01 August 2010

Gentleman Prefer Blondes

Gentleman Prefer Blondes A Musical, Monroe Delight!
By Kristin Battestella

Maybe not everyone has seen this 1953 musical comedy starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.  Yet somehow, we all know of Marilyn, the pink satin dress, and ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’.   Sing it with me, ‘A kiss on the hand may be quite continental but…’ but is the movie still any good?  I answer you with a resounding yes!

Two showgirls, the sensible but fun brunette Dorothy Shaw (Russell) and dim but money hungry blonde Lorelei Lee (Monroe), travel on a cruise to France with hopes of impressing the wealthy father (Taylor Holmes) of Lorelei’s hopelessly hooked fiancĂ© Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan).  On the water, Dorothy flirts with fellow passengers like the Olympic Swimming Team and the handsome Ernie Malone (Elliot Reed) - who’s really a detective hired by Mr. Esmond Sr.  While trying to keep his feelings for Dorothy separate from his mission to discredit Lorelei, Malone photographs Lorelei with the married Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn).  Known as ‘Piggy’, Beekman owns a diamond mine and a tiara- trouble making treats that are just too irresistible to Lorelei.

Famed director Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Red River, Sergeant York, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, okay I’ll stop there!) and writer Charles Lederer (Ocean’s Eleven, I Was a Male War Bride) get right to the fun and nudge nudge wink wink of Anita Loos’ (San Francisco, The Women) novel and Joseph Fields’ stage adaptation.  From the opening song ‘Two Girls from Little Rock’ to the famous ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, we don’t let up for an hour and a half.  The spectacle of the stage numbers, quiet comedy scenes, and subtle onscreen slapstick blend together in fine pace and form.  Though Gentlemen Prefer Blondes carries the feel of its stage musical predecessor thanks to the romance, song, and dance, the viewer must pay attention to the dialogue and slapstick for the full storyline.  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes spends more time making us love our leading ladies rather than simply giving us one number after another. 

Well then, Marilyn Monroe is as dynamite and iconic in Gentleman Prefer Blondes as you’re going to get- and she can carry a damn fine tune!  Contrary to her onscreen persona, Monroe (reteaming with Hawks and Lederer from Monkey Business) is the master of the dim blonde, veiling the marshmallow with great comedic timing and matching in time with Russell’s sarcastic wit.  Monroe makes Lorelei Lee’s unaware stupidity not just tolerable or even acceptable, but downright sexy and certainly forgivable.  The way she trembles at the sight of a tiara yet asks, ‘How do you put it around your neck?’ wonderfully showcases Monroe’s layers and Lee’s true colors.  They say never work with kids or dogs, but Monroe’s scenes with little George Winslow (also Monkey Business) as the dry Mr. Spofford- particularly when Lorelei is stuck in a porthole- are downright adorable.  

She’s certainly not unloved by the classic film viewing public, but Jane Russell (The Outlaw, His Kind of Woman, The French Line) has taken a backseat to the iconic Monroe in the years since Gentleman Prefer Blondes’ release.  I wholeheartedly protest!  Despite being known as a ‘Marilyn Monroe film’, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes allows all of Jane Russell to shine, too.  Though a lovely lady then and now, Russell didn’t make as many movies as her bombshell contemporaries, and it’s a dang shame. She is a sexy and dynamic cinema dark horse, using every ounce of her charm so Dorothy Shaw can keep us on our viewing toes.  Russell keeps the sardonic and fun flare on form whether it’s the big song or serious conversations.  Her intelligent, mature, and sophisticated but unlucky in love polar opposite to Monroe contradicts yet somehow matches wonderfully.  Pick your pleasure!  Both ladies are also damn curvy by today’s standards, but by golly they look good.  Seeing films like this makes me wonder why we starve ourselves today.  Russell would return in 1955’s Gentleman Marry Brunettes with Jeanne Craine (State Fair), but the sequel isn’t as fun without the Russell and Monroe element.

The boys of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are no slouches, but they are obviously a little less famous then our dames.  Tommy Noonan (A Star is Born, Swingin’ Along) as the somewhat geeky Gus seems mismatched to Lorelei, yet Noonan equals Monroe’s dim and lighthearted charm.  Likewise, Elliot Reid‘s (The Absent Minded Professor) Malone is the usual fedora wearing detective who tests Jane Russell wit for wit.  Could we have had better, bigger named leading men?  Certainly- but isn’t the point of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the gals to whip the boys with their sex appeal?  Oscar winner Charles Coburn (The More The Merrier, Heaven Can Wait) and Norma Varden (National Velvet, Strangers on a Train) as Piggy’s wife Lady Beekman add a touch of maturity to the cast, even if they, too, are also smartly used comic fodder. Taylor Holmes (Kiss of Death) is somewhat of a Magoffin throughout the film, but his final, funny confrontation with Monroe is a charmer nonetheless. 

Naturally, folks who don’t like movie musicals or swinging fifties tunes may not like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  It’s a shame, because the songs both new by Hoagy Carmichael (Stardust) and Harold Adamson (An Affair to Remember) and those brought from the stage by Jule Styne (Funny Girl) and Leo Robin (My Sister Eileen) are quite catchy.  Our leading ladies have different ranges, but they sing well together and make each individual verse or solo their own.  Russell’s sassy ‘Bye Bye Baby’ is just as toe-tapping as Monroe’s mellow interlude from the same song is dreamy.  ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love’ by Russell is as equally charming as ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, too.  Yes, the pseudo sports routine isn’t that good a dance number, but all the near nude buff boys and a dripping wet Jane are just a little more scandalous.  There’s actually not as many big dance numbers, complex routines, or spectacle songs here as with other musicals of the day.  All Gentleman Prefer Blondes needs are close up shots of our gals singing good stuff and we’re a-okay.  Nevertheless, ‘When Love Goes Wrong’ is a damn fine mix of shakin’ and shimmyin’, and Russell puts her own feisty courtroom stamp on ‘Diamonds’ before the film is done. 

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the lovely costumes by Marilyn’s oft dresser Travilla (Dallas, Valley of the Dolls) or the fifties colors, flair, and style. The red lips and glittering ruby red frocks are simply impeccable.  You couldn’t get away with these styles today, but the hats, leopard prints, furs, diamond bling, pink satin- oh I could go on with the fashion delights here!  Even the black pantsuits are cut wonderfully for the curves and bullet bras on our gals.  Yes, the sets are somewhat small scale and cardboard since we’re on a cruise ship for most of the film, but there’s certainly plenty of color and fun onscreen nonetheless thanks to our catwalking ladies. Monroe is dressed in all the flashy shine and vibrant colors, but Russell is equally devastating in a largely dark wardrobe.  Though monochrome, the assorted shapes, cuts, and fabrics make us look closer.  Don’t loose an eye on those bosoms!  

Marilyn Monroe fans, lovers of Jane Russell, and musical comedy audiences can delight in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes again and againThere’s nothing taboo here at all, and new audiences or the young at heart should certainly give this one more than its cursory ‘Diamond’ glance.  Unfortunately, just like most of Monroe’s films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes isn’t available on blu-ray just yet.  Again, I protest!  Thankfully, several DVD editions in assorted Marilyn collections, streaming options, and rental opportunities are available.  Take a cruise with Dorothy and Lorelei tonight!

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