Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Charles Coburn
As 2017 turns into 2018, why would fondly remembering a movie as wildly outdated as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes prove worthwhile? Perhaps because cinema history is exactly that; a history. Art is always a product of its time and thus Gentlemen Prefer Blondes should be considered as such. Hawks’ film wasn’t intended to be political. It’s about as superfluous as Hollywood has ever been. Generally speaking I prefer cinema that has a point or a stance; something to convey. An intelligent piece of work that forwards an idea or asks a question is all the more fulfilling.
But sometimes you want a reprieve from all that. Sometimes you just want a song and a dance.
One of the chief lures of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is unquestionably Marilyn Monroe. Her legend is remarkable, her celebrity goes on forever. She’s probably one of the ten most famous people of the 20th century worldwide. But her film career is spotty and unusual. It’s filled with brief cameos. As often as not she’s but a guest in a film. Sometimes she doesn’t even have more than a couple of lines. Narrowing the selection to her star turns and you get an even stranger crop of titles. Her serious roles in films like The Misfits, Niagara or Don’t Bother To Knock are often overlooked completely. More often she is remembered for her two Billy Wilder features; The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. For Wilder she played pure sex on screen, a naive figure of desire for his male leads to fawn and perspire over. But there’s a third category; Marilyn Monroe the comedian and entertainer; Marilyn Monroe the lead. Of this smaller set, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the most giving.
We’re in that most reassuringly sugary genre – the musical comedy. A world of gloss and giggles, innuendo and mild satire. Monroe plays showgirl Lorelie Lee. The film opens with her and her co-star Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) performing together. They’re glamorous women, but devilishly practical too. They both want to find husbands, preferably rich ones. They’re gold diggers. The film charts their escapades aboard a cruise liner in pursuit of rich men. And while Dorothy is dazzled by the bronzed bodies of the Olympic swimming team who are also on board, Lorelie has her eye on a pig more of her prizing; fattened old fat cat Sir Francis ‘Piggy’ Beekman (Charles Coburn). What thin plot we’re offered largely comes to the fore in the second half of the film, when a prized tiara goes missing while in Lorelie’s dubious possession. She finds herself accused of its theft, and it is up to Dorothy to help her clear her name.
But just as I don’t watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for politics, I don’t watch it for plot either. I watch it for the gloss, the glamour, the glittering diamonds which really do seem to be a girl’s best friend. Hawks was a versatile director who helmed more than 40 films over the course of his career. He crossed genres, plying his trade as comfortably in noir as with westerns or screwball comedies, yet nothing he created was quite as crazy as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which opens in a kind of bedazzled hysteria and somehow sustains this giddiness for 91 minutes.
The film is bracketed by two wholly unreal, standout musical numbers that are defined by lush colour saturation. In keeping with their era, they’re more theatrical than cinematic, presented flatly. But that doesn’t make them boring.
The opening number, “A Little Girl From Little Rock” is all sparkles and sequins; Monroe and Russell in matching red outfits with matching moves. Monroe affecting the girlish voice that became one with her persona. Later, she takes the limelight for the film’s defining showstopper, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”. Here she plays against the deepest of red backdrops. Her dress doesn’t sparkle, but the jewels around her neck and wrists do. The song name-drops Tiffany’s, a precursor to the brand attraction celebrated nearly a decade later onscreen by Audrey Hepburn via Truman Capote.
But where Hepburn was about chic, Monroe is about opulence. Her performance oozes luxury and extravagance. Indulgence. She is in full colour, bursting with life as she is surrounded by dancing suitors in black and white tuxes. She ‘pops’. It’s become one of the iconic musical numbers in cinema, not for its technical execution (though that’s assured enough), but for its style.
Monroe isn’t just the centre of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for her physical allure, however. The film also offers perhaps the finest display of her comic timing. My favourite scene of the film is the silliest. While trying to squeeze out of a porthole, Lorelie becomes stuck. She is caught in the act by a child who plays along in hiding her predicament when ‘Piggy’ comes a’strolling by. With the aid of a fortuitous black drape, the boy pretends to be her disguised body with Lorelie’s head floating precariously on top. It’s a frivolous piece of comic gold, but Monroe owns it (even if the child star, George Winslow, arguably steals it). Elsewhere she is handed a variety of knowing and suggestive punch lines which she throws into scenes as effortless zingers. And in case this is all a bit too biased toward Monroe, its worth underscoring that Russell more than holds her own. Her Dorothy is sassier, bolder, but Russell also makes hay of all opportunities to present herself as another funny, savvy woman. They’re a fantastic duo together. Men caught in their crosshairs ought to expect to have their mettle tested.
This may sound a tad ridiculous in context, but Hawks also manages to prefigure one of the greats of the European new wave auteurs. When Lorelie is put on trial for the theft of the tiara, Dorothy appears in her place; she wears a blonde wig, disguising her usual brunette locks. She plays the part of her best friend to fool the room. The suggestion, perhaps, is that to these frivolous men, who see only their voluptuous figures, the two women are interchangeable. It damns the men while also asking what if they are interchangeable? What if their personalities have merged? And while for Hawks it is another comedy routine (and a successful one), Ingmar Bergman would thoroughly explore these questions of feminine identity 13 years later in his masterpiece Persona.
In spite of the seemingly shallow nature of their interests, Lorelie and Dorothy are both strong, enterprising women. They’re not in the least bit ashamed of their intentions – and why should they be? The world they inhabit repeatedly reduces the value of women. In response they devalue men to the size of their wallets. The film locks onto this contentious point at the end when ‘Piggy’ admonishes Lorelie for her flagrant greed. She argues that, just as a father might wish for his son to marry a beautiful women, wouldn’t he also wish for his daughter to marry a rich man? In a world defined by its inequality and askew values, these women have designed themselves to achieve the gains the world expects of them. To be outraged or upset by their pursuits invites the unraveling of patriarchal hypocrisy.
Intellectualising Gentlemen Prefer Blondes might buy me column inches here, provide wordier content for my argument in favour of this film, but the joys of this movie are more basic. It’s fun. It makes me happy watching it. It’s light, it’s escapist, it’s a pocket fantasy that’s far removed from the troubled world. It’s very triviality is a tonic. It’s bittersweet, too, because these movies exist in the bubble of their times. I’m not nostalgic for their return but their disappearance is sad in a strange way. New attempts to reconfigure the musical for our times are more influenced by Disney or Broadway, or else they’re post-modern, too knowing. Somehow sincerity is lost in the mixture or too overbearing. The cinema of the 1950’s and films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes don’t lack for sincerity. The ambition is never more than to entertain. That isn’t to say that they lack ambition, but rather that they are keenly specific. Targeted. They are what they are and they’re what they are to make you feel warm inside and that’s the end of it.
Sometimes the best way to enjoy something is to simply enjoy it.