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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

In her relatively brief career (12 years from her featured coming-out moment in All About Eve until her death in 1962), Marilyn Monroe played all sorts of sex kittens - scheming, implausibly innocent, unexpectedly wounded - but the one that hews closest to the idea that has come down to the modern day as the quintessential Monroe character, I think, is Lorelei Lee, the inordinately appealing gold-digger of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. We could come up with all sorts of reasons why this is the case, but what it comes down to is simple: this was an unusually perfect marriage of star, scenario, dialogue, director, and music - we could say on the one hand that Lorelei remains such a vivid, well-known character because Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is so much better than the bulk of Monroe's starring comedies, and then could say on the other hand that it's owing to Monroe's remarkably self-possessed performance that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ended up so good. You can't have one without the other; I enjoy Betty Grable quite a lot, but if 20th Century Fox's immediate impulse to cast her in the movie had been followed through, I think we'd have a much smaller classic on our hands, one that would be remembered largely as a highlight of Grable's fading-out period and a distinctly minor effort by director Howard Hawks. Instead, we get the film that produced one of the two most iconic images in the career of one of Hollywood's most iconic stars: Monroe, wearing a searing pink dress with a gigantic bow and gloves to match, decked out in diamonds, and singing a song about how no man has ever brought her to orgasm the way that expensive jewelry can.*

But for all that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is regarded today as they've been regarding it pretty much since 1953, I'd wager, as a Marilyn delivery system, writing it off as just a star vehicle, even a particularly great star vehicle, would be a horrible mistake. For one, it was a Howard Hawks picture, and there are only a small number of American directors whose name should automatically command more respect and attention than his. And while I have just diminished our alternate-reality version of the picture as "minor Hawks", I am firstly not certain that such a thing even exists, and if it did, it would not include Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "Spectacularly uncharacteristic Hawks", perhaps. For if there is one thing that you can rely on in a Hawks film, it's a strong sense of masculinity - not machismo, like one stumbles across in John Ford from time to time, but rather, a strong sense of how male-ness expresses itself in various contexts. Even his well-regarded development of inordinately strong female characters - Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, or Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, to name just three - comes largely by causing those women to act as heterosexual men who happen to have vaginas and fall in love with other heterosexual men (no accident that Russell's Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, to my mind inarguably the best female role in a Hawks movie, was a man in the source play).

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, though, focuses on a pair of female protagonists (to my knowledge, the single example of this arrangement anywhere in Hawks, who overwhelmingly favored single men or a man/woman duo), who are voraciously and unapologetically female; we could call them parodies of a man's worst fears about sexually aggressive women, if they weren't depicted with such intense affection at every turn. Diamond-obsessed predator Lorelei and her sexually insatiable best friend Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) sound like anti-feminist monsters, but if there's even a single moment in the movie where Hawks or the Charles Lederer screenplay invites us to sit in judgment over them, I don't know where it is. On the contrary, they're paired against uniformly feckless, unlikable antagonists, whose attempts to tame or even counterbalance the girls' selfish energies are consistently depicted as part of why they're so exorbitantly bland and contemptible. This is the film that lets Monroe sing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in a production number clearly designed to be the most memorable part of the film, with its retina-scarring combination of blood red backdrops, men in jet black suits, and Marilyn's glowing pink dress - a recklessly bold color combination that sounds like a nightmare until you're watching it, and it's the most gorgeously poppy, eye-catching thing you could imagine - and hands Russell the dumbfounding "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" which... no, I need to give that number its very own paragraph.

Movies objectifying the female body are everywhere: musical numbers in which a small army of barely-dressed girls flutter about, cooing over the male singer appear in just about every musical made from the start of the sound era to the end of M-G-M's Freed unit in the early '60s. Movies that objectify men are a good deal rarer, especially when they're as overt about as the "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" number, in which Dorothy wanders around the gym where a team of U.S. Olympians are training, wearing virtually nothing at all but buff shorts with little black stripes around the leg, making it look at a glance like they're nude except for tight little bands around their thighs. And Russell makes no effort to hide her pleasure at staring at these men, indulging in startlingly crude jokes for a 1953 movie (or rather the jokes aren't crude, Russell's leering delivery is). I can think of no analogue for this number anywhere in the studio system; if the same sequence, unchanged, was 25 years younger, you wouldn't hesitate a second in assigning it to the emergent queer cinema, excepting that Hawks was plainly heterosexual. And yet here we are, with one of the most unashamedly look-at-the-sexy-beefcakes scenes in any movie that I can name. It's damned weird, is all, easily the strangest moment in a film that is defined by how much its gender politics are different from everything else in the filmmaker's career.

But that, I guess, is just a sign of how committed the filmmaker was to furthering his characters' point of view, and doing a fantastic job of it: Lorelei and Dorothy are two of the smartest, funniest, strongest female characters of the 1950s, not one of the better decades in American cinema for positive depictions of strong women. This is obvious in the case of Dorothy, who gets nearly all of the best lines and certainly all of the most overt sexuality; but I think it's easy to overlook just how competent and smart Monroe's Lorelei is. One of the things we know about the actress's career is that she had to be "redeemed" in later years by critics who saw more than just a bubble-headed blonde floozy in her typical character; it is surprising, on the evidence of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, that anybody needed to have that pointed out to them. Lorelei isn't dumb; she plays at being dumb to get her way, and even admits as much, in so many words, in the film's penultimate scene. But there are countless little ways leading up to that where the actress gives us us a sneak peek at Lorelei's rather savvy manipulation of everybody else's expectations of her; little sly moments when nobody is looking and she drops the dumb blonde pretense entirely, for a split second (my favorite such moment is during the early number "Bye Bye Baby", as Dorothy entertains a roomful of athletes, Lorelei pulls her wet noodle fiancé out of the room to say goodbye privately, and you can see the steely, even sharklike look in her eyes when she knows that the moment is exactly right to take him aside). This isn't a woman who serves as a repository for men's fantasies; she is a women who permits herself to be a fantasy object because she knows it will get her all the things she wants, which is undoubtedly closer to Monroe's actual personality than the sexy/sad Marilyn dynamic presently favored by pop theorists. The great thing is that the movie not only recognises this, it praises her for it and rewards her - she does get everything she wants, and we are thrilled for her when everything works out so darn perfectly.

Above and beyond all of this, though, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes survives, and remains one of Monroe's best films and the high point of the 11-year gap between Hawks's last two masterpieces, Red River and Rio Bravo, for the eminently straightforward and nontheoretical reason that is is incredibly goddamn funny. More than any American - perhaps more than anyone, period - Hawks was a consummate master of different genres, but I myself have always valued his comedies most, finding his naturalistic treatment of dialogue and his fantastic pacing to result in some of the most flawlessly-timed gags in cinema history. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is not an achievement at the level of His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby or Twentieth Century, but it's still a great comedy, between Monroe's breathy, knowing idiocies (it is the funniest performance in her career), and Russell's tart, innuendo-laden outbursts, and the tight pacing of all of it: at 91 minutes, it's not long and it wasn't by 1953 standards, but it still jets by at an unflagging pace until its saggy courtroom climax. Anyway, it is clever and stinging and playful, it has two fantastic central performances and cheery, glitzy Technicolor to make it all go down smoother - what more can one want from a grand, dizzy entertainment than that?

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