Gentlemen Prefer Blondes December 16, 2017
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
ineteen fifty-three was the year of Marilyn Monroe. After years of making the most of supporting roles that more or less cast her aside as second fiddles (albeit memorable ones), she finally became a star. In what felt like an overnight catapulting into stardom, she headlined three of the year’s biggest pictures: the culturally seismic, CinemaScope-introducing How to Marry a Millionaire; the tangibly steamy Technicolor noir Niagara; and the deliriously
fun, Howard Hawks-directed musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
It could be argued that no other starring roles Monroe ever took on captured her quite as well as the ones provided by this trio of cinematic stunners. Though she’d still star in notable features that’d make a mark on the culture, from 1955’s The Seven Year Itch to 1959’s Some Like it Hot to 1961’s The Misfits, none would suit her like the films she made in ’53. Millionaire showcased her deft comedic timing. Niagara emphasized her still-thunderous sex appeal. Blondes underlined her knack for breathing life into song-and-dance spectacle as well as renewing even the most routine of a romp.
These films don’t just encapsulate what made (and what continues to make) Monroe one of the most beloved performers of her day. They also saw her at the peak of her beauty. The height of her (apparent) confidence as a performer. The apex of her development of the Marilyn Monroe persona. Millionaire, Niagara, and Blondes might’ve been released more than six decades ago. But Monroe’s appeal remains timeless.
Of the aforementioned movies, though, it is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that gives her the most to do. It is also among the best films she ever made. Tasked with carrying the movie alongside the sardonic, never-better (or funnier) Jane Russell, she’s bewitching. Given the role of the featherbrained blonde that’d haunt her for the rest of her life, she’s a dynamo of a comedienne when not turning every musical sequence in which she appears into an unforgettable extravaganza of the senses.
While most of Monroe’s co-stars would later make it clear that the star was never as self-assured as she seemed, such is not something we notice in Blondes. In the actress do we see an entertainer so in command of her sex appeal and her onscreen personality, she could weaponize it. We’re witnessing a meticulously stitched craft, not accidental brilliance. How else could we explain why the public believed, and continues to believe, Monroe was the same in real life as she was in her vehicles? She makes performing seem so simple, so enjoyable.
So does co-star Russell: In Blondes, the pair must sell a feel-good Technicolor farce, convincing us that all we’re seeing has not been done before in various ways. And sell they do: from the moment we meet Russell’s Dorothy and Monroe’s Lorelei, we’re as smitten with their characters as we are with the friendship portrayed on the screen. It’s like they need each other. Without Lorelei’s optimism and naiveté, Dorothy’d fall victim to her cynicism and judgmental attitudes. Without Dorothy’s street savvy and sharp edges, Lorelei’d in no doubt be hurt by one too many predatory men. They’re perfect for one another. So much so that we’d almost prefer the film choose their palling around over their pursuing romance.
But we must remember that the movie is a musical set in 1953, a year when female friendship usually came second to romance. So in Blondes, hearts predictably are also hovering over the eyes of our leading females. While making a decent living as showgirls, Dorothy and Lorelei are ready for domestic life. And, if they can manage it, lavish ones: Both are unapologetic gold diggers, if not perfect ones. Dorothy has a habit of getting distracted by good looks without the money to back them; Lorelei, who’s currently engaged to the nerdy but loaded Gus (Tommy Noonan), has a tendency to be hypnotized by the nearest sight of a diamond.
These problems are at their highest from the moment Dorothy and Lorelei, en route to France for their jobs, hop aboard a cruise ship that acts as the film’s primary setting. Here, the friends face multiple dilemmas. Gus’s distrusting father has hired private detective Ernie (Elliott Reed) to spy on Lorelei — who’s instantaneously preoccupied with the elderly, jewel-touting entrepreneur Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn) — and Dorothy, in turn, unwittingly falls in love with that PI in spite of his attempting to sabotage the well-being of her best friend. Of course, a plethora of other problems stem from these complications.
Russell and Monroe make these misadventures so delightful. From their pitch-perfect line readings to their versatile capabilities as musical performers, we can hardly think of a silver screen partnership as steadily able to keep a smile plastered on our faces or a song in our hearts. The chemistry’s crackling, but the chief reason we take to these performances so immensely has to do with their having so much backbone. Dorothy and Lorelei know exactly what they want and are not ashamed of how trivial their desires might seem. Russell and Monroe powder their performances in comedic zest, but never in such a way that feels inordinately silly. These actresses are playful, but make no mistake: they’re calling the shots.
This is enhanced by two musical sequences that rank among the most iconic — and boldly celebratory and female — of the decade. First is Russell’s rendition of “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love,” which sees her belting as almost 20 male dancers (acting as a male diving team also on the ship) writhe around in flesh-toned swim trunks. Next is Monroe’s oft-imitated interpretation of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” which is, with its red satin decorations, central chandelier, diamond-clutching, tuxedoed men, and Monroe’s hot pink gown, as visually innovative as it is a galavanting of Lorelei’s comfortability with herself.
In a departure from the usually male-dominated Hollywood, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes celebrates the sexual and material impulses of these women. It accepts their desires rather than eventually condemn them. Even the picturesque happy ending does not tonally follow the designated standard of the time that all women are more fully formed when they’re married. They’re in line with the feature’s spotlighting of Dorothy and Lorelei as women who will pull no punches in turning their dreams into their respective realities.
This empowerment emboldens the multitude of pleasures found in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: because the leads are so substantial, we end up taking to the movie supporting them just as quickly. In the vein of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s untouchable Singin’ in the Rain, Blondes is as superb a comedy as it is a musical. But don’t just look at it as pretty popcorn fare: it’s as much a testament to the endurability of Monroe (and Russell) as it is a masterwork of its genre. A