor is again unable to perform and decides to leave the theatrical run. Junius hands over his crown – a literal theatrical crown worn during his rendition of Richard III, to Ned, who has memorized his father's lines. Ned's first performance is of Richard III during a show at a mining camp, where the miners, disappointed at first, are ultimately pleased by what they see. Prescott, however, breaks the news shortly after that Junius has died.

Ned returns east, where John Wilkes Booth is starring in The Taming of the Shrew to great acclaim at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. Billed as the son and successor to Junius Brutus Booth, John is planning a tour and asks Ned if he will be his manager along with their younger sister, Asia. Somewhat contemptuous of his upstart brother's early success as an actor, Ned declines. He tells his younger brother that he hasn't learned the craft the way he, Ned, has by traveling with, hearing the performances, and looking after their father for many years. Ned begins a theater tour of his own with Dave Prescott. He travels to New Orleans, where he meets, then soon marries, Mary Devlin, a member of a theatrical company who plays Juliet opposite Ned's role as Romeo.

The Civil War breaks out and John is said to be working steadfastly for the Confederacy's cause. He declines an offer from Ned to go to London together for a production of Hamlet, and when a pregnant Mary falls ill, Ned begins drinking heavily and missing performances.

Mary's death turns her husband morose. Then comes the terrible news one night that John Wilkes Booth has assassinated President Abraham Lincoln by gunshot at Ford's theater.

Weeks after the assassination, and his brother's subsequent death on a farm in Virginia, Ned has decided to return to the stage in Hamlet. On opening night the theater is packed by a mob incensed by the murder of the president and blaming not only Booth but all actors and theaters in general. One protester says the president "died in the very doorway to hell" because he was murdered in a theater.

Backstage, Dave Prescott tells Ned that the show must be canceled. Ned insists that he wants to go on for his profession as well as his family name, remembering that his late wife once said that acting was his gift, his purpose in life and he must "never be derelict" to that purpose.

Ned is seated center stage on the throne as the curtain comes up. The mob hurls insults, vegetables, and other objects at Ned as the other actors rush off the stage. Ned remains seated, immobile, and absorbs the abuse until the crowd's fury exhausts itself. Finally one of the protesters declares "he's got guts", shouts "Booth, you're alright!", and begins clapping.

Gradually more of the mob join him, the other actors return to the stage, and the film ends with Ned hearing his late wife speaking part of Juliet's soliloquy as the crowd's approval continues to rise.



Original Book

The film was based on a book by Eleanor Ruggles which was published in February 1953. She started researching it in 1948.[2]

The New York Times called it "an able biography."[3] Another review in the same paper called it "enthralling".[4] The book became a best seller.[5]


20th Century Fox bought the film rights in January 1953, before the book had been published. Richard Burton, who had a contract with the studio, was linked with the project from the beginning, although there were reports he might play John Wilkes Booth. Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Fox, reportedly wanted Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando for Edwin Booth. Sol Siegel was the original producer.[6][7]

In May 1953 Moss Hart signed to write the script.[8]

In April 1953 Fox announced the film would be shot in CinemaScope.[9]

Eventually Siegel dropped out as producer and was replaced by Philip Dunne. "Moss has done a really brilliant dramatisation of the book," said Dunne.[10]

In November 1953 Richard Burton signed a new seven film contract with Fox, the first of which was to be the lead in Prince of Players.[11]

In June 1954 Jay Robinson was cast as John Wilkes Booth.[12]

In July 1954 Eva Le Galliene was hired as technical consultant, on the recommendation of Moss Hart[13] She later agreed to appear in the film as an actor, performing in scenes with Burton. It was her first film.[14][15]

Dunne later said "I couldn't find a director whom I thought could do justice to the script so Zanuck said 'direct it yourself'."[16] In July Dunne was appointed director as well as producer.[17]

Jay Robinson lost his part to John Derek.[18]


Filming started August 1954.[19]

"On the first day, I was terrified," said Dunne. "There looking at me were Richard Burton, Raymond Massey, Eva Le Gallienne and up walks Charlie Bickford, old, cantankerous, and known to punch out directors before breakfast.'Anyone here you want me to kick real hard?' old Charlie asked."[20]

Dunne said directing was "fun when you have a good story and players who know what they're supposed to do."[21]

