Monday, December 26, 2011

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks. 1953)

"Diamonds are a girl's best friend..."

Most of the musicals from the 1950s are a ton of fun to watch. This was the decade when actors were real triple threats with immense talent in singing, acting and dancing. The 1950s was a decade when movie stars were golden and billing was the most important thing for an actor. In Gentleman Prefer Blondes the billing is split between the sultry Jane Russell and the radiant Marilyn Monroe. And though one of those names will be more familiar with readers, this classic golden-age musical takes two to shine.

Russell and Monroe play American showgirls and best friends with almost completely polar personalities. Powell’s Dorothy is a levelheaded, yet wily, young lady with legs that last for days. Though she is certainly man-crazy, she is far more interested in the prospect of falling in love. She makes it very clear that lack of money would not be a deal-breaker and that flattery will “get you anywhere”. Dorothy is the realistic sexuality that keeps this campy balloon from drifting too far away from earth.

Monroe’s Lorelei may seem like a gold-digger (or diamond-miner may be more appropriate) at first, but the character is actually a lot deeper than that. Lorelei understands how attractive she is and uses it to work her way to the top of the world. She has found an extremely wealthy, though by all means nerdy, man (Tommy Noonan.) who will treat her nicely and shower her with expensive gifts, yet still uses her excruciatingly good looks to seduce men into buying her diamonds and other expensive gifts.

WARNING: This is the obligatory paragraph about Marilyn Monroe’s beauty. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes may not be where it originated, but the movie does a lot to bolster the current legend of Ms. Monroe. She wears the nicest clothes and sparkles from the luminous expensive diamonds that differ in each scene. It is plausible to believe that Marilyn was born to be in pictures. Her lips are a deep red that cut through her otherwise pale face and do wonders to bring out the humanly unachievable blondeness of her bobbed hair. Her hourglass figure brings an almost instant comparison to the sexiest symbol in earlier decades, Mae West, but Marilyn was smart enough to remain safe for a much wider variety of audiences. Her sex appeal was just as apparent and she knew all about it, but her personal character was more understated and seemed less dangerous. Of course, a lot of that is the myth of Monroe.

These two beautiful performers sail across the ocean to Paris where they expect to meet Lorelei’s future millionaire husband. Unfortunately, a private detective has been hired to make sure that Lorelei does not cheat while at sea. She meets a much older man who runs a diamond mine and instantly starts an innocent relationship that is filled with mindless flirting. She has no interest in the man himself (Charles Coburn), but rather only interested in shmoozing away a few of his precious rocks.

While all of this is happening, Dorothy is starting a relationship with the private detective, played by the under-appreciated Elliot Reid, which ends when she realizes his intentions to out Lorelei. It is said in the movie that Dorothy and the detective make love while at sea – a phrase that may seem controversial in the 50s context, but this is actually one of the least wild lines in the movie.

Russell, Monroe and (especially) Howard Hawks knew exactly the type of movie they were making with Gentleman Prefer Blondes. The entire concept of the movie is a shot at conventional gender ideals. Monroe’s character seems to be so shallow, but she later admits to being a product of a world where men want her to act a certain way. She is only serving as the filling in a chauvinistic world. Gorgeous and intelligent women intimidate men, so Lorelei happily fills just one of the roles in order to succeed. The dialogue is rich with hip sexual innuendo that managed to slip through the strict censors of “code-following” Hollywood. Russell’s character is displayed in a scene around the swimming pool that may be so homoerotic that it would make Nicolas Ray blush. That is the genius of Howard Hawks. He knew how to make middle America unknowingly watch the things that they so adamantly damned.

This is why the Monroe legacy is so frustrating to me. She was not a stupid person. She was interesting enough to keep Arthur Miller enthralled. Monroe did never want to be known as the peak of class and ladyship. It was an act; it was a joke that very few people were smart enough to grasp. She mocked the people who thoughtfully acted like Lorelei. Marylin knew she was gorgeous and she used it to her advantage. She was sex. But why? Because she knew it would sell.

Gentleman Prefer Blondes is a musical film that features some catchy, but ultimately forgettable, numbers and one classic tune. The aforementioned homoerotic camp-tune “Is Anyone Here for Love” is probably Russell’s finest moment. But of course, Marilyn steals the show with the flamboyantly goofy “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. In this song, Monroe cements her current status. Her pink dress and long gloves stand out from the literally faceless supporting cast. With women literally strapped in leather and attached to chandeliers, the scene has been criticized as chauvinistic. It’s a joke. And it is actually a pretty funny one.

Russell is the only post-decent acting that the movie has to offer, but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is still a fun and comical exception to the buttoned up feel of many 50s musicals. Monroe is beautiful and parades her remarkable ability to glow and her unfailing knack for subtle humor. If you are in the mood for a musical, I am still forced to recommend Singin’ in the Rain or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. If you want a classic look into the mythos of Marylin – you cannot do any better than this.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: B

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