Thursday, September 27, 2012

gentlemen prefer blondes

Here's another essay from the longer-format piece I'm working on about Marilyn Monroe.
Lorelei Lee, holding a tiara, "How do you put it around your neck?"
Dorothy Shaw, "You don't, honey, it goes on your head!"
Lorelei Lee, "You must think I was born yesterday."
Dorothy Shaw, "Well, sometimes there's just no other possible explanation."

In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the viewer might be tempted to side with Jane Russell's character Dorothy Shaw's befuddlement at some of the things that Marilyn Monroe's character Lorelei Lee says. But Lorelei is amazingly successful at just about everything she tries to do. Like getting a rich old man she has just met on a transatlantic ocean liner, who happens to own a diamond mine, Sir Francis "Piggy" Beekman (Charles Coburn), to hand over her his wife's diamond tiara. Or convince her dim-bulb of a fiance Gus Esmond's (Tommy Noonan) rich father that she's not after his son's money.
Esmond Sr., "Have you got the nerve to tell me you don't want to marry my son for his money?"
Lorelei Lee, "It's true."
Esmond Sr., "Then what do you want to marry him for?"
Lorelei Lee, "I want to marry him for YOUR money."
.... 
Lorelei Lee, "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?"

Lorelei and Gus were planning to elope via steamship to France, but Esmond Sr. forbade Gus from going on the trip. Lorelei was upset at how easily Gus gave in to his father, and decided she would go abroad anyway, with best pal Dorothy.

Based on Anita Loos's hugely successful book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the movie spoofs dumb blondes, gold diggers, horny old men, and sex in general. Lorelei was a flapper when Loos first wrote about her in Harper's Bazaar in the early 1920s. Her amusing stories about Lorelei and Dorothy spawned a book in 1925, a 1928 silent movie (now lost), a 1949 Broadway musical adaptation starring Carol Channing, and the 1953 Howard Hawks film starring Monroe and Russell.

Loos was not the first author to write about a "dumb blonde," but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes certainly popularized the stereotype.
Studies show that people may presume blonds are not only less serious-minded but also less intelligent than brunettes. This is reflected in the 'dumb blond' jokes that became part of American culture during the 1900s. The concept arose in Europe. The original 'dumb blond' may have been a French courtesan named Rosalie Duthe, who developed a reputation for being beautiful but empty-headed and incapable of carrying on a conversation [who] was satirized in a one-act play, Les Curiosites de la Foire, which debuted in Paris in 1775. The dumb blond character resurfaced in 1925 in the form of Lorelei Lee, a fair-hared young woman searching for a rich husband in Gentleman Prefer Blondes [the novel by Anita Loos.] — Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, by Victoria Sherrow
Even brunette bombshell Jane Russell gets to don a wig and to play a dumb blonde for a while in the film. But these so-called dumb blondes aren't really dumb at all. Lorelei Lee has an amazing amount of confidence. She knows what she wants and she goes after it. She is considered a gold digger by everyone around her, including her best friend Dorothy, but Lorelei is much more than that. She is a pretty girl trying to fight against a system that expects the girl to wait for a man to choose her. Lorelei doesn't want to wait. She wants her career as an entertainer and she also wants to live the good life. Lorelei is not going to wait around for her boyfriend to decide to "forgive" her. She's going to go ahead and do what she wants, which includes traveling to Paris, flirting with a rich old man who might give her diamonds, and generally anything else that might come along that could be to her benefit.

Marilyn must have connected to the many parallels to her own life. Lorelei is a man magnet, but she also wants to be a success. Dorothy, on the other hand, seems to be along for the ride, wanting to have as much fun as possible.
“The chaperone's job is to make sure no one else has any fun. But nobody chaperones the chaperone. That's why I'm so right for this job.”
Are Lorelei and Dorothy shameless? Most definitely. But also independent women, something not too commonly seen in 1950s movies. So many of the romantic and sex comedies of the era specialized in plots featuring girls trying to trap guys, or guys trying to get hot-looking girls. Some of the films had humor, while some of them are just an excuse to showcase cheesecake or tease the audience with double entendres. These movies rarely took their characters beyond the wedding fadeout. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes follows the same formula, but there is something about the two girls' subversive behavior during 98 per cent of the movie that undermines the usual '50s rom-com blueprint.

Can we imagine Lorelei and Dorothy as happy contented housewives? Hardly. These two sassy gals would want to continue to work and perform, or at the very least frequent the sorts of nightclubs where they used to be headliners. But what would their new husbands think about such behavior? An honest sequel would feature two rich divorcees headed back to Paris for some fun and frolic. This dilemma was lived out in real life for Marilyn, who within a year of the release of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was married to Joe DiMaggio, who wanted her to give up her career and stay at home. And do what? Who did he think he married? Their marriage lasted nine months.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was Marilyn's first big success, her first starring role where she really stood out, and the audience took notice. Still just a contract player, Marilyn made far less money on this film than her costar Jane Russell, but you'd never know it from either lady's performance. They are best buddies and partners-in-crime throughout the film. The pay inequities didn't prevent them from forming a lifelong friendship after the film wrapped, either. The studio originally wanted to cast Betty Grable as Lorelei, but she would have, like Jane Russell, made $150,000 on the picture. Fox decided to go for a bargain with Marilyn, who only made $9,000 for the film. And Grable, a good sport, happily passed the "blonde torch" to her successor ("Honey, I've have mine. Go get yours.") They worked together later that year on How to Marry A Millionaire.


