Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): Monroe and Russell's Ode to Female Friendship


When I first became enamored of classic Hollywood, there were a handful of actors who were responsible for introducing me to this new wonderful world. At the time, the one who shone the brightest was Marilyn Monroe. My sister first discovered her for a school project and soon both of us were fascinated by this incredible woman. I'll never forget when my sister received a box set of Marilyn's films for her birthday; we devoured those films as quickly as we could and to this day I cherish them. To celebrate Ms. Monroe's June 1st birthday, I thought I'd host my own three-day tribute by looking at three of those films that were so pivotal for me. Forget the tragedies, the romances, and the what-might-have-beens. What I want to focus on is the work, the iconic performances that Marilyn left behind. First up, we have Howard Hawks's magnificent musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
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From the second Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe stepped out from behind a glittering black lace curtain, drenched in ruby red sparkles, I fell in love with Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee. Their introduction to us is like an assault on the senses: immediately after the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare, the first chords of "Two Little Girls from Little Rock" jolt the audience with its brash loudness while Russell and Monroe burst out of the darkness, their spotlight seemingly unnecessary thanks to their shimmering gowns and megawatt smiles. It's a bold entrance for any character to have, but for Dorothy and Lorelei, it's the only kind of entrance that makes sense.






After this introduction, the plot moves along swiftly and smoothly. Engaged to milquetoast millionaire Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), Lorelei tries to get him away from his domineering father by convincing him to take her to Paris and marry her there. As part of their plan, they have Dorothy act as Lorelei's "chaperone" on the boat trip to France and Gus will join them in Paris later. Unbeknownst to them, Gus's father, who is convinced Lorelei is a golddigger, has hired private detective Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid) to keep an eye on her. Complications arise when Malone and Dorothy fall for one another and Lorelei meets wealthy diamond mine owner Sir Francis "Piggy" Beekman (Charles Coburn).

Initially a popular novel and then a hit musical on Broadway, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was brought to vivid life on the silver screen with a near-perfect script by Charles Lederer (with quite a few changes from its source material, the funniest being Henry Spofford III going from Dorothy's love interest to a wise-beyond-his-years little boy), unique Jack Cole choreography (it's not so much dancing as it is choreographed movement), and Howard Hawks's great direction. The film's eye-popping Technicolor is another major asset. While the backgrounds are usually neutral earth tones, Russell and Monroe always stick out from their surroundings. Their red lipstick and nail polish are consistently bright, and their wardrobes are made up of striking colors and light-catching sequins, beads, and baubles.







The musical numbers make the film soar even higher. Pieces of Leo Robin and Jule Styne's original Broadway score survived the screen translation, with catchy new tunes from Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson mixed in for good measure. In addition to the dazzling "Two Little Girls" and the legendary "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," the third big standout is Russell's winking rendition of "Anyone Here for Love?" as she swaggers around practically nude male athletes. My favorite numbers, though, are "Bye Bye Baby," which Dorothy joyously sings with the help of the Olympic team while Lorelei slows it down in an effort to assure Gus that she'll be faithful, and "When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right)," a routine that starts out as the women lamenting their financial and romantic losses and ends as an empowering pick-me-up that reminds them that their happiness doesn't depend on a man or his wallet but rather their own capabilities and resourcefulness.







One of the rarely discussed aspects of Monroe's talent is her singing. Although her voice wasn't as strong as, say, Jane Russell's -- her high notes at the beginning of "Diamonds" were actually dubbed by Marni Nixon -- there was a confident sweetness to it. You couldn't mistake her singing for anyone else's, especially when you hear her distinctive tremolo. It isn't enough to listen to her voice, though. To me, for Monroe to fully sell a song, you have to watch her perform it. Her body language and her presence are just so captivating. When she is crooning "Bye Bye Baby" in Noonan's ear, you become just as tongue-tied as he does. When she shakes her hips and bounces alongside Russell, you want to join in on the fun.


While the film looks and sounds phenomenal, the heart and soul of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are Dorothy and Lorelei. Russell and Monroe's performances ultimately determine the film's success and they do not disappoint. As Dorothy, Russell is a revelation -- hilarious and sharp-minded, she exudes a warm earthiness that betrays her character as a hard shell with a gooey center. When I saw this film on the big screen a few years ago, everyone walked out of the theater gushing over Russell.

Out of all of Monroe's characters, Lorelei is the one that became the most conflated with the star, helping to stereotype her as a ditzy blonde. With her breathless voice and exaggerated facial mannerisms, Monroe threatens to turn Lorelei into a caricature, but she manages to show us glimpses behind this facade that remind us that Lorelei is a flesh-and-blood woman who has her own desires and ideas.

Monroe's comedic brilliance always astounds me. She had such good timing and we definitely don't talk enough about the way she used her voice for comic effect. Just listen to her vocal inflections in
Gentlemen: the unnecessary drama added to "Pray, scat!"; her plea to Piggy that her "brain is real starved"; how she deepens her voice to evoke laryngitis and then pitches it real high a moment later as she excuses herself from the room. For Lorelei, her cartoonish facial expressions and voice are like her weapons against the opposite sex. With one pout of her lips, she can manipulate a man, particularly Gus, into doing anything -- and the poor suckers fall for it every time.

While it is true that Hawks's camera often objectifies Monroe and Russell's bodies, there is power in their characters' frank sexuality. These women are very much in control of their bodies and obviously take care in how they present themselves. (The scene where they stride through the ship's dining room, happily aware that all eyes are on them, comes to mind.) Dorothy and Lorelei are also unafraid to hide their lust, sexual or materialistic. It isn't a secret that Dorothy loves men, just like it isn't difficult to tell that Lorelei likes the finer things in life. One of the film's best moments is when she outright admits to Gus's father that she wants Gus for his fortune. It isn't malicious, it's survival.



