Sunday Editor’s Pick: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

by on August 21, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Aug 24 at 9:00 & Sun Aug 26 at 4:15 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


The Film Society of Lincoln Center treats audiences to a weekend of Ocean Liner-set adventures, a jaunty little series featuring lots of fun titles: the Marx Brothers’ madcap variety show, A Night at The Opera; Leo McCarey’s misty-eyed (and truly great) romantic melodrama Love Affair; Preston Sturges’ irresistably witty conmen caper The Lady Eve (which boasts an unbeatable performance by Barbara Stanwyck). Oh, and James Cameron’s blockbusting Titanic, which, if you’re going to watch, you should watch on the big screen.


The canonical must-see is Howard Hawks’ musical adaptation of Anita Loos’ novel and stageplay, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Here’s hoping FSLC screens the recently restored print in all its 50s-Technicolor glory, as reports from its Film Forum debut last year were glowing.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

The opening shot—Russell and Monroe in sequins standing against a screaming red drape—is enough to knock you out of your seat, and the audacity barely lets up from there, as Russell romances the entire U.S. Olympic team to the tune of “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” and Hawks keeps topping perversity with perversity. A landmark encounter in the battle of the sexes.



Molly Haskell in From Reverence to Rape:

A musical that is as close to satire as Hawks’ films ever get on the nature (and perversions) of sexual relations in America, particularly in the mammary-mad 50s. As the Dean Martin and John Wayne of the transatlantic liner (arrayed in the most violently clashing purples and reds that Technicolor could muster), Monroe and Russell not only have the biggest knockers in the West but the best relationship in the film. Hawks totally transforms the original — a Broadway musical adapted from the Anita Loos novels — by making a mythic link between greed and sexual freakishness, and creating a whole world which revolves on a principle of unnatural sexuality.


Jonathan Rosenbaum at his blog:

Before even the credit titles can appear, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell arrive to a blast of music at screen center from behind a black curtain, in matching orange-red outfits that sizzle the screen — covered with spangles, topped with feathers — to look at one another, toss white ermines toward the camera and out of frame and sing robustly in unison. As electrifying as the opening of any Hollywood movie that comes to mind, this jazzy materialization so catches us by surprise that we are scarcely aware of the scene’s fleeting modulations as the dynamic duo makes it through a single chorus. The black curtain changes to a lurid blue, then a loud purple; the two women twice exchange their positions on stage while gradually dancing down a few steps; and the complex flurry of gestures they make toward each other — all gracefully dovetailed into Jack Cole’s deft choreography — makes the spectator feel assaulted by them as a team as well as individually: a double threat.


As awesome a demonstration of kino-fist strategies as anything in Potemkin, this opening to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is just the first in a series of rude shocks. The second comes only moments later — after the credits have appeared over the same stage curtain and an offscreen choral version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (in a passage of relative respite, during which we’re shuttled through no less than seven more garish color changes) — when, after “Little Rock” resumes, the film cuts from Monroe singing solo to a reverse angle of a tuxedo-clad Tommy Noonan watching, waving, and wanly blowing a kiss from a cabaret table. The lumpy, passive, decisively unheroic presence of Noonan in the shot — as the film viewer’s uninvited surrogate, as a neuter/neutral surface off which the dynamism of Monroe is allowed to ricochet— creates a dialectical montage of collision, like lightning striking a plateful of mush, as jolting in its way as the first apparition of Monroe and Russell.


Henceforth, all Howard Hawks’s cards are on the table. The viewer is warned that the unbridled spectacle of his two female stars and the flabby repose of male reaction shots comprise the dialectical limits of this film’s cartoon universe, and the only equals to be seen anywhere will be the two stars themselves. Indeed, in a world where competition and corruption are taken for granted, their noncompetitive friendship forms a united front that is the film’s only moral center.



Nick Pinkerton for the Village Voice:

Director Howard Hawks hired onetime-discovery Jane Russell as Dorothy; for Lorelei, producer Daryl Zanuck cast a $1,250-a-week actress nibbling at stardom. “A girl ought to have a name that ought to express her personality,” recalled Lorelei Lee of her own invention, like the alliterative makeover that created Marilyn Monroe. This was after Norma Jean went permanently platinum for a shampoo ad with Lux flakes and peroxide, the same recipe used by her idol, Jean Harlow—who Loos had written star-making scripts for—and regularly touched up by Harlow’s own hairstylist. Just months after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened, Monroe graced the first cover of Playboy, connecting one boom-time America to another, the Ziegfeld Girl to the Bunny.


