"DO YOU want to have a loveless marriage?"
"Yes, because if a girl's worrying all the time about the money she doesn't have, how can she ever settle down and fall in love?"
"Has it ever occurred to you that some people just don't care about money?"
"Stop now, we're talking seriously."
So goes one of the many exchanges between Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in the 1953 20th Century-Fox musical comedy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (A friend of mine recently gifted me with a dazzling DVD of this delicious slice of cinema. The winter weather drags on, I watch movies at home!)
•BASED on the Anita Loos book, "Blondes" had been big on Broadway with Carol Channing and a terrific score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin.
For Monroe onscreen, it solidified her burgeoning stardom in the role of a lifetime, the role indeed she was born to play. But it was seen as lightweight, transitory entertainment. Only one writer, Monroe's first serious biographer, Maurice Zolotow assessed the film's impact correctly: "Twenty years from now, the critics of the art-film quarterlies will discover that 'Blondes' was one of the excellent works of its time, for it was completely true to its genre. It crystallized a viewpoint, a style...it will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art and studied by scholars." History has sided with Zolotow.
Blondes remains Monroe's most totally entertaining film -- one that is free of the poignant semi-autobiographical bits that leaked into her later work. It is also the great Jane Russell's best. And a revelation in terms of director Howard Hawks, not known for his deft hand at musicals. (It ranks higher, in my opinion, than some of the strenuously "arty" musicals of MGM.)
•BLONDES tells the tale of two gorgeous best friends -- dreamy/wily blonde Lorelei Lee and majestic, realistic brunette Dorothy Shaw. Miss Lee seems blithely unaware of certain realities, but is smart as a whip when it comes to money, men who have money, and all the goodies and comforts cash can afford. Dorothy, on the other hand is a hothouse of lusty passion -- she wants "big muscles and red corpuscles" as she sings later in the movie's most startling number, set in a gymnasium -- Ain't There Anyone Here For Love. (Whatever Hawks' intention, it is homoerotic to the max!)
Lorelei is engaged to Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan) the scion to a fortune. His family disapproves. When plans fall through for the pair to sail off on the Ille de France for marriage and a honeymoon, Miss Lee declares she's going to Paris. "With or without Mr.Esmond. And when we're in Europe, where his father can't call him every five minutes, well..." Russell counters with, "Sometimes your brain amazes me." (In an earlier scene, MM plants a kiss on Noonan that puts him into a trance. Russell observes: "I don't know what you do, honey, unless you put Novocaine in your lipstick!"
The girls board the boat -- "Excuse me, is this the way to Europe, France?" inquires Lorelei -- and their adventures begin at breakneck pace. There's not a wasted moment, or a snappy comeback that doesn't hit home.
•I WON'T detail every sequence, but suffice to say, both ladies find male companionship. Dorothy scores a man, Ernie Malone, who has been secretly hired by Mr. Esmond's father to spy on Lorelei. (He is bland in the extreme -- Jane Russell deserved better!) Miss Lee tempts a lecherous married Lord, nicknamed "Piggy" (a delicious Charles Coburn.) She is entranced with his tales of diamond mines. When "Lady Piggy" shows up carrying a tiara in her purse, Lorelei is beside herself, trying to put it around her neck. "It goes on your head, lovey," advises Dorothy. "Ooohhhh! I just love finding new places to wear diamonds!" Lorelei gasps.
One of the film's choicest scenes has MM enticing the tiara away from Lord Beekman. She ends her plea -- "It's only fair I should have her tiara, because after all, she has you." Monroe looks wistfully into her lap. Every audience, from every era, applauds. (Give her the tiara -- you don't want that adorable girl to cry!)
Later, Dorothy barges in on Piggy and Lorelei, sending the old roué scurrying. "What were you two doing in here? You weren't doing anything that wouldn't look good in a photograph, something you wouldn't want Mr. Esmond to see?"
"No. Oh, my goodness, yes. You see, Piggy was telling me about Africa. They have these snakes called pythons. And it seems, a python can grab a goat, and kill it, by just squeezing it to death."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Well, Piggy was being the python and I was the goat."
"Don't worry, Piggy won't tell anyone he was being a python."
"He won't have to. Because just around the time Piggy was squeezing the goat, Mr. Ernie Malone was taking pictures through that porthole."
"The National Geographic magazine!"
•SOON, the girls are broke in Paris -- Ernie Malone having turned in his pictures -- and are back to being showgirls.
Now it is time for Marilyn Monroe to reach the apogee of her career, her life, even. She performs Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend. Choreographer Jack Cole remarked years later: "Marilyn was a musical person. That is, she loved to sing and sang very, very well. But she couldn't dance."
No matter, she had the great Gwen Verdon dancing off-screen to help her and Russell. Cole works with what Marilyn could do. Real dancers lift and carry her from position to position. It is a grand illusion -- she looks like a polished dancer. See this number and you realize why Marilyn captured the world, in her pink satin gown, shimmying and strutting and placing her fingertips just so, on the fabled bosom. (A gesture that would become an MM trademark.) She is a blazing fireworks display, in her first -- and best! -- "goddess" moment.
It all ends well, with Monroe delivering her manifesto to Mr. Esmond's father: "A man being rich is like a girl being pretty. You might not marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"
•NO MENTION of Blondes can exist without crediting the flagrant skin-tight creations of designer William Travilla, especially those worn by MM. (Russell, who had been borrowed from RKO for a fortune, had top billing, but this was Monroe's film. Jane was aware and cooperative -- she never overplays, or steps on a line or tries to invade MM's key light. And she doesn't mind being dressed -- in comparison to Monroe -- rather drably.)
The Technicolor is blazing, Hawks directs with robust, masculine energy and never, ever has Marilyn been paired so well on screen. Forget Thelma and Louise -- Lorelei and Dorothy are the cinema's chummiest girlfriends. One might even say the towering, lantern-jawed Russell was Monroe's best leading man!
•VERY few of Marilyn's films have aged well. Often, she is the best thing in them, the only reason to watch the movie: Bus Stop...The Prince and the Showgirl...The Seven Year Itch. Blondes stands alone as a movie with quick pacing, fabulous performances by every actor, and two stars at their zenith.
Oh, I know some of you will say "What about Some Like It Hot?" Yes, it's a brilliant script, yes Tony Curtis and (especially) Jack Lemmon are terrific, and yes -- MM's Sugar Kane is funny, human, wounded -- a wary Lorelei after her divorce from Mr. Esmond, if you care to link the characters! It is a brilliant, more subtle performance.
But if you simply want to see girls having fun, and watch Marilyn at her most confident -- and at her sublime physical peak -- go straight to Gentleman Prefer Blondes.