At a casual glance, these two showgirls couldn't be more different. Dorothy, a brunette, is the sardonic, practical one who enjoys chasing good-looking men. Lorelei, meanwhile, is a naive, supposedly dumb blonde who enjoys chasing good-looking diamonds. However, as the film goes on, we see that both women possess an intelligence that goes largely undervalued and overlooked by the other characters. Fiercely loyal to one another, it becomes clear that Lorelei and Dorothy are the only ones who truly appreciate and understand each other. Dorothy knows that her best friend isn't stupid, just like Lorelei knows Dorothy isn't the hardbitten cynic she pretends to be.

The film's romantic storylines depend on whether the men in their lives can learn to value these women as fully as they value one another. Men like Piggy easily fail this test because they don't bother to look beyond the women's looks. Gus also fails, but Lorelei decides to accept him anyway, telling Dorothy, "I really do love Gus. ... There's not another millionaire in the world with such a gentle disposition. He never wins an argument. He always does anything I ask, and he's got the money to do it with. How can I help loving a man like that?"



Malone, on the other hand, passes the test. He certainly finds Dorothy attractive, but that isn't the only thing that draws him to her. He genuinely cares about her, but because he believes Lorelei is trouble and will drag Dorothy down with her, he continues to spy on Lorelei. When the women figure out what Malone is up to, it becomes a game of one-upping one another until Malone manages to get the dirt he needs. Although his love for Dorothy is sincere and she returns his feelings, the couple can't be together until Malone can prove he is worthy. He eventually does this by helping Lorelei get out of a jam, which, in a way, shows that he has come to accept Lorelei and the important role she has in Dorothy's life.




In the end, though, you aren't watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the romances, and the film acknowledges that, such as in the final scene where Lorelei and Dorothy walk down the wedding aisle singing a reprise of "Two Little Girls from Little Rock." As they take their places besides their grooms, the camera pushes in on the shot of the four of them until it squeezes the men out, leaving just Dorothy and Lorelei. The women share a giddy glance at one another before the shot fades to black, reiterating that this is first and foremost a film about female friendship.

Although Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is glossy and great fun, the prominence of Lorelei and Dorothy's friendship gives the film a substance that is more than glitz and glamour. They support and love one another unconditionally, and the idea of a man coming between them is completely out of the question. Dorothy and Lorelei know that at the end of the day, it isn't romance that can fulfill you but friendship. It was a crucial representation to see in 1953 and it is still crucial to see today. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell may be known for other things, but I have a feeling that the legacy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will continue to be a significant part of how they are remembered for years to come.




























































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This is my first of three entries to the Second Annual Broadway Bound Blogathon, hosted by Taking Up Room. Check out the other fun contributions here!

Comments

  1. I loved your insightful and affectionate critique (and your screen caps). You have made me anxious to watch this movie again. It has been too long since my last viewing.

    PS: It will be a fun weekend with you and Marilyn.

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    1. Thank you! It had been a while since my last viewing as well, but everything still felt so familiar and cozy, like visiting an old friend.

      I haven't talked about Marilyn enough on this blog, so I'm excited to share these upcoming posts. Spoiler: there are many more screencaps ahead!

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  2. It is a fun movie! I think Marilyn and Jane are at their most beautiful in this movie. The clothes are really pretty. But most important is the cast is really good and also the writing. Marilyn and Jane are both FUNNY. I read that when they talk about Marilyn on TV that they show a clip of her singing in that pink dress more than any other clip with her. Classic TV Fan

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    1. I believe that! I've always wondered why "Diamonds" is the number most associated with her. It's great and I enjoy it, but it's definitely not my favorite.

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. Great review and superb screen caps

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    1. Thank you! I love taking screen caps, especially when the film is as gorgeous as this one.

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  4. Lovely post and those frocks are fantastic! I adored your photos and looking forward to reading more about this fabulous actress. Wondering if this leading up to a big blogathon announcement???

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    1. Thanks, Gill! I will be announcing another blogathon very soon, but it won't be about Marilyn. Although that's certainly a good idea!

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  5. Great review! I agree with you about Monroe's "comedic brilliance." She is one of cinema's greatest comediennes. Billy Wilder always said that she was very difficult, but she was "worth the trouble!"

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    1. Thank you! Yes, Wilder, George Cukor, and many others agreed she was tough to work with, but in the end they often admitted her performances were great. I think Lauren Bacall nailed it when she said that while Marilyn could be late and forgetful, it wasn't done out of malice but rather fear.

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  6. "Monroe's comedic brilliance always astounds me. She had such good timing and we definitely don't talk enough about the way she used her voice for comic effect. "

    Here's another thing I'm glad to see somebody else noticed. I also don't think she gets enough credit for how good she was in "Some Like It Hot."

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    1. Agreed! Her work in Some Like It Hot is on another level. I would love to write about that performance one day.

      Thanks for reading!

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  7. I want to see this movie--it looks so fun! And Marilyn is a very underrated comedienne. It's too bad she didn't get to do more of it. Thanks for this review--it's fascinating. :-)

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    1. Thank you for hosting! There are so many things that need fixed in the public perception of Marilyn, primarily her acting ability and her comedic skills. The woman was funny!

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  8. What a wonderful review Michaela! It is clear that this film is a favourite of yours! I love your enthusiam when discussing all these elements. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of those films that allowed me to discover classics. I think you would have love to see the projection at the Egyptian Theatre during the last TCM Festival. The quality of the print was just beautiful!

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    1. Aw, thanks! I was so jealous when I heard that it was going to be at TCMFF. Luckily, I've seen it on the big screen before, but I'm sure the festival's screening was fantastic. One of these years I'll finally make it to TCMFF.

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