Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Marilyn Monroe was easily 20th Century Fox’s biggest female star in the 50s, and so it was a no-brainer to include one of her films in this collection. Their selection is 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and it’s a good choice if only for the fact that it represents a magical time in Monroe’s career. She had just become a headliner thanks to the overwhelming success of Niagra, and she had perfected her trademark role as the “dumb” blonde with a childlike innocence masked by enormous sex appeal. And it was still a few years before her troubles began – when she turned to method acting and associated herself with more serious persuasions, and the “treadmill,” immortalized in Elton John’s classic song, pulled her in a zillion different directions, one of them toward her tragic death in 1962.

I had never been the biggest Monroe fan in the world, but watching her performance here has allowed me an opportunity for reassessment. Beyond the glitz, the glimmer, and the show stopping numbers lies a woman who commands an instant likeability – crucial for any Hollywood star then or now. I can’t speak for women, but I can see why men flocked to her films, which mostly dealt with relationships and musical numbers and other traditionally female interests: the “Marilyn” persona is one of great beauty but also great frailty, insecurity. We not only want to be with her in the Biblical sense but also to nurture and care for her, and remind her that guys aren’t all bad. We want to see her with the right man in the end; when she is, it’s a beatific romp (Blondes); when she isn’t, it’s a soul-crushing tragedy (Bus Stop).

Of course, at the time, it was her face and body that studios and financers credited for her success, and the perceived image of Monroe typified the 1950’s return to the hot, docile blonde, and a rejection of the more sensible, straight-thinking actresses of the 40s, like Kate Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. And so she was vilified by feminists, who saw her as fodder for the emerging Playboy attitude toward women. Only after the dust had settled did feminists like Joyce Carole Oates acknowledge Monroe’s significance as a feminist icon, and her image was redeemed in the eyes of most cultural historians.

For all these reasons, Monroe should be revisited, if even in a mediocre vehicle like Gentlemen. Here, she plays Lorelei Lee, a woman engaged to marry a nebbish millionaire, to the dismay of his disapproving dad. Jane Russell is Dorothy Shaw, Lee’s show-biz partner, and together they embark on a sea cruise to Paris. The gals are the best of friends despite fundamental splits in their approach to man-catching: Lee adores wealthy, fawning over diamonds in particular, while Shaw prefers men of the more modest, down-to-earth persuasion. But they both have each other’s back, particularly when it is revealed that Shaw’s love interest is a P.I. hired by Lee’s future father-in-law to get some dirt on the girl and break up the engagement. All’s well that ends well in Paris, when both blonde and brunette exchange vows after a madcap court hearing involving a stolen tiara.

So as you can deduce, I didn’t exactly go nuts over the story itself, and the musical sequences, except for the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number (saluted in the equally iconic Madonna video), sort of drift along without either enhancing or advancing the storyline. Monroe’s character comes off as particularly dated; her mantra of falling in love with a man’s money first and foremost makes her look like a complete gold-digger (at least now women don’t admit it). Russell’s the more sensible side – the superego to Monroe’s id, perhaps – but her romance, and romantic scenes, comes off as tepid as a Love Boat episode. No, strike that; I liked The Love Boat.

But the good news is that this is a Howard Hawks film, and it features his trademark rapid-fire delivery of snappy dialogue. Once again, dated, to be sure, but it makes for swift, smooth scenes – as easily digestible as they are largely forgettable. At a running time of roughly 90 minutes (even less if you discount the music), it’s a relatively easy watch.

Oh, I did forget one other element I liked: Jane Russell. I had not known much about her before, but I was impressed with her screen persona – a woman who acts and looks, despite her hairstyle, fairly contemporary. The sassy Hawks dialogue fits her well, and I’d actually prefer to see her in a sequel over her screen counterparts. For those of my generation, she’s best know as the Playtex Cross-Your-Heart bra spokesperson, but she clearly had a career before than, and apparently a pretty good one.

Frothy, frilly fun, but little more. Could be a good launching pad for more Monroe, and perhaps even Russell.

                              Rating: ***

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