Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Dir: Howard Hawks
Cert: 15 • US: 99 min • 20th Century Fox • DVD & Blu-ray
From the moment that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell appear in red sequin dresses to deliver the opening number, ‘Two Little Girls from Little Rock’, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes dazzles. Monroe and Russell were the two greatest sex symbols of the era: the blonde and the brunette, the angelic and the brash. The two women epitomised the image of the characters they were to play in this film: the innocent-looking Lorelei Lee (Monroe), whose sexuality is restrained; and the bold Dorothy Shaw (Russell), whose sexuality is raw. The tagline for the film is “The Two M-M-Marvels Of Our Age In The Wonder Musical Of The World!” These two marvels play polar opposites in the quest for marriage, and the question of whether that quest should be guided by money or love.
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the two women are a performing double-act. Their outfits, by Travilla, are pure Drag Queen Heaven. After their opening number Lee’s beau, the millionaire Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), is invited backstage because, “Dorothy, didn’t you notice? His pocket was bulging,” to which Shaw responds, “That could be a bag of gumdrops”. Lee returns, “No, it was a square box, like a box for a ring. I think he’s got a present for me.” Shaw looks at her with amazement and says, “You know, I think you’re the only girl in the world who can stand on a stage with a spotlight in her eye and still see a diamond inside a man’s pocket.” The dialogue sparkles in this scene, in which the two main characters are established and the impetus for the plot determined.
Lee’s elegance and poise is an assumed one, and Monroe communicates this flawlessly. When she opens the door to Gus she pushes one leg slightly forward, assumes a pose, and says, “Mr Esmond, won’t you pray come in?”. This is a girl who is acting the part of a sophisticated lady. Shaw is the counterbalance to this. If you close your eyes and listen you can just imagine Russell in a boiler suit. Lee reveals to Shaw that Gus has already proposed that they get married in Paris. Esmond’s father does not trust the gold-digging Lee, and interferes. She ends up sailing to “Europe, France” without Gus, but with Shaw as her chaperone.
Luckily for Shaw – or so she thinks – the Olympic team is also on the boat. This leads to a superb little number around the swimming pool in which the Olympic hunks exercise and all but ignore the busty Shaw. The scene bristles with homoeroticism as the athletes in their flesh-coloured swimming gear train, and Shaw sings ‘Ain’t there anyone here for love?’. (And what is with the Virginia Woolf lookalike with the poodle in the background of the musical numbers on the boat?) She is then forced back into the arms of Lee, who is searching for passengers travelling “en valet” so she can find a “suitable companion” for Shaw. The man Shaw does find is an undercover detective Ernie Malone (Elliot Reed), who plays the part of the rich playboy. He has been sent by Gus’ father to watch Lee, whose scheming is further ignited by a diamond