Marilyn is wearing a white version of the gown designed by Travilla that she wore in the "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Marilyn not only proved to the studio that she was box office, but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes became a testament to her brilliant comedic timing. She's very funny and steals every scene she's in. Marilyn had a winning combination of beauty and humor, something unusual for the typical blonde starlet of the day. The only other actor that comes to mind who shared these gifts in such abundance was her idol, Jean Harlow.

Only a few numbers, written by Jule Styne and Leo Robyn from the 1949 Broadway musical, made it into the movie: "Bye, Bye Baby," "[Two] Little Girls From Little Rock," and "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend." Two new songs, written by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, "When Love Goes Wrong" and "Anyone Here For Love?" were added. "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" is not only the highlight of the film, but has become the iconic Marilyn performance.
A kiss on the hand may be quite continental,
But diamonds are a girl's best friend.
A kiss may be grand, but it won't pay the rental on your humble flat.
Or help you at the automat.
Men grow cold as girls grow old, and we all lose our charms in the end.
But square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks won't lost their shape.
Diamonds are a girl's best friend. — Jule Styne and Leo Robyn

Marilyn's rendition of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" has been imitated often, most recently by pop songstresses Madonna and Kylie Minogue, but no one has ever come close to Marilyn's wit and star power. The star rehearsed with choreographer Jack Cole (who directed all of the musical numbers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) for more than three weeks to get everything just right. Like "Diamonds," all of the film's musical numbers are bright and bouncy and a joy to watch.
"Marilyn and I had never danced before; we were a pair of klutzes," Russell told Cole biographer Glenn Loney in Dance Magazine. "Jack was horrible to his own dancers, but with us, the two broads, he had the patience of Job. He would show us and show us and then turn us over to Gwen." (Gwen Verdon, Cole's protégée, was on the brink of Broadway fame as the high-kicking redhead dancer of Can-Can.) ... Russell said she fled several sessions in exhaustion while Monroe begged Cole and Verdon to continue into the night. — Los Angeles Times
Marilyn performs the number beautifully, and it became one of her most beloved moments on film. As successful as Cole's coaching had been, it is also undeniable that the amazing pink number she is wearing adds immeasurably to the scene. Designed by William Travilla, who had worked with Marilyn previously on Don't Bother to Knock, and continued to work with her on many more films and public appearances, the deceptively simple-looking pink sheath is a marvel of engineering, lined with black felt to maintain its shape and hug her voluptuous form.
Dorothy Shaw, "If we can't empty his pockets between us, then we're not worthy of the name 'Woman.'"
In 1953, the year Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released, Marilyn was all over the news and cinema. She was in a highly publicized relationship with recently retired Yankee slugger and superstar Joe DiMaggio. Her film Niagara came out in January. On June 26, she and Jane and Russell were invited to add their hand- and footprints to the cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles (The always humorous Marilyn reportedly joked that she should sit in the cement and Jane should lean forward). In July Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was in theaters and another splashy comedy, How to Marry a Millionaire, was released in November. She appeared on the cover of the first issue of Playboy in December 1953, and was named the Sweetheart of the Month for 1953. Inside the magazine was a nude photograph of Monroe, from her infamous nude calendar shoot, a potential scandal she had weathered with aplomb in March 1952, simply by admitting that as a struggling model and actress in 1949 she had needed the money, $50, to get her car out of hock.  The following year she won the Golden Globe's Henrietta Award: World Film Favorite Female for 1953. She also won the 1953 Photoplay Award for Most Popular Female Star.
[Lorelei is stuck trying to sneak out the porthole of a ship's cabin and is found by seven year-old] Henry Spofford III, "All right. I'll help you. I'll help you for two reasons."
Lorelei Lee, "Never mind the reasons. Just help me."
Henry Spofford III, "The first reason is I'm too young to be sent to jail. The second reason is you've got a lot of animal magnetism."

No matter how popular or beloved Marilyn's characterization of Lorelei was, when the film wrapped she was ready to move on. Marilyn wanted to be a star, but she also had more serious acting ambitions. As suited as she was to comedies and musicals, she feared being typecast. The two actresses were such a winning combination in the film it's a shame that they didn't get a chance to work together again. But the studio would never have conceived of Monroe and Russell (or Russell and Monroe, depending on billing) as a comedy team. Comedy was something men did. Women were cast for their beauty, or occasionally for a special ability, like the fabulous voice of Judy Garland.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of the most colorful and entertaining films of the '50s and of Monroe's career. Marilyn's portrayal of Lorelei Lee completely captures Anita Loos's bubble-headed but shrewd and lovable gold-digger.
Dorothy Shaw, "Honey, did it ever occur to you that some people just don't care about money?"
Lorelei Lee, "Please, we're talking serious here."

Images from Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans
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