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25 June 2022

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Directed by: Howard Hawkes
Music: Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Robinson,
Jule Styne, Leo Robin
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell,
Charles Coburn, Elliot Reed,
Tommy Noonan, Norma Varden,
Taylor Holmes

In a blog that celebrates films from all over, I have given short shrift to one of the biggest movie stars of all time – the legendary Marilyn Monroe. Especially since my late father and my husband were/are huge fans of the actor. So am I, having seen her in not-so-ditzy roles, well aware that her talent far superseded her stunning good looks, or the ‘dumb blonde’ roles she carried off with such panache. Let me rephrase that – it takes a lot of talent to play the ‘dumb blonde’ with conviction. And no one can deny that Marilyn Monroe was fabulous playing the ditz.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of her most iconic roles in that category – who can forget the hot pink dress and Diamonds are a girl’s best friend? So, when flipping through Criterion Channel, my husband came across the film, we – including Young A – sat down to watch.

Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) are two show girls on their way to Europe. Lorelei intends to marry her boyfriend 'Gus' Esmond (Tommy Noonan) in Paris, but his autocratic father, who despises Lorelei, has forbidden the marriage. Now, they are planning to travel separately to Paris, where they can get married without his father’s interference. Gus hasn’t come to see them off, but Lorelei tells Dorothy that she is going to sail to Paris, “with or without Gus.” But Gus does arrive in time. He also gives Lorelei a Line of Credit on his bank and begs Lorelei to behave – any hint of scandal and his father will absolutely forbid the banns.

Unlike Lorelei, Dorothy is not interested in rich men. “Honey, does it ever occur to you that some people just don’t care about money,” she tells Lorelei, who is aghast at such frivolity. “Please,” she pleads, “we are talking serious here!” But Dorothy has her eyes set on the all-male Olympic team that’s travelling with them. When Gus reminds Dorothy that she’s supposed to be a chaperone, she quips, “Now let’s get this straight, Gus. The chaperone’s job is to see that nobody else has any fun.” Neither woman knows Esmond Sr. has hired Ernie Malone (Elliot Reed), a private detective, to spy on Lorelei during their journey. 

Malone and Dorothy are drawn to each other, despite a shaky start and Lorelei’s reservations about Dorothy’s choices. Meanwhile, the latter has made the acquaintance of Sir Francis ‘Piggy’ Beekman (Charles Coburn), who owns a diamond mine, and is besotted by Lorelei’s looks. Lorelei is more interested in Lady Beekman’s diamond jewellery, especially her tiara. 

She is not loth to encourage Piggy’s company, however, and charms him so much that at one point, he visits her in the cabin she shares with Dorothy. Where Piggy describes to her his travels and travails in Africa. Lorelei is furious when Dorothy walks in and summarily dismisses Piggy.

Whereupon Dorothy tells her that she had stumbled upon Malone spying on Lorelei through the windows of the cabin. What were Lorelei and Piggy doing that Malone could use against her? Piggy was merely describing how a python squeezes a goat, says Lorelei. That’s not incriminating, says Dorothy, relieved. Well, says, Lorelei, Piggy was being the python. Dorothy is speechless. The only way to save Lorelei’s engagement to Gus is to get the roll of film back from Malone. “Swipe them,” as Dorothy says.

So, the two women concoct a plan to get Malone unconscious so they can retrieve the incriminating evidence. When Lorelei has the prints developed and hands them over to Piggy, the latter is so grateful that he acquiesces to her request to give her Lady Beekman’s tiara. 
Unfortunately for Lorelei, Malone had also bugged the cabin, and now has some pretty explosive recordings to give his client.

When the girls land up in Paris, they first go shopping for clothes. Having spent all their money, they land up at the fancy hotel where Gus has booked a suite for them, only to discover their nemesis waiting. Lady Beekman has arrived with her insurance agent, accusing Lorelei of theft and wanting her to return the tiara (no questions asked). And Gus, having received the recording from Malone, has cancelled the hotel reservation and his Line of Credit. Now, the girls are penniless in Paris. Worse, Lorelei is facing charges of theft and the threat of prison.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, based on the 1949 Broadway show (which in turn was based on Anita Loos' best-selling novel of the same name), runs solely on the star wattage of its two female leads who both raise the script and rise about it. Let’s get the problematic stereotypes out of the way first. Yes, both girls are stereotypes. 

