January 21, 2019

Classic Film Review: Howard Hawks’ scintillating Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The friendship between Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) is one of the most hilariously positive female friendships ever depicted on film. As Shakespeare wrote of the legendary queen of Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra, so “age cannot wither nor custom stale the infinite variety” of these two little girls from Little Rock. There’s not a single moment in this scintillating 1953 Technicolor adaptation of the stage musical comedy by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields (and based on Loos’ 1925 novel) when these gal pals, or this rightfully deemed classic, wear out their welcome.

pink and blk

The plot (not that it matters very much) of this intoxicating blend of stars, dialogue, director, and music focuses on the man-hunting exploits of showgirls Lorelei Lee, whose philosophy about getting married is in brief— “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help? “—and her friend Dorothy. She may appear to be a quintessential dumb blonde, and Dorothy assumes the job of chaperoning her, but Lorelei can sometimes astound with the meat-cleaver incisiveness of her philosophy. It is one of the most comically astute and compelling performances of Marilyn Monroe’s career, and Russell is the perfect foil as the wise-cracker who harbors hope that her own suspicions about love will be disproven.

The two embark on a luxury liner for Paris, where Lorelei intends to marry millionaire Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan). En route, the girls are surveilled by private detective Malone (Elliot Reid), hired by Esmond’s father to make certain that Lorelei isn’t just another gold-digger. When Dorothy falls in love with the poverty-stricken Malone, Lorelei decides to find her friend a wealthier potential husband, and that’s how she becomes embroiled with flirtatious diamond merchant Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman (the wonderful Charles Coburn) and precocious youngster Henry Spofford III (George Winslow). Most of the Leo Robin-Jule Styne songs from the Broadway show remain intact, including Monroe’s iconic rendition of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”.

What gives the general shenanigans a headier, more resonant, atmosphere are the double-edged performances of Monroe and Russell. They subvert conventional 1950s social mores—especially the prevailing cinematic personae of women as either saints or whores—with their charming depiction of two highly intelligent, cunning, sexually potent women.

They are richly aided and abetted by Howard Hawks’ direction. Even in the last third of the film when Charles Lederer’s adapted screenplay meanders a bit, Hawks gives the farce gleaming style and wit. The film is only Hawks’s second experiment with the musical, after the 1948 Danny Kaye vehicle A Song Is Born, but the genre suits him and offers added testament to the director’s remarkable range. (It took the French Cahiers du Cinema critics to point out Hawks’ wide-ranging talents to his own American colleagues.) And though he was not widely viewed as a woman’s director, we can see in retrospect that Hawks’ films broke subtly but significantly from the usual Hollywood gender models of the 1930s-‘50s. From his first silent films through Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Ball of Fire (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), and on to Rio Bravo (1959) and even Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964), Hawks eschewed the standard template of virile, sexually capable, undomesticated men and demure, domesticated women. His movies may have been male-driven tales (with such emblematic leads as Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne) in which the guy is often defined by his profession, but his female characters are often equally or even more sexually experienced, commonsensical, brave—fully feminine but on an unmistakably even playing field with the tough-guys. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, both Lorelei and Dorothy may be in pursuit of marriage, and each may think the other at times foolish when it comes to relationships, but they accept each other’s differences, and their first loyalty, before any man in their lives, is to each other.

The film is a burgeoning Technicolor cornucopia of treats. The musical numbers are staged with saucy expertise. There’s snappy backstage humor. William Travilla’s sumptuous costume designs. The transatlantic crossing. We never doubt that these girls will make it to wherever they want to go and get whatever they want, and we are entertained and edified by their mutual respect and shared determination—even (or perhaps most especially) as they take such disparate approaches.

As the girls edge their way through the New York dockside crowds to board ship, Lorelei asks an apparent ticket agent, “Excuse me, but what is the way to Europe, France?”

Dorothy discreetly murmurs, “Honey, France is IN Europe”.

Lorelei: “Well, who said it wasn’t?”

Dorothy: “Well… you wouldn’t say you wanted to go to North America, Mexico.”

Lorelei: “If that’s where I wanted to go, I would.”

Dorothy (to the ticket agent): “The dealer passes.”

by Hadley Hury

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