Marilyn Monroe: so much has been written about the woman, the star, the legend and her untimely death, and yet so much of her remains an enigma misunderstood to this day. Perhaps the biggest misperception is that she was somehow less of an actress and more of a sex symbol. While it is undeniably true that Monroe exuded a fragile, almost childlike sensuality on the screen throughout her brief reign in Hollywood, it is equally accurate to state that she was one hell of a wit, her blonde bauble-headed appeal so convincingly carried off that even today many consider it her persona rather than an act. Monroe was very clever about marketing herself as a packaged deal platinum goddess. Unfortunately, that branding did more than cling to its product – it enveloped and eventually suffocated any chance she had of breaking out of her own manufactured deception.
Howard Hawk’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is the film most readily identified with Monroe: the star and the one most instantly conjured to mind, thanks primarily to her galvanic rendition of ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ – a defining and ultimately iconic moment in movie musicals. Monroe is Lorelei Lee – a simple-minded gold digger with a penchant for rich men in general and diamonds in particular. Lorelei has hooked a big fish with moony Gus Esmond Jr. (Tom Noonan); a wealthy stock broker who absolutely swoons whenever she kisses him. The two have recently become engaged, leaving Lorelei to envision a future filled with unlimited expense accounts and moneyed trips abroad. To seal the deal, Gus has agreed to send the Lorelei and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) on a lavish cruise and Parisian holiday.
Behind the scenes, however, Esmond has hired private investigator Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid) to tail the girls and look for chinks in Lorelei’s fidelity. There are plenty of opportunities aboard ship, as the girls are sailing with the entire U.S. men’s Olympic team en route to France. By her own admission, Dorothy is into corpuscles and muscles. But Lorelei cannot see the benefits in a man without disposable income. “I want you to be happy,” Lorelei tells Dorothy, “…and stop having fun.” To this end, Lorelei compiles a top ten list of the wealthiest bachelors on board and then bribes the ship’s Captain of Waters (Alex Akimoff) to have them all seated at her table for dinner. The move, however, is purely philanthropic, as Lorelei is sincerely hoping to choose a suitable male companion for Dorothy – not herself. One of the more interesting prospects – at least on paper – looks to be Henry Spofford III (George Winslow). Unfortunately, when Mr. Spofford arrives to table he is revealed as an eleven year old boy who, by his own hilarious admission, is “old enough to appreciate a good looking woman.”
Deflated in her matchmaking, Lorelei and Dorothy retire to the ship’s lounge where they meets Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn); a wily old sod who is not above flirting with Lorelei and plying her with stories of his diamond mind in Africa. Francis is joined by his wife, Lady Beekman (Norma Varden) who shows Lorelei her diamond tiara. That’s all the encouragement Lorelei needs. She’s hooked and pursues a friendship with Francis that eventually turns flirtatious right under Ernie’s watchful eye. Lorelei convinces Francis to give her Lady Beekman’s tiara.
However, once in France Lady Beekman retaliates by making a formal charge of theft against Lorelei. Having learned from Ernie of the incident Gus cancels his line of credit to the girls, leaving them stranded and without a place to stay in the city of lights. Recouping their losses quickly, Lorelei and Dorothy headline Chez Louis; a Bohemian nightclub where they quickly become the toast of Paris. But Lady Beekman has not given up the chase just yet. She orders her attorney, Pritchard (Alex Fraser) to press formal charges and then instructs the Gendarme (Peter Camlin) to arrest Lorelei after her performance.
Realizing what a bind they’re in, Dorothy dons a blonde wig to impersonate Lorelei at the hearing while Lorelei skulks off in search of Francis to prove her innocence. In court, Dorothy does a wicked lampoon of her girlfriend that ruffles a lot of feathers including Ernie Malone’s – who recognizes the switch almost immediately. He remains silent however, having fallen in love with Dorothy and also having second thoughts about what has become of Lady Beekman’s diamond tiara. Hurrying to the airport, Ernie confronts Francis, who is about to flee the country, and upon searching his luggage finds Lady Beekman’s diamond headdress among his belongings. Francis and the jewels are brought before the Magistrate (Marcel Dalio) who instructs Lorelei (still played by Dorothy) to give them back to Francis, who then gives them to Lady Beekman.