Dorothy is solely manipulated by good looks and Lorelei is a gold-digger. The men don’t fare any better – there’s the milksop boyfriend (a role originally meant for Cary Grant), the aging lech, the deadpan detective… There are regular 50s tropes – gold digging women, old men flirting with young women, conniving young women who are out to fleece poor, unsuspecting men… yet, this film is unabashedly honest in what it sets out to do – and that is to not make a regressive film.

At its heart, the film celebrates female friendship. This is not a film where the female leads are backstabbing each other or competing for the same man. On the contrary, they are extremely fond of each other, look out for each other’s interests, will not allow anyone to talk badly of the other (“Only I am allowed to talk about Lorelie,” snaps Dorothy, in one scene.), support each other through thick and thin, Where director Howard Hawkes also scores is in keeping the fun intact without being funny at the expense of its two beautiful leading ladies. The film’s humour comes from the men who surround the two women and their interactions with them.

The young women are unabashedly sexy, know what they want, and are very proactive about getting it. What subverts the usual tropes, however, is that they are very open about who and what they are, and despite societal disapproval of their choices, are in no hurry to change themselves to suit fuddy-duddy morality. “Let’s go put on our war paint,” says Dorothy as they plan to stage a full-on assault on the men who are aching for their company. In short, they control the events in their lives. Even today, you would find it difficult to find two unapologetically sexy – and sexual – women who are drawn with such affection.

The powerful reversal of tropes continues (keep in mind that this film is directed by very much a ‘man’s director’, Howard Hawkes) in the “Is there anyone here for love?” where the ‘male gaze’ is subverted, and how! And if it makes you [the male reader] feel uncomfortable at just how sexualized and objectified the men are in this song, remember that even today, this is how women are presented in most song sequences and/or music videos. Here, the film tips its hat very subtly to then-prevalent (and very-much-current) views on male vs. female sexuality.

So, while the film may fail the Bechdel Test, it is still very much a feminist movie in its leads’ ownership of their own lives.  The film also cements Monroe’s reputation as a comedienne par excellence, while Russell shines as the grounded, straight-speaking, loyal Dorothy.

Lorelei’s character, in fact, is a lot more complex than it looks on the surface. In fact, the film hints that Lorelei is not really dumb; she’s merely playing a part that’s been written for her by the men she’s met. “I can be smart when it’s important,” she says in one scene, “but men don’t seem to like it.” (And if you think this is a tired trope of men preferring beauty over brains, it’s unfortunately an attitude still prevalent in the 2020s.)

And in the final scene, when Esmond Sr. accuses her of marrying his son for his money, she quips, “I’m not marrying him for his money; I’m marrying him for yours!”  But, she questions, if Esmond Sr. had a daughter, wouldn’t he rather she didn’t get married to a poor man? So why is wrong for her, Lorelei, to want the same thing? In fact, she puts it in a way he can understand: “A man being rich is like a woman being pretty. You wouldn’t marry a woman merely because she was pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”  Which is the truth, even if most people will not admit to it.

Even when Lorelei tells Gus, “ It’s men like you who have made me what I am,” there’s no trace of self-pity or apology in her voice. It’s a factual statement from a woman who has learnt the hard way that the world only worships mammon.

What also helps is that neither the script nor the film treats the women as victims (or judges them for not being victims). When a miffed Gus blocks Lorelei’s Line of Credit, neither woman wastes much time in self-pity. Instead, they get themselves a job.

If it feels like I’ve given the wonderful Russell the short shrift in this review, let me state that she is absolutely wonderful – every woman needs a friend like Dorothy.  Russell gets most of the best lines in the script, and she plays her character with deadpan humour that only serves to underline the hilarity of the scenes in which she is present. Her ‘performance art’ in the courtroom scene is one for the books.

While the film - from title on - sets up a rather sexist, even classist tone, it subverts the idea that the men call the shots. This is especially significant considering that the movie was made in the 50s. Especially when the film itself is so unapologetic about Lorelei's POV, but Hawkes' touch is so exquisitely light. So, if you’re looking for a screwball comedy that headlines two, strong, funny, independent women, with some pithy remarks on the state of human affairs, pun intended, then you can’t do better than watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Trivia: As a young, jobless actress, Marilyn had posed nude for a pin-up calendar. When she was signed for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was recognized as the nude model and the backlash was intense. Though the studios wanted her to deny the photos, Marilyn refused, stating that she had done the shoot when she was penniless and was not ashamed of them. But fearing that investors would pull out, the studio gave strict orders to the costumer designer, William Travilla, to design a 'very covered dress'  to offset the scandal.

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