Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sex for Fun and (Mostly) Profit

Film: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

This one is going to be interesting. On the one hand, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is Howard Hawks at close to his best, one of Marilyn Monroe’s few films, and Jane Russell consistently stealing the show. On the other hand, this film represents pretty much everything I hate about the sensibilities of 1950s comedies, romances, and musicals. There’s a lot here to like, but a lot here to object to as well.

This is a pretty standard late-screwball-era screwball. There’s all manner of people getting the wrong ideas from harmless actions and people acting stupidly. Plus there’s a shit-ton of singing and dancing. Singing duo Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) preform a quick number and we’re then introduced to them. Lorelei is interested only in wealthy men, which is why she’s being romanced by the nerdy but screamingly rich Gus Esmond, Jr. (Tommy Noonan). Her plan is for them to be married in Paris, but Gus is forced to stay home by his father when Lorelei and Dorothy go on tour across the pond.

As a way to make up for his non-presence, Gus extends the two women a line of credit and arranges a room for them. What we soon learn is that their ship is loaded with a few things. The first is rich men (Lorelei’s weakness) and the second is members of the American Olympic team (Dorothy’s weakness). The third thing on the ship is Ernie Malone (Elliott Reed). Malone has been hired to spy on Lorelei, and he quickly develops a thing for Dorothy, who reciprocates because he’s a good-looking guy.

From here, we get a lot of the sort of screwball antics that are common to this sort of film, primarily through the character of Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn), who operates the second largest diamond mine in the world. When Lorelei finds out about this, she naturally becomes entranced with the fat, old goof in the hopes of scoring a few diamonds off of him. This especially becomes the case when she gets a load of Lady Beekman’s (Norma Varden) diamond-encrusted tiara.

Through some shenanigans, Ernie gets photos of Piggy and Lorelei in a clinch, which will destroy her relationship with Gus and will also cause some serious problems with Piggy’s marriage. The two women then conspire to get the film from Ernie, concocting a plan involving booze, sleeping pills, and a pitcher of water. When Lorelei shows the pictures to Piggy, he realizes what could have happened, and offers to reward her. Naturally, she asks for his wife’s tiara as her just desserts for saving his marriage. And, naturally, once she has the tiara, Lady Beekman claims it’s been stolen. Meanwhile, Ernie has reported on Lorelei’s shenanigans to Gus and his father, which cuts off the women’s line of credit.

Of course, since this is a musical and a comedy, everything is going to work out fine in the end. Gus and Lorelei will end up together and Dorothy will stop being upset with Ernie, and everyone will get what they want. You should know that going in, and if that’s a surprise to you, it’s because you haven’t watched a lot of musicals in general.

So here’s the issue I have, and if you’ve seen this film, you know exactly where I’m going to go with this. It’s mostly wrapped up in the character of Lorelei, who couldn’t be more mercenary if she tried. She is an absolute gold digger, makes no bones about it, and thinks that she should be lauded for it. It’s ugly. More than that, it’s not one of her better performances. Marilyn Monroe Lorelei plays up the dumb blonde angle, which seriously irritates me. She also makes a habit of over-enunciating particular parts of words, so much of her dialogue comes out as painfully unnatural.

Nowhere is Lorelei’s mercenary nature more prevalent than in the show-stopper song, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The entire point of the song is her saying that she wants jewelry, and that only that matters to her. Her entire persona is wrapped around the idea of acquisition, and at one point, she openly admits that she’s marrying Gus for the money he will inherit, and demands that she be allowed to act in any way that she wishes regardless of those actions or consequences.

I get why people like this film. There are certainly parts that are fun and funny. One of the better gags concerns the presence of Henry Spofford III (George Winslow) on the ship. Lorelei, hoping to set up Dorothy with a rich man, arranges for Spofford to be seated at their dinner table only to discover that Spofford is maybe 9. George Winslow pulls this off beautifully, and manages to get a number of fantastic lines.

In the end, though, I can’t get past the film’s shameless endorsement of gold digging.

Why to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: It’s a classic of the genre.
Why not to watch: The subtext is shite.


  1. Aw. I had a feeling you wouldn't exactly enjoy this one. It's one of my favorites. This is a film that got me through a really tough, emotional night once, and ever since, it's been a go-to pick-me-up film, a comfort film, if you will. I don't fixate on gold-digging females like you do. I like the colors, the zaniness (which I'm coming to realize is a Howard Hawks trademark), the blushingly homoerotic dance number "Ain't there anyone here for love?", and Marilyn herself in a role that helped shoot her to stardom. It's all just so... nutty, and god help me, I love it.

    1. I'm surprisingly okay with that. I understand precisely why people love this film, and there are enough musicals like Singin' in the Rain that I get the love of the genre.

      I skipped the beefcake mention above, but I originally did plan to comment on it, just because...well, you can't get away from it for a couple of minutes.

    2. Yeah, when it comes to the world of the movie musical, I don't think, as a MUSICAL, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is anywhere near Singin in the Rain, which is so good it transcends the musical genre.

      The first time I watche Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, my jaw hit the floor when I first saw those skimpy little nude-colored short shorts the ginormous muscle men were wearing. And then when the aforementioned men started manhandling one another, I started giggling maniacally. In fact, that's probably one of my favorite moments of the movie because it's all WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!?!?!?

    3. Well, let's be honest--in the world of musicals, nothing approaches Singin' in the Rain.

      The Olympic beefcake scene is pretty surprising when it starts. And it is pretty homoerotic. My first thought when it started was, "I guess there's something for everyone in this one."

  2. First, let me say that I loved the scenes where Jane Russell was pretending to be Marilyn Monroe's character. She just nailed Monroe with it.

    Second, after this, Pretty Woman, and a few other recent reviews I'm afraid I think you are suffering from the early stages of PMCS (Professional Movie Critics' Syndrome). This is the problem they develop after seeing thousands of films. The movies that are different really stand out and they appreciate them far more. These films also tend to be the ones where you have to guess at what the director is trying to say. These critics almost always get to a point where they try to apply the same "what did the filmmakers REALLY mean?" angle even to mainstream pieces of fluff that are not remotely intended to send a message.

    I don't know if there is a cure for PMCS. If there is it would probably involve a steady diet of movies from the likes of Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell - making the cure possibly worse than the disease.

    (All this is tongue in cheek. I've noticed in myself a tendency to start to overthink some movies and I have to stop and remind myself that they are just cranked out to make a quick buck and not to send messages.)

    1. Oh, I know I'm overthinking this one. It's supposed to be fluff, and it is fluff. And there's a lot to love here. I particularly like Jane Russell in this in general, and the scene with the little kid on the deck of the boat is pure comedy.

      But the subtext is there. I don't think it was intentional, or the real message that Howard Hawks wanted this to have (likely, he didn't intend a real message), but I can't not see it when it's there.

  3. That is also my reservation with this movie. Monroe's character is so determined on wealth and scrupulous on how to get it that it is a real threat to her likeability in the movie. What saves it in my opinion is partly that it is a ligth musical, where excesses are tolerated and even made fun of and partly that Lorelei is somewhat forgiven by the gender roles of the time. This is the only route available for a woman to make a fortune. A man out in a similar endeavour to cut a piece of cake for himself would have been admired for it and called resourceful.
    Still I cannot help feel that the girls had it coming when they are stranded in France and that Lorelei gets off the hook a little too easy. On the other hand Gus Esmond is so spineless that he will probably benefit more from the cunning and economic savvy of Lorelei than from her bedroom skills.

    1. It's just an ugly personality type. I get that there are people like this in the world. What I don't get is why they are held up to us as someone we're supposed to care about or like.