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When Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962 – 50 years ago this weekend – her status as an American icon had been cemented. She made an impact in All About Eve, stood over a sidewalk grate in The Seven Year Itch, appeared in the first issue of Playboy and sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK in that sparkling dress. Marilyn has become an icon whose image has eclipsed her work. Chances are that you know someone with her image on a shirt, a bag or a poster and hasn't seen a single one of her films. But without those films, she would never have had that opportunity.
After years of bit parts, Marilyn finally earned her breakthrough roles in 1953, starring in Henry Hathaway's Niagara, Howard Hawks' Gentleman Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire. Hawks' film really introduced the Marylin that we have all come to love.
Marylin stars as Lorelei Lee, who is best friends with Dorothy Shaw, played by another '50s sex symbol, Jane Russell. Lorelei is engaged to the meek, but very rich, Gus Edmond (Tom Noonan). Lorelei, Dorothy and Gus hope to take a cruise to France and get married, but Gus' father hates Lorelei, thinking that she's only after their money. Even though Gus can't go, Lorelei opts to join Dorothy overseas. Gus trusts that Dorothy will keep an eye on Lorelei, but, of course, Lorelei's eyes begin to wonder. She picks one victim, a mine owner played by the great Charles Coburn, who is loaded with money. That gets her into trouble on the cruise and it certainly doesn't help when they finally get to Paris.
This is easily among the funniest films Howard Hawks ever directed, thanks to that fantastic, witty script by Charles Lederer, based on Joseph Fields' Broadway play and Anita Loos' 1925 novel. Both Marilyn and Russell get some fantastic gags, but the best is saved for Russell. The courtroom scene towards the end of the film in which she pretends to be Lorelei so that Lorelei can perform onstage is priceless. Marilyn also has her great scenes and lines, too. That scene where she gets stuck in a window and the only one around to help is a little boy. (“I'll help you for two reasons.” “Never mind the reasons. Just help me...” “The first reason is I'm too young to be sent to jail. The second reason is you got a lot of animal magnetism.”)
Marilyn really was such a great comic actress. Her delivery of lines like “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 “I can be smart when it's important” show that perfectly. I also think that she really took full advantage of working with some great directors. Hawks rarely did musicals, but his direction in Gentleman is fantastic, even if it doesn't reach the heights of perfection like in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Marilyn got the best of Hawks, like she would get the best of Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, John Huston and others.
Hawks also handles the timeless songs with ease. There are a whole roster of great songs squeezed into this 90-minute film. Russell and Marilyn each get their own stunning solo numbers. Russell gets “Ain't There Anyone Here For Love,” a fantastic number with a male swimming team. Of course, Gentlemen features Marilyn's signature number, the immortal “Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend,” written by Jule Styn and Leo Robin. It is one of those iconic film moments etched in everyone's brain. You've seen it even if you haven't seen the film, thanks to innumerable imitations. But there's only one Marilyn.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes really proved to 20th Century Fox that they had a true star on their hands with Marilyn. Russell is an amazing actress in this film, as well, often outshining Marilyn, but Marilyn's performance brought something that many hadn't seen since Jean Harlow. Yes, she had the looks, but...wow...could she act. Maybe if more people told her that, she would have had a much longer career.
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