In Hawks’s Gentlemen, the flat-chested flappers illustrating Loos’s book are swept aside by not-so-little Monroe and Russell. The film situates the action largely on a transatlantic liner—nearing nostalgia by ’53—as Lorelei and Dorothy sail for Paris, leaving behind Lorelei’s milksop millionaire fiancé—whose daddy, disproving of the morganatic marriage, sets a detective after the girls. The men on the ship are nothings: 75-year-old Charles Coburn plays diaper-ready Sir “Piggie” Beekman; George Winslow is a stern, husky-voiced tyke who’ll inherit half of Pennsylvania; Russell is supposedly romanced by oval-faced zero-charisma snoop Elliott Reid, but there’s more warmth in her fondly bemused looks at Monroe, whose friendship is a front-row ticket to the best show in town. The girls, untouched by competition, present a united front, even transferring identities—Russell does a dye-job masquerade as Lorelei—until they practically exchange vows with each other in the most ironic wedding in Hollywood history.



Christian Blauvelt for Slant:

As a battle of the sexes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes reverts back to the pre-screwball comedy era of Baby Face and Gold Diggers of 1933 (Anita Loos’s original flapper novel, on which the film is based, was written in 1925), in which material comfort is emphasized over true love. This nascent 1920s feminism is at odds with the conservative 1950s milieu of the film itself, clashing almost as violently as Hawks’s out-of-control color palette. In fact, if there’s a single film that could shatter Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze” it’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The camera’s point of view in much of Hollywood cinema may be a male one, regarding women with fetishistic fascination, but Hawks shows how it can be easily hijacked by gals smart enough to control—and manipulate—what it is that their drooling dude audience is seeing.


Of course, Hawks portrays the whole male race through the absurd trinity of a bespectacled milquetoast, an aged letch, and a fastidiously intellectual 12-year-old boy—not to mention the anonymous, interchangeable hard bodies of the U.S. Olympic team, the entirety of which Dorothy intends to romance. Not since Mae West purred to Cary Grant to come up and see her sometime has a woman so successfully objectified men as in Russell’s rendition of “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” Russell parades in an androgynous black leotard through a crowd of unnamed, shirtless dancers and acrobats—sexualized, yet marginalized, the way female backup dancers usually are—belting lyrics like “I like big muscles and red corpuscles/I like a beautiful hunk of man.” Since today we’re so unaccustomed to seeing men reduced to anonymous sexual spectacle, one’s kneejerk reaction to this number is its homoeroticism—I suppose just like how Lady Gaga’s overt expressions of her sexuality must mean she has a dick. Or is it that Hawks actually provides for a female gaze? In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, at least, he does.



David Fear for Time Out New York:

To call Dorothy Shaw (Russell) and Lorelei Lee (a never-better Monroe) gold diggers is demeaning: These showgirls would also gladly liberate rich, libido-drunk males from their cash and sparkling gems as well. In fact, diamonds—always a material girl’s best friend—happen to be Lorelei’s preferred currency. So when she discovers that Sir “Piggy” Beekman (Coburn), who owns a mine of the stuff, is aboard a Paris-bound cruise ship, the con-job flirting goes into high gear. As do the triple entendres, the showstopping set pieces featuring male gymnasts and the blackmail shenanigans, except God isn’t in the plot details of Howard Hawks’s alpha-female comedy. The divine is simply everywhere else.


Nit-picking auteurists may snipe about the filmmaker’s so-called lack of involvement—“He didn’t even direct the musical numbers,” they’ll whine. But this adaptation of the Broadway musical has Hawks’s signature all over it: Russell’s wisecracking, take-no-shit dame (the way she says “The dealer passes” after her partner makes a bubbleheaded remark is priceless); the frantic yet unflappably smooth pacing; and how Lorelei and Dorothy’s affectionate friendship takes center stage, the ultimate Hawksian touch. It may hip-wiggle behind the master’s best (Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo), but you won’t find a more elegant take on ’50s va-va-voom vulgarity or a more joyous paean to the cheesecake self-empowerment of two little girls from Little Rock.



