Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #6 (of 200) :: No: A Girl is a Girl's Best Friend in Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

If I could sum up this raucous musical comedy in one word it would probably be "payload" -- of which our two headlining bombshells bump and wiggle and sing and quip to maximize the delivery for a resulting impact that is devastatingly awesome and then some. A Technicolor spin on the old Warner Gold Digger films of the 1930s, with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell taking over for Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) showcases our two starlets as friends to the end trying to snag the right sugar-daddy and avoid some wagging tongues and the private dick hired to shadow them while blasting their way through a succession of ever-escalating musical interludes.

This whole notion began as a novel penned by Anita Loos, who later adapted it into a play with Joseph Fields in 1928, and then a Broadway musical in 1948 with a score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin. With Carol Channing as the preferred Blonde, the show was a smashing success and opened a bidding war in Hollywood between Columbia's Harry Cohn, who wanted it for Judy Holiday, and 20th Century Fox's Daryl Zanuck, who hoped it would reignite the career of Betty Grable. Grable had campaigned hard for the role of Lorelei Lee, but Zanuck soon pushed her to the side, opening up the role for his latest blond bombshell, whose popularity was currently going through the roof.

Also of note (and one cannot discount the fact that) Monroe's salary would be a fraction of what Grable would cost. Top-billed Russell's paycheck was four times the amount of Monroe's, which officially opened a rift between the star and the mogul over contracts and assignments that would only get wider and worse until the whole thing blew up in 1955 and Monroe walked out on Zanuck and Fox altogether.

Despite the gap in pay, and the gossip columns beating the war drums for the expected battle between "The Bossum" and "The Behind", the claws never came out. In fact, according to nearly everyone involved, the pair got a long great, which bleeds over onto the screen to the film's betterment. Director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer made the right decision to make the film not about the relationships our heroines brazenly pursue but about the rock-solid friendship Lorelei (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell) share. They are just a couple of gals from Little Rock after all.

Renown for the sense of camaraderie he brought out with the male characters in his previous films, Hawks proved just as adept at doing the same with women, allowing them into the inner-circle of his he-man protagonists. Here, is a rare opportunity where the women allow men into theirs. Sadly, the only other example I can think of that comes close to this are the Blondell and Farrell vehicles Havana Widows (1933), Miss Pacific Fleet (1935) and Kansas City Princess (1935) and William Wellman's Lady of Burlesque (1943).

Hawks later admitted the film would not have worked if Russell hadn't befriended Monroe. Already forged over the fires of sexpotism by Howard Hughes, Russell took an advisory big sister approach with Monroe, whose neurotic behind the scenes behavior, here, already showed the faults in the filament that would eventually burn the light out prematurely after reaching such incandescent heights so rapidly. Between her fits of temper, demands for retakes, and retreating into her dressing room and holing up, a protective Russell was always there to coax her back, explain what Hawks wanted, reassure her, and escort her to and from the set. As the production dragged on, Hawks infamously quipped the film would be better if they replaced Marilyn, rewrote the script and made it shorter, and got a new director. Luckily for us, they did none of the above.

Now, I for one despise the Cult of Marilyn and don't give two-sh*ts for all the myths and scandals off-screen because it detracts way too much from what we got onscreen. Here, she shows great comedic timing, self-depreciation on her looks and perceived lack of intelligence, and passable music skills. (According to legend, Monroe ad-libbed the line "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it." I hope it's true.) And while Monroe's "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" is a bona-fide showstopper, my favorite scene in the whole movie is when she gets stuck in the porthole on the boat and gets rescued by little Georgie Winslow. I love that kid here, and in Monkey Business (1952), and in Room for One More (1952) and in Artists and Models (1955). 

And it's funny, now that I think about it, aside from Winslow and Charles Coburn bringing the irascible-fudd something fierce as Piggy Beekman, is how utterly forgettable the suitors are -- even the ones our gals wind up marrying! 

Sometimes lost due to the fervor of that Cult of Marilyn, one tends to overlook how good Russell is in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, too. I just love her "Ain't there Anyone Here for Love" number on the boat with the Olympians (-- apparently, Russell getting knocked into the pool was an accident that Hawks loved and left in the picture. Watch as Russell just rolls with it and finishes the scene.) And at the end, when Russell impersonates Monroe at the courthouse during the climax always leaves me giggling. One could even argue that Russell almost steals the movie from Monroe, but graciously took a step back and let her co-star take the spotlight.

Upon its release in 1953, 20th Century Fox had a huge hit on its hands and Hollywood's hottest star. And so thrilled were they by these results the studio immediately wanted to pair Monroe and Russell together again in How to Be Very Popular (1955). But the growing feud between Zanuck and Monroe derailed any notion of this and the film eventually was assigned to, ironically enough, Betty Grable and Sheree North. Russell would, however, team up with Jeanne Crain in the similarly themed Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955). Both follow-up films have their moments but definitely lack the spark that Russell and Monroe managed to ignite, flamed by Hawks, and the resulting comedic conflagration that all could and should enjoy. My only complaint is that Gentlemen Preferred Blondes just missed out on CinemaScope. I know the "Diamonds" number was re-shot in the widescreen process, but can you imagine the whole film broadened out? I sure can.

Other Points of Interest:

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"The film is properly about the relationship between Lorelei and Dorothy. They are among the most loyal, protective, supportive female friends in movie history. They each regard their friendship as more important than their love lives. It may seem ridiculous to praise a film just because it presents women as friends, but think how few American films have two good female roles, much less two pretty women of the same age as friends. So female friendship in films is not to be taken for granted."

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The Fine Print: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was watched via Netflix Instant's streaming package. Watched as a Howard Hawks double-feature with His Girl Friday (1940). What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's six down, with 194 to go.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)20th Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Sol C. Siegel / D: Howard Hawks / W: Charles Lederer, Anita Loos (play), Joseph Fields (play) / C: Harry J. Wild / E: Hugh S. Fowler / M: Leigh Harline, Lionel Newman, Hal Schaefer, Herbert W. Spencer / S: Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn, Elliott Reid, Tommy Noonan, George Winslow

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