Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 28 of the first edition hardback, Ebert lists films he recalls seeing in the theater with his parents. In that passage he remembers preparing to clap his hands over his eyes during a screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes because the local church paper reported that the film was “racy”.
What Ebert had to say in his review:Ebert never officially reviewed the film, but he mentioned in his memorial blog post for director Howard Hawks that “Marilyn Monroe was never more sexy or more vulnerable than she was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
From what I gather, the common wisdom at the time when Marilyn Monroe was on top of the world was that the actress wasn’t necessarily super-talented, just beautiful enough to get by on looks & charm alone. There’s no denying that the camera loved Monroe. She was a gorgeous woman & it showed in every vivacious frame of celluloid. However, the idea that she was all bosom & no brains is selling her talents insultingly short. Monroe was not an airheaded bimbo of an actress; she was just remarkably adept at playing airheaded bimbos on screen. If she had been offered any other kind of role we might’ve seen a completely different side of her personality, but throughout her career she seemed to be eternally typecast.
In a lot of ways Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘s gold-digging showgirl Lorelei Lee is the ultimate Marilyn Monroe character. The Howard Hawks musical often positions Lee’s intelligence vs. her breathtaking beauty as the butt of a joke. However, under that airheaded blonde surface lurks a cunning schemer, shrewd in her dealings with men of various levels of wealth. As Lee puts it, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” The breathy, aggressively delicate performance Monroe brings to he screen as Lee suggests that the character is a pushover for any “gentleman” with a sizeable wallet, but that stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Lorelei Lee might be in desperate search of a sugar daddy throughout Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but that search is a keenly orchestrated attempt at obtaining lifelong financial stability, a goal she’s willing to manipulate, drug, and seduce an endless procession of male suitors to achieve if necessary (or convenient). Much like Monroe, Lee is a severely underestimated talent with the brains to take full advantage of every opportunity her bosom affords her. They’re a perfect match in terms of Old Hollywood typecasting, whether or not Monroe had been asked to play Lee’s exact role in countless other works.
With all of this talk about Monroe’s particular screen presence, you’d think that she were the protagonist in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, hut the truth is that she’s the protagonist’s scene-stealing best friend. From the opening scene were Monroe & Jane Russell enter the film as a Vegas-style showgirl act decked out in Technicolor sequins, it’s all too apparent who the real star is here. Even Monroe knew she as far more than a supporting actress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, responding to an interviewer who asked her how she felt not being the film’s star with the retort, “Well, whatever I am I’m still the blonde.” She’s not wrong. If there’s any question who’s in charge in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, just look to the painfully unfunny scene in which Russell bleaches her hair & impersonates Monroe on the witness stand of a larceny trial. Without Monroe’s inherent magnetism, Lee’s eccentricity is downright annoying. It’s also telling that nearly every scene featuring Russell’s “protagonist” concerns Lorelei Lee’s search for a rich husband. This movie is 100% The Marilyn Monroe Show.
One of my favorite things about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is that it completely avoids committing the morally bankrupt atrocity I just indulged in all last paragraph: pitting its two female leads against each other. Despite what the film’s title (or even more so the title of its novelized sequel But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes) suggests, the plot of this film does not concern women in competition. One woman chases lust & a good time. The other chases money. They both find true love at the end of their journeys (as all characters in comedy musicals inevitably do) without ever once conspiring against each other. They consistently have each other’s backs in a world where men are looking to take advantage of them at every turn. Plot-wise, its depiction of showgirls scheming to marry rich might not seem like the end-all-be-all of cinematic feminism, but the two leads’ friendly love & support is surprisingly refreshing within that framework.
In his memorial piece for Howard Hawks, Ebert mentions that the writer/director/producer, who had a hand in iconic works as varied as The Thing from Another World & Bringing Up Baby, never consciously aimed for Art in his films & was often surprised when people found it there. The songs aren’t particularly great in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which was adapted from the stage musical). The sets can be downright laughably cheap. Characters often fall into pathetic caricature, such as a wealthy diamond mine owner with a monocle who exclaims “By George!” constantly & refers to himself as “Piggy”. Still, despite Hawks’s no frills approach to crowd pleasing cinema, there’s plenty of Art lurking in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes if you know where to look for it. An early musical number featuring a men’s Olympic gymnastics team is like a classic beefcake photo shoot come to vivid life. I appreciated a shot where Lorelei mentally replaces Piggy’s head with a gigantic diamond. Most impressive all is an the film’s centerpiece: Monroe’s iconic rendition of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. This musical number is stunning with or without narrative context. Its stark red backdrop, BDSM-themed chandeliers, suicide humor, and diamond fetishization all amount to a singularly memorable aesthetic that puts the rest of the film’s relatively flat visual representation to shame. Whether or not Hawks was looking for “Art” in his Gentlemen Prefer Blondes adaptation, he found a bottomless wealth of it in that scene alone.
In case you couldn’t tell by now, it’s Monroe’s performance that elevates Gentlemen Prefer Blondes above by-the-numbers musical comedy mundanity. Ebert’s not wrong when he says that she was at her sexiest & most vulnerable in the film. There’s a whole lot of Monroe reflected in Lorelei Lee (both physically & personality wise). Whenever she drops the gold-digging bimbo pretense to reveal her true, shrewd self, there’s something truly personal that plays out on the screen. Lines like “It’s men like you who have made me the way I am. If you loved me at all you’d feel sorry for the terrible trouble I’ve been through instead of holding it against me” cut through her faux airheaded persona like a hot knife through butter. This probably isn’t Monroe’s best picture (for my money, that would be Some Like It Hot), but it very well might be her most personal & that dynamic makes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes much more than the empty trifle it could’ve been without her.
Roger’s Rating: N/A
Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)
Next Lesson: Bwana Devil (1952)