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Monday, March 13, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe

I'm kicking a week-long Marilyn Monroe marathon with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film which features, courtesy of the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number, the second most iconic moment in Marilyn Monroe's film career (the first being the grate in The Seven Year Itch, naturally). Starring Monroe and Jane Russell as two little girls from Little Rock, one of whom is out to close the deal by marrying her wealthy suitor, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a delightful comedy that adheres to the principle of K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple, Stupid. The plot is about as straightforward as it comes, even when the potential twists are right there waiting to be used, and the pacing is zippy, as befitting a film from the expert hands of Howard Hawks, but perhaps the most surprising thing about this comedy is how generally unobjectionable its gender politics are. It's amazing that a 64 year old film about a woman trying to land a rich husband can manage to do so much better in terms of depicting women than many studio films released today.

Russell and Monroe star are Dorothy and Lorelai, respectively, a pair of showgirls, the latter of whom has just become engaged to Gus (Tommy Noonan), the heir of a wealthy family. Lorelai and Gus have made plans to marry in France, but his family has objected to the idea of Gus marrying a woman they assume to be of ill-repute and they have stepped in to prevent the union from taking place. Lorelai boards a ship for France anyway, the intention being for her and Gus to meet up there later, after he's had a chance to smooth things out a bit with his family, and with Dorothy accompanying Lorelai as her chaperone, a decision that Gus immediately regrets as he watches Dorothy make quick friends with the Olympic team that is also travelling on the boat. During the crossing Lorelai befriends Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), the owner of a diamond mine, and Dorothy realizes that another passenger, Malone (Elliott Reid), is a private detective who has been hired by Gus' family to get proof that Lorelai is unworthy, which he does by getting photos of Lorelai and Beekman in a situation that is innocent in context, but looks bad in a still image.

The crossing, which features the kind of "let's feature a singing number just because we can" interludes that classic Hollywood movies used to incorporate so easily into their narratives, as well as romantic entanglements and misunderstandings and light intrigue, could well have made up the whole story, but here only takes us to about the mid-way point, with the remainder of the story playing out in France, as Lorelai and Dorothy find themselves stranded without a penny and then pull themselves up and find a revue where they can perform and make some money, and where the events on the ship catch up to them in ways that affect their romantic lives and potentially their freedom when the police get involved. None of it is treated particularly seriously, nor does it need to be. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is never less than light on its feet, with the plot acting as a secondary concern which exists primarily to set up and give context to the jokes, and to connect the songs. In fact, so secondary is the plot to what's going on that a revelation is made during the crossing which could have swiftly resolved the third act crisis, but which is instead left behind with the boat and never mentioned again (which sort of begs the question about why it's there in the first place).

Ultimately, that doesn't really matter as, like its two heroines, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is just here to have a good time and despite (or perhaps because of) it's thin plot, it's aged pretty well as a piece of entertainment. What's most surprising about it is that even though it might be described as a film about a couple of gold diggers (though in effect it's really just Lorelai) trying to land rich husbands, complete with an entire song dedicated to the love of material things sung first by Monroe and then later revisited by Russell, it's actually far less insulting in its depiction of women than some films made today. For one thing, Lorelai isn't portrayed as mercenary so much as practical, describing her philosophy thus: "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?" Overall, there's a sweetness to her character and her affection for Gus is genuine, even if he had to meet a certain financial criteria in order to get on her radar. For another thing, the friendship between Lorelai and Dorothy is a lot more sincere that you often see in films today. They actually like and support each other, they don't end up divided over competing for some man or another, and they're ride or die for each other when one is in a jam. It's bizarrely refreshing, particularly given the age of the film, that it's central relationship is the one between Dorothy and Lorelai, with their love interests being afterthoughts in comparison.

In terms of Monroe's career overall, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is part of a trio of films from 1953 (the other two being Niagara and How to Marry a Millionaire) that elevated her from the cusp of stardom into the strata of bona fide movie stardom. Her screen persona as a woman who is as dim as she is beautiful became firmly established with this film, though depending on one's perspective of Monroe's career as a whole that may not be considered a good thing. As successful as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was in 1953 and to the legacy of Monroe are a performer, perhaps the best thing that can be said about it is that it's terrifically watchable now. It's not the best comedy that Monroe ever made (Some Like It Hot is tough competition), but it's pretty damn entertaining even today.

Next Up: How to Marry a Millionaire

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