Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Now for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the story of two alarmingly well-endowed performers who cross the great ocean to Paris, transfix Olympic athletes, a private detective, an old man who owns a diamond mine, and a millionaire’s son. And just about every other male they happen to run across.
We’ve got Jane Russell, who shines as practical, wise-cracking Dorothy to Marilyn Monroe’s breathy but calculating Lorelei. It’s directed by the great Howard Hawks (Barbary Coast) and co-stars Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier, The Lady Eve) as Piggy, the old-man-who-ought-to-know-better-but-falls-for-Marilyn’s-charms-anyway.
The film is based on the musical (1949) of the same name, (which starred Carol Channing as Lorelei), which in turn was based on Anita Loos’ novel (1925), which is also very enjoyable but has a sharper edge than the movie.
Darryl Zanuck, production chief at 20th Century Fox, originally purchased the rights with Betty Grable in mind for the role of Lorelei. Grable had been a hugely popular star in the 1940s, but by 1953 her popularity was waning. Marilyn Monroe’s star power, however, was rising fast. Plus, Grable’s salary to make this movie would have been about $150,000, while Monroe’s asking price was about $18,000. So Monroe played Lorelei.
Ironically, although Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is now indelibly linked with Monroe, at the time she was a fairly new actress and the studio was concerned about her ability to carry the film. So they borrowed Jane Russell from RKO to serve as box office insurance in case Monroe faltered.
It was a smart move; Russell was relaxed and confident where Monroe was neurotic and terribly insecure, and they have excellent chemistry together. Howard Hawks had worked with Monroe on Monkey Business, a 1952 comedy starring Cary Grant (Notorious, To Catch a Thief, The Awful Truth) and Ginger Rogers (The Gay Divorcee, Primrose Path), with Monroe as Grant’s secretary. Hawks had not enjoyed dealing with Monroe’s insecurities nor her drama coach, Natasha Lytess, and he was not thrilled about working with her again on this film.
After each “Cut!”, Monroe would look to Lytess, not Hawks, for approval. If the drama coach thought Monroe should do another take, Monroe would demand one, even if Hawks was happy with what they’d already captured. You can see how a director would hate this situation. Hawks banned Lytess from the set, but then Monroe refused to leave her dressing room…so the drama coach was allowed back.
Fortunately, Russell played much the same role off-screen as she does on; that is, she gained Monroe’s trust and helped calm and guide her, which made things go much easier on the set. And Russell called Monroe “Blondie,” which is adorable.
However it happened, Hawks and his team captured wonderful performances from both women. They’re great together: Monroe’s habit of widening her eyes in sultry power or vulnerable confusion and her breathy, half-surprised “thank you ever so” goes well with Russell’s straightforward, confident delivery.
Although Monroe is dazzling in her own unique way, I enjoy Russell’s tender cynicism and brutally honest humor more each time I see it. There’s a wicked gleam in her eye that says she’s in on every joke.
Dorothy’s looking for love and fun, regardless of net worth, and sometimes she finds Lorelei’s quest for millionaires and her calculating naiveté a bit exasperating.
One of my favorite lines is Dorothy’s response when Lorelei and her fiancé Gus announce they are getting married: “Well, I don’t know about you Gus, but I always figured Lorelei would end up with the Secretary of the Treasury.”
The musical numbers, colorful, sparkly costumes, ocean liner setting, and Hollywood’s version of Parisian hotels, cafes, and court rooms certainly don’t hurt. It’s a glorious 1950s musical.
We begin with the song “Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” which tells the tale of two women who leave Little Rock for New York after their hearts are broken by callous men…but this heartbreak ends up as a blessing in disguise, because the women meet much better, richer men elsewhere!
Here’s a sample lyric: “For a kid from the small street, I did very well on Wall Street. Though I never owned a share of stock!”
Dorothy and Marilyn sing and (sort-of) dance, and do a lot of strutting (“like Jell-o on springs,” as Jack Lemmon says of Monroe’s walk in Some Like it Hot, at about the 2:00 mark) in gorgeous costumes by William Travilla, who designed most of Monroe’s movie costumes.
Neither Russell nor Monroe were dancers, so choreographer Jack Cole (Kismet) and his assistant Gwen Verdon devised what I call “pseudo-dances” composed of gestures, strutting walks, and posing.
