26 December 2014

Marilyn Monroe Premiere Collection

More Marilyn Delights!
By Kristin Battestella

Thanks to my lucking out on finding the Marilyn Monroe Premiere Collection box set on sale at Target, I am back into all things Marilyn, including several previously unreviewed gems and early Monroe appearances.

All About Eve – Monroe of course has a small role in this much-lauded 1950 classic headlined by Bette Davis (Jezebel), Anne Baxter (The Ten Commandments), Supporting Actor winner George Sanders (Rebecca), Celeste Holm (Gentleman’s Agreement), and Thelma Ritter (Pillow Talk). Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives) accents the tongue in cheek winks and play within a play look at the stage versus Hollywood, its stars, scandals, and the interconnected, Dickensian favor or demise with fun name drops, freeze frame narrations, and Shakespearean asides. Contemporary audiences may not like all the telling, yelling, multiple narrators, or flashback frames, but the stories, characters, archetypes, and interplay unfold spectacularly – and the furs, fashions, cigarettes, score, and theatre dressings look so sweet. The filming here looks like a stage presentation yet its story telling constructs heighten the drama and feel quite modern. The then cutthroat ambition, catty attitudes, latent symbolism, us versus them curtain divides, and aging starlets really haven’t changed all that much have they? Ageism, sexism – there will always be a younger actress waiting in the wings. Where does the stage stop and reality begin and who do you trust or stab in the back to go on with the show? For her part as a would be aspiring actress, Monroe only has a few scenes forty-five minutes in, but she holds her own with the heavyweights thanks to a great script, witty lines, and fine delivery from the entire company. This is the Black Swan of its day, so why aren’t there more pictures like this now?

As Young As You Feel – Thelma Ritter joins Monty Woolley (The Bishop’s Wife) and David Wayne (Adam’s Rib) for this 1951 switch-a-roo comedy, a neat 77 minute time capsule of social and financial issues then and now. Forced retirement, struggling whilst on social security, men working to support a wife before marriage, a woman expected to leave a job upon marrying – people back then waited and worked one job their entire lives yet still found difficulty because someone else said otherwise regardless of age, money, or romance. The plot is a little slow to get rolling thanks to exposition or to and fro transition scenes, but the older ensemble provides the comedic music, dancing, and tomfoolery amid the straightforward conversation and mature relationships. Marilyn, of course, is a secretary to die for complete with a great white dress that pops onscreen. Despite the sexy, she’s actually a capable assistant and keeps up with these cantankerous older men! Acting old is what makes you old, indeed – there are some serious and cranky truths here. Once the bemusing games are afoot, however, this remains an entertaining little piece of fun and study.

O. Henry’s Full House – The John Steinbeck narrating frame for this 1952 anthology showcasing the eponymous author’s works is a treat in itself – add Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry the VIII) as a charming bum with refined tastes alongside David Wayne for the first tale “The Cop and the Anthem” and the touching scene with Monroe sets off the irony and spiritual accents. Madcap crook Richard Widmark (Don’t Bother to Knock) then steals the morality in “The Clarion Call,” an interesting little look at both sides of the law and how men can’t quite escape their criminal pasts. Story tres “The Last Leaf” is a snowy period piece featuring an ill Anne Baxter. The illicit suggestion and bleak countdown perfectly capture the bittersweet of art and life cut short before really having started – but at under 2 hours, this anthology packs a lot into its vignettes. Each story is a separate, well paced, quality drama thanks to the often ironic literary source. Next, Howard Hawks (Red River) directs the humorous backwoods kidnapping in “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The backfiring getaway vehicle and blasé, whatever parents may seem out of place amid the character dramas, but the lighthearted Fred Allen radio star sass goes a long way before the Victorian holiday finale “The Gift of the Magi,” starring Jeanne Crain (State Fair) and Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train). The sad newlywed faces gaping in store windows as others buy exorbitant gifts while they scrimp on food and count hidden pennies is still quite relevant. They give of themselves and sell their most treasured things, but are they really worth it? Not only will fans of the author delight, but the commentary, literary extras, and restoration notes make for a quite pleasing finish here.  

We’re Not Married – Fred Allen and David Wayne are here again beside Ginger Rogers (Top Hat), Mitzi Gaynor (There’s No Business Like Show Business), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Moulin Rouge), and more for this 1952 humorous romance. Miss Mississippi Monroe is a young beauty queen more interested in pageant success then her bitter househusband or baby, and it is intriguing to see this mid century time capsule of marital mood and relationship mores – they are certainly different from today’s casual couplings! Some transition scenes are slow as we bounce from one couple’s story to the next – our players never crisscross but rather serve as separate not so wedded bliss vignettes. This halting approach must restart with each segment, making the comedy and drama uneven as these unhappy duos react to their marriage dilemma with varying degrees of heavy or comical. The tone would have been more balanced and witty if our couples had interacted and thus perhaps reacted differently to their situation. Illegitimacy, military legalities, and the serious latter half make the time here a bit overlong at 85 minutes. Some pairs are more likeable than others are, and the script isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. Fortunately, the then scandalous unwed notions, bumbling judges, licensing technicalities, and holiday accents make for some lightheartedness and social interest along with pleasant fashions, fifties décor, and behind the scenes radio show drama. And dang, young Zsa Zsa, wow!

A Split Decision!

Let’s Make It Legal – I’m not a fan of Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night), but she and Robert Wagner (Hart to Hart) look so young in this 1951 comedy! The separate beds and set dressings feel somewhat mid century standard, but Colbert shockingly shows off her legs and signs those divorce papers. She’s a little too feisty to be a grandmother and the way these men – who are actually younger than she is – fight for her affection feels awkward. The misogynistic dialogue is also too of the time casual, with men discussing the legalities of beating a woman while gambling on horses instead of paying their alimony. This script is perhaps meant to be witty as the battle of the sexes complaints go round and round, but the dry, back and forth meddling gets tiresome fast. Fortunately, young model Monroe adds a much needed spark with a great bathing suit, fun delivery, and a brief, but juicy zing. At 77 minutes, the attractions and rivals feel under cooked and on the nose – the score is largely silent and this kind of romantic charmer has been developed better with a more likeable cast elsewhere. Fans of the stars and fifties comedies, however, may yet enjoy the fun along with Wagner’s commentary and the bemusing period newsreel featurettes.

About the Premiere Collection set

Certainly it’s understandable that not every Marilyn Monroe film has been included here – namely less quality fair such as Hometown Story or Clash by Night or even well done, but minimal Marilyn fair such as The Asphalt Jungle. However, it is very surprising that River of No Return and The Prince and the Showgirl are absent from the Premiere Collection. Granted there may be an MGM or Warner, non-Fox Studios technicality in place, but other non-Fox films are included and it is ironic that films where Monroe has one or two scenes are here over such starring roles. Fortunately, the features on the individual discs are retained – subtitles, commentaries, trailers, photo galleries, newsreels, restoration comparisons, and more. The streamlined box also has a pleasant design with three separate volumes folding out to create fun Marilyn centerfolds. I was apprehensive in purchasing the Premiere Collection online after hearing this somewhat cardboard packaging caused damaged discs, but the $30 I lucked upon at Target was cheaper than Amazon and there have been no set problems. Despite any perceived selection or box set flaws, Monroe completists will delight in this convenient edition, and my Marilyn collecting sister probably knows what her next gift is going to be! 


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