Dunne later said Hart's script was about half an hour too long and that Dunne trimmed it by cutting within scenes.[22]


The film was a financial failure, the first movie in CinemaScope to lose money. Dunne said he thought "it was too larded with Shakespeare".[23]

See also


  1. Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p249
  2. Talk With Eleanor Ruggles By LEWIS NICHOLS. New York Times 8 Mar 1953: BR14.
  3. Books of The Times By ORVILLE PRESCOTT. New York Times 25 Feb 1953: 25.
  4. A VICTIM OF OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE: The Life of Edwin Booth Is a Dramatic Story of Deep Sorrow and Great Triumph PRINCE OF PLAYERS: Edwin Booth. By Eleanor Ruggles. Illustrated. 401 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. $4.50. Outrageous Fortune By CORNELIA OTIS SKINNER. New York Times 1 Mar 1953: BR1.
  5. TOP BEST SELLERS: IN LOS ANGELES Fiction Leaders Los Angeles Times 5 Apr 1953: D6.
  6. Edwin Booth's Life Story to Be Filmed Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]28 Jan 1953: B6.
  7. MOVIE WRITERS SET NEW PAY MINIMUMS: Seek Scale From $150 Weekly to $400 -- Formula for TV Compensation Is Proposed By THOMAS M. PRYORSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times 28 Jan 1953: 24.
  8. LEAD IN WESTERN TO JOAN GRAWFORD: Actress Signs With Republic in Profit Participation Deal to Play in 'Johnny Guitar' By THOMAS M. PRYORSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES. 9 May 1953: 13.
  9. STUDIO PLANS 20 CINEMASCOPE FILMS: 20th Century-Fox Announces It Will Release Spectacles in Fall and Continuing in 1954 CINEMASCOPE Los Angeles Times 2 Apr 1953: A1.
  10. OF PICTURES AND PEOPLE: Blueprint for 'Prince of Players' -- A Chinese 'G. W. T. W.' -- Other Items By HOWARD THOMPSON. New York Times 18 July 1954: X5.
  11. FOX SIGNING STARS FOR CINEMASCOPE: Gregory Peck, Richard Burton and Kirk Douglas Hired -- Spencer Tracy Borrowed By THOMAS M. PRYOR New York Times 24 Nov 1953: 34.
  12. Selznick Shaping 'War and Peace'; Jay Robinson to Enact Wilkes Booth Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times17 June 1954: B9.
  13. GUY MADISON SET FOR MODERN ROLE: Actor, Long Associated With Old West, to Be Student in 'Five Against the House' Special to The New York Times. New York Times (24 July 1954: 7.
  14. 'Look to Mountain' Stars Teresa Wright; Queenly Roles Win Le Gallienne Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 28 Aug 1954: 13.
  15. Filmland Says Le Gallienne Is 'A Living, Breathing Doll': 40 Years on Stage, She's Now in Films Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 26 Sep 1954: D4.
  16. Screenwriter---an Unsung Hero With Plenty of Ideas Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times 08 June 1966: d11.
  17. KIDD WILL REPEAT DANCES FOR MOVIE: Choreographer of Broadway 'Guys and Dolls' Gets Task for Goldwyn's Version Special to The New York Times. New York Times 29 July 1954: 18.
  18. HOLLYWOOD ROUND-UP: New Bullfight Venture -- Andrews at Bat By WILLIAM H. BROWNELL Jr.HOLLYWOOD. New York Times8 Aug 1954: X5.
  19. Bickford Aids Booth in 'Prince;' Robinson Taking Broadway Leave Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 17 Aug 1954: B7.
  20. Philip Dunne looks back at movies' golden age: [SA2 Edition]Jim Bawden Toronto Star 27 Jan 1990: G8.
  21. HOLLYWOOD SCENE: Censure of Peck Stirs Film Council -- Directors Hit Stride -- Addenda By THOMAS M. PRYORHOLLYWOOD. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]19 Sep 1954: X5.
  22. Lee Server, Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures, 1987 p 109
  23. DIRECTORS CHIDED FOR FILM WRITING: Philip Dunne Urges That Scenarists Be on Sets Best-Known Scripts Used One Line By MURRAY SCHUMACH Special to The New York Times. New York Times 3 Apr 1962: 43.
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