The Little Prince Movie You Probably Never Saw
This week, Netflix will release The Little Prince, a film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved 1943 book about a pilot who crashes in the desert, where he befriends the titular character after the boy demands the pilot draw him a sheep. The movie, which features the voices of Jeff Bridges, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Paul Rudd, and more, expands on Saint-Exupéry’s story by adding a little girl and her mother, who live next door to the aviator; the Little Prince’s tale is a film within the film, created using stop-motion animation. But Netflix’s flick isn’t the first time The Little Prince has been adapted into a film; there was another star-studded Little Prince movie, and it was more bizarre than you can imagine.
The first Little Prince film was a musical that brought together a number of Broadway and Hollywood heavyweights. Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner came on board to write the screenplay and songs and, for a time, composers like John Barry and Burt Bacharach were linked to the project. Eventually, though, Lerner persuaded his old partner, Fritz Loewe—with whom he’d written My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Brigadoon, among other musicals—to come out of retirement to compose the film’s songs and score. (Angela Morley, an English composer, was also a part of the team; she became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Oscar when she received an Academy Award nod for her work on The Little Prince.) The movie was produced and directed by Stanley Donen, who, among many other films, helmed Singin' in the Rain and the 1958 film adaptation of the musical Damn Yankees.
The cast was no less stellar: Gene Wilder took on the role of The Fox; Bob Fosse played The Snake; and Donna McKechnie (who would later star in the Fame TV show) was cast as The Rose. Six-year-old Steven Warner played The Little Prince, while Richard Kiley was cast in the role of The Pilot. (The studio wanted Frank Sinatra for the role, but Donen vetoed the idea, saying in 1976 that “The part [called] for a man who must allow himself to be dominated by a 6-year-old boy. It’s difficult for me to imagine Frank relating to a child in such a way … I didn’t want to risk the movie on him.”)
You would think, with all of this star power, that the film would have been wonderful, but instead, the result was rather strange. Wilder, Fosse, and McKechnie—who were playing two animals and a plant, respectively—were not voicing their characters. They were just people acting like animals and a flower, and they weren't even dressed up à la Zoobilee Zoo. In his book Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, Wilder wrote that Donen had approached him to play The Fox, telling the actor that it was "the best part." Wilder agreed: "The Fox was certainly the best part for me, and I said I would be happy to do it." In one memorable scene, Wilder sits in a field of wheat and recites the book's most beloved line:
If Wilder seems profoundly sad in the scene, it might not be acting. "Before I left for London to do The Little Prince, I went to Milwaukee to visit my father, who was very ill," Wilder wrote. "When I kissed him goodbye, I knew I was seeing him for the last time. A week later I was told my father had died. I was filming in an enormous artificial wheat field on a huge soundstage delivering the most memorable lines in the script: 'It's only with the heart that one can see clearly; what's essential is invisible to the eye.'"
Donen offered the part of the Snake to Fosse, and to land the legendary dancer and choreographer, the director offered him complete control of the number. Fosse was reluctant to take the part, but his daughter, Nicole, loved the book so much that he couldn't say no. Fosse bought his own costume—yellow tinted sunglasses and a bowler hat, plus gloves from Bergdorf's and shoes from LaRay—and choreographed himself. He also mapped out camera angles for the sequence with his former assistant, Pat Ferrier Kiley (who was married to Richard). "Bobby came with the Snake Dance already mapped out," Kiley recalled, "and Stanley [Donen] was occupied in other areas, so Bobby and I would get up there and literally pick out camera angles."
McKechnie's sequence was filmed on a soundstage in London against a black background. The actress wrote later that she was “thrown at first by Stanley’s direction, as he wanted the number to be seductive, a hot dance with bumps and grinds”:
“I was reluctant to go that way with it because I was performing the scene with [a boy]. I tried to compromise with a more playful approach, which was sexy but not too hard-edged, as if I were a child in a woman’s body ... When I saw the movie months later, I was mortified. My scene had been cut to ribbons and the music was changed completely. The song I sang, ‘Be Happy,’ was in my soprano voice, but my voice in the scene was dubbed by someone with a very low, sultry English accent. It occurred to me that [Donen] never had any intention to use my speaking voice.”
(Lerner would later write that the sequence was “an absolute abomination” and that “Donen refuses to change it.”)
But the best and most bizarre musical number comes after The Little Prince and The Pilot find water in the desert. Delirious with joy, they sing, “Why am I happy? We’re dying of thirst,” followed by a slow-motion sequence featuring the actors playing in the water:
Much of the film was shot on location in Tunisia, presumably without Lerner and Loewe around—and, according to Lerner, Donen did his fair share of messing with the screenplay, the music, and the choreography: “The director … took it upon himself to change every tempo, delete musical phrases at will, and distort the intention of every song, until the score was entirely unrecognizable,” Lerner said, later calling what Donen did a “butchering of the script and score.”
The lyricist sent letters to Donen with suggestions for what could be reworked, but his letters were ignored. “Unlike the theater, where the author is the final authority, in motion pictures it is the director,” Lerner later said. “And if one falls into the hands of some cinematic Bigfoot, one pays the price for someone else’s ineptitude. In this case the price was high, because it was undoubtedly Fritz’s last score.” (The score, as Lerner and Loewe had intended it to be heard, would be released a few years later.)
Paramount released The Little Prince in 1974, and despite its star power, the film flopped at the box office. The New York Times’s critic Vincent Canby was not a fan. To start, he called it “a very exasperating experience,” then proceeded to drop a series of sick burns: “So little happens,” he wrote, “that the movie, which is stretched out with the Lerner-Loewe music, lasts only 88 minutes and seems at least five times that long.” For one song, Kiley seemed to have been filmed from a helicopter; according to Canby, “the actor, seen alternately in long shots and close-ups, appears to have lost his mind.” Fosse is “dressed like a 19th-century Chicago pimp” whose dance moves “look great when done by Gwen Verdon but [are] embarrassing in this context.” Warner had “a delightful laugh, but the way things are done these days I wondered if it might be Mercedes McCambridge.”
While conceding that “in addition to the score … there are some other isolated good things in the movie,” Canby ultimately concluded that “there are lots of pleasures that children and adults can share: zoos, circuses, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie Brown, roller coasters, hot dogs between meals. The Little Prince is not one of them.” Thankfully, Netflix’s adaptation is already getting better reviews—it currently has a 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.