Dorothy and Lorelei walk up and down stairs, they put one arm out or up, they go sideways, and there’s a lot of hands-to-heart/necklace motions. I suspect they are drawing the audience’s attention to their busts/faces with that last one, or Jack Cole thought that if they kept their elbows in and hands anchored it looked cleaner. There they are rehearsing.
They shimmy as much as they can, but with their endowments and those costumes, which they’re basically poured into, it seems that a fragile shake was about as much as Monroe and Russell could give. A few careful hip pops add spice. Lorelei sings to a special someone in the audience, Gus (Tommy Noonan.)How cool is this photo of the two stars taking a break on set? Scuffed soles and all.
Nice one, Dorothy. Lorelei is, of course, correct. Gus proposes and they hatch a scheme to get married in Paris to avoid Gus’ father, who doesn’t approve of Lorelei.
Gus begs Lorelei to avoid scandal on the transatlantic trip, and sends Dorothy along to act as chaperone. Hit me, Dorothy: “The chaperone’s job is to see that nobody else has any fun. Nobody chaperones the chaperone. That’s why I’m so right for this job.”She’s especially excited when she learns that the entire U.S. Olympic team is on the same ship. The male athletes are pretty thrilled when they see Dorothy and Lorelei, too. One muses dreamily: “Say, suppose the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Which one of them do you save from drowning?” His teammate supplies: “Those girls couldn’t drown.”
Look at their gorgeous traveling suits:
It’s probably easier to travel in jeans or even yoga pants, but damn it, I wish that for at least one trip traveling suits were de rigueur. With a hat, gloves, muff, and capelet; the whole deal.
Dorothy heads to the gym to see the Olympic athletes, all inexplicably garbed in tiny beige trunks with a black stripe along the hem. They give her the bad news: they have to be in bed by 9PM each night! And they have to spend most of their time training! Horrors!
Once the athletes have performed enough wacky calisthenics and gymnastic feats, the athletes dive over Dorothy into the pool. But one of them accidentally clipped Jane Russell as he launched himself into the water:
This wasn’t planned, and they re-shot the scene to get a “dry” version. But they ended up using the “wet” take in the movie, and it’s quite amusing. You can watch the whole fabulous, perfect mess here.
Meanwhile, Lorelei meets Piggy (Charles Coburn) the owner of a diamond mine.When she focuses her prodigious charm on dear old Piggy, Dorothy chimes in with: “Oh, honey! Lay off!” But Lorelei can’t, or won’t, or just doesn’t.
Lorelei decides that she needs that tiara and becomes good buddies with Piggy. Meanwhile, Dorothy is falling for a man named Ernie Malone (Elliot Reed).
And they’re doing it all in extremely glamorous attire. Travilla sure had a flair for dressing Monroe and Russell! I saw this Ella Zahlan dress on pinterest: looks like a combination of Jane Russell’s black cross-neck evening gown and the “Little Rock” dress! Nothing is new.
But Ernie turns out to be a private detective hired by Gus’ father to keep an eye on Lorelei, and, fingers crossed! catch her doing something unseemly.
He takes some photographs of Piggy embracing Lorelei in her cabin, though it’s all very innocent. Piggy was showing Lorelei what a python can do to a goat…all very innocent, indeed.
Dorothy and Lorelei know they need to get those photographs, and they’re confident that they can. “I’ll get them,” says Lorelei. “How?” asks Dorothy. “He’s a man, isn’t he?” says that dangerous blonde.
Dorothy chimes in later: “If we can’t empty his pockets between us, then we’re not worthy of the name Woman.” Turns out their charm doesn’t work on Ernie, but a potent cocktail with several sleeping pills does the trick.
They arrive in Paris, and naturally Lorelei wears a beret. But things fizzle fast because Ernie tells Gus and his father about what he saw, and Gus cancels the girls’ line of credit. Oh, and Lorelei sort of took that tiara, so Lady Beekman is not very happy with her…
Lorelei is bummed about losing Gus (and his money), and thinks it’s terribly unfair that she has to give back the tiara, which she swears was a gift from Piggy. Dorothy is bummed that Ernie betrayed her best friend, and her heart is a teensy bit broken.
Their dashed hopes are charmingly expressed in the song “When Love Goes Wrong,” performed at a Parisian cafe, or at least Hollywood’s vision of one. I keep expecting Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron to come dancing through.
They get to work, and Gus comes to see the show.
He tries to tell Lorelei he is sorry, but she refuses to listen.
Perhaps the cunning Dutch cap, rose bust guard, and rose bunny-tail distract her. Unfortunately, we never see the number the girls just performed, though the costumes were used in promotional materials for the movie.
After Lorelei slams the door in Gus’ face, Dorothy tells him, “You know, if you really want to get upset, go out and see the number she’s going to do next!” What’s next? Why one of the most famous musical numbers of all time and Monroe’s trademark: “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
It’s less famous as being the song that my little sister and I performed for our middle school talent show. We wore dresses we’d found at antique and thrift stores, and we did more dancing than Monroe does in her version.
You might be familiar with the pink dress and the diamonds from images of Monroe or from Madonna’s (or many other’s) homage, but there is a whole lot more going on throughout the number.
For example, the curtains open to reveal a red stage, stairs, and backdrop with men in tuxes dancing with women in huge pink dresses beneath a chandelier made out of scantily clad women. With a bondage theme?
Marilyn sits with her back to the audience as pink skirts whirl around her, and the bondage ladies hold up the candelabra base of the chandelier. Jane Russell got to cavort with a bunch of nearly naked men; now it’s Marilyn Monroe’s turn to go wild.
The pink dress is now iconic, but her original costume was a skimpy Vegas showgirl-esque sheer thing dripping with rhinestones.
But during production of this movie, word got out about Marilyn Monroe’s nude Playboy spread, and the studio decided that Monroe should perform this number in a costume less likely to remind people of those scandalous photos. So Travilla whipped up the pink dress to replace the rhinestone-and-feather getup he’d originally designed.
Back to the number: Marilyn is hounded across the stage and up and down the stairs by men holding hearts. She slaps them with her fan and sings “No No No!”
At first, the studio did not want to use Monroe’s real voice for this movie, but eventually they did. She and Russell sing all their own songs. Except for these high “No No No” notes that open “Diamonds.”
So whose voice do you hear when it’s not Monroe’s? Why, it’s Marni Nixon, who I guarantee you’ve heard even if you don’t know it.
Marni Nixon had a gorgeous soprano voice and dubbed most of Audrey Hepburn’s songs in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr’s in The King and I, and Natalie Wood’s in West Side Story, among many others. Nixon sings the high “No’s” and the line: “these rocks don’t lose their shape” for Monroe in this song. But otherwise it’s Monroe.
And it’s definitely her “dancing.” It’s more like strutting, moving her shoulders, and gesturing, but she makes it work. She vanquishes the men chasing her with love, and begins her manifesto about how it’s diamonds that really matter–they last long after love fades.
She’s magnificent against that red backdrop in her pink dress with the black trimmed bow, the matching gloves, diamonds layered at her throat and wrists, and that famous blonde hair positively glowing.
You can watch it here, and you should. For cultural literacy, if nothing else. And to see those stocking-faced women in their pouffy pink gowns, and those ladies in black scraps strapped to a chandelier.
He’s impressed by her reasoning.
This movie is often held up as a “female buddy movie” because it is one of those rare films showcasing female friendship. And it’s true, Lorelei and Dorothy are friends from beginning to end; Dorothy never steals Lorelei’s men, and Lorelei never pushes Dorothy down the stairs so that she can be the star. Men pass in and out of the story, but their friendship remains constant, and far more memorable than their relationships with men.
It’s also cool how both Dorothy and Lorelei are in control. Lorelei’s unabashed gold-digger drive, and both women’s nearly cartoonish proportions might make it seem as though they are just floating through life dependent on men, but it’s not that simple.
The movie shows that Lorelei and Dorothy know exactly how to use their charms, looks, and brains to get what they want, and it is usually the men who are manipulated and used, not the women. There are some wonderful jokes about their power throughout the movie.
Apparently Monroe suggested this gem: “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” And when Dorothy finds out that Ernie has the photographs of Lorelei, she says “We’ll put on our warpaint and go to work.” They aren’t wandering through life being taken advantage of, that’s for sure.
When Lorelei’s plans do fall through, she and Dorothy just get back on stage and resume their career–they don’t get consumption and die in a garret because their men left. So that’s positive.
Two years later Jane Russell starred in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, but besides the title it has very little to do with this movie. The studio tried to get Russell and Monroe back together in another film, but it fell through, so this is the only time they worked together. After this movie, Monroe didn’t need “box office insurance.”