Ernie attempts to patch up his relationship with Dorothy. But she spurns his advances even though she clearly has feelings for him. Meanwhile, Gus arrives with his father to confront Lorelei about her infidelity. “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?” she tells Gus Sr. (Taylor Holmes), “You may not marry her just because she’s pretty, but my God, doesn’t it help?” Father and son have second thoughts about the engagement and Gus openly admits that he cannot live without Lorelei. The film ends with a double marriage aboard ship; Gus and Lorelei, and, Dorothy and Ernie.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an eye-popping, tune filled, light romantic (at times, slightly screwball) comedy. The film is notable for Charles Lederer’s sparkling screenplay, based on Joseph Fields and Anita Loos acidic stage play and also justly famous for its charming score, including the aforementioned ‘Diamonds are A Girl’s Best Friend’, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?’, Bye-bye, Baby’, ‘When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right’ and Two Girls from Little Rock’. Howard Hawks directs his first and only musical like a veteran of the genre with a slick glossy veneer that is as intoxicating as it proves iconic.
There’s real onscreen chemistry between Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. It’s a genuine pity they were never reunited on another project. Russell’s inimitable brand of shoot from the hip sensuality is the perfect foil for Monroe’s cockeyed and thoroughly misguided optimism. Charles Coburn is a real gem – his blood shot eyes and bald pate quivering comedic brilliance throughout, as in the moment when Lorelei tells Sir Francis, upon first meeting him, that she thought he would be a lot older. “Oh my dear, my very dear,” schmoozes Coburn before suddenly reacting with indignation at the thought that he is being lied to, “Older than what?!?” to which Russell’s Dorothy replies, “The pyramids!”
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is often criticized for having a weak third act, and I must admit that the double wedding that closes the show seems a tad rehearsed, and more of a last minute tack-on than a clever denouement. But overall the story continues to hold up with a freshness and vitality that few musicals have or have been able to sustain some seventy years after they were first made. Monroe and Russell are a winning pair and the songs continue to make our toes tap and our hearts sing. There is a lot to admire herein and I have no doubt that generations to come will continue to regard Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a high water mark in both the musical genre and the career of Marilyn Monroe.
That the film’s overwhelming success at the box office had the adverse effect of catapulting Monroe to super stardom, but solidifying her reputation as America’s favourite ditz and nothing more is, in retrospect, regrettably because Monroe proved she had more to offer us in films like Don’t Bother to Knock, The Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve and Niagara. But Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is also vintage Monroe – iconic and trend-defining – so much that even seventy years later artists as diverse as model Anna Nicole Smith, pop singer Madonna and actress Nicole Kidman have been inspired to channel the Monroe charisma – though never her incurable innocence - as part of their own iconography. Men may indeed ‘grow cold as girls grow old’, but the charm of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will never lose its appeal.
This film has always looked stellar on home video thanks to some ambitious photochemical restoration along the way, so it’s no surprise that Fox’s new Blu-ray looks impressive to say the least. What is astounding is how much more refinement we get in colour detail overall. For example, I never before realized that Monroe’s elbow length gloves (worn in the Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend number) are two tone pink – violent fuchsia pink on the outside, muted powder puff pink on the palms.
Overall, the image is vibrant. We get flesh tones that look very natural as opposed to the slightly orange tones on the DVD. The wow factor is here too. Fine details abound. Contrast levels are smack dab where they ought to be. The occasional – very brief – scene can look somewhat soft, but overall this transfer perfectly preserves Harry J. Wild’s stunning cinematography. This is a reference quality offering from Fox. Bravo! The audio has been remastered to rechanneled stereo DTS. It’s solid, while preserving the inherent shortcomings in vintage audio recordings. The one colossal disappointment on this disc – NO extras! We get the same junket of trailers for this and other Monroe movies and a short Movietone Newsreel that marked Monroe and Russell placing their hands and feet in Grauman’s Chinese Theater cement. Bad move on Fox’s part, but I can’t fault the transfer. It’s dreamy!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)