Dan Callahan for Alt Screen:

Monroe’s gold-digging Lorelei Lee is a rather sweet manipulator, an odd character conception that works because of her daring, declaratory comic timing and her willingness to push the boundaries of this dumb blonde act so that Lorelei is so sublimely “dumb” she keeps hitting mysterious, not-of-this-world notes. As she had just proved in Niagara, Monroe could play low cunning and tough calculation, but she doesn’t use any of those qualities here even for a moment. She puts together less a performance and more of a sex comedy Happening, and the dresses she was sewn into for this picture are marvels of engineering that show off Monroe’s hourglass figure in ways that defy the laws of physics. Describing the visual and sensory effect Monroe has in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a job for an oversexed scientist.


“I just adore conversation, don’t you?” asks Lorelei, and Monroe gets laughs with weird lines like that by announcing them grandly, as she did in All About Eve (she’s droll in this movie, even if “droll” might not be the first thing you think of when you think of Monroe). Because Russell’s sensible Dorothy likes Lorelei, we’re free to do so too, even when the script starts to get censorious about her toward the end, with one man calling her “a mercenary nitwit.” A comment like that can be taken in stride after we see Monroe in all her glory trilling “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” on a pink, red and black set, putting sexy little quivers into her vibrato and calling for jeweler Harry Winston to “tell me all about it!” This number is pure pleasure, and Monroe warms it up with her juicy presence even though the pragmatic message in the lyrics couldn’t be colder.


Melissa Anderson digs the film’s sappho-overtones, for Artforum:

Every frame of Hawks’s musical focuses on the “creamy overflow” (to borrow a phrase from a celebrity columnist writing at the time of the film’s release) of Monroe’s and Russell’s bodies; in his 1973 biography Marilyn, Norman Mailer notes that his subject will never “appear so fucky again” as she does in GPB. The physiques of Jane/Dorothy and Marilyn/Lorelei are defined by ripened mouths, breasts, hips—ample pulchritude that sometimes exceeds the spectacle of the musical numbers they perform together. Uncontainable and unclassifiable, the sexual energy they exude dominates every scene the two women share—a fucky force constantly reciprocated between them. As Lorelei shimmies during the “When Love Goes Wrong” number in the film’s final third, Dorothy, her eyes transfixed on her friend, shouts, “Do it, honey, do it!” before letting out a mellifluous, orgasmic howl. Later, to protect her, Dorothy will stand trial in Paris night court as Lorelei, a highly charged episode of infatuation in which identities dissolve. Even in the final scene, during what is supposed to be a double wedding between Gus/Lorelei and Malone/Dorothy, the grooms are extraneous; the film ends on a two-shot of the women essentially marrying each other.


If the onscreen rapport between the two actresses invites blue fantasies by lavender ladies, what was it like when the cameras stopped rolling? “We were both Geminis and really complimented [sic] each other,” Russell remembers in her autobiography, Jane Russell: My Path & My Detours (1985). Monroe, not yet a major star, received second billing to Russell, and $500 a week to her colleague’s $200,000 total. And without Russell, Monroe might never have been able to complete the film that changed her career forever; wracked with insecurities on set, Monroe was finally assuaged by Russell’s tough love: “I’d stand in her doorway and say, ‘Come on, Blondl, let’s go . . .’ ” Russell recalls the rehearsals for the dance numbers as “hard, sweaty work.” Or, if you prefer, fucky.



Nic Rapold for L Magazine:

Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has accrued a daunting overlay of readings and reappropriations over the years, but fortunately nothing can drown out the film’s riot of color and costume, deaden the cheeringly direct-address numbers, or cancel the scene-to-scene fact of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe’s making-it-look-easy humor. Hawks and his stars revivify the hoary gold-digger premise by pushing it over the top from the opening replace-your-retinas-with-rubies Little Rock ditty. But the reputation for hyperbole can obscure the pleasures of Monroe’s achievements: her breezy-studied look of wheels turning that pulls time around her (hilarious, and matched perfectly by Russell’s straight-out delivery), and her haute idiolect (“Thank you ever so”) and typically exquisite vocal control on a par with Judy Holliday (who rejected the role when Columbia was trying to pull the project together).


The diamonds number and Russell’s Marilyn-drag deposition still knock ‘em dead, and even when it’s familiar, little details jump out with every viewing: the duo’s waggle with the “Learned an awful lot” line in the opening number, the way tennis rackets simply appear in Russell’s hands in the Grecian gym beefcake revue, the slow-fast-slow rhythms of their Parisian cafe routine (“Crazy, mademoiselle!”), even those microscope spirogyra backgrounds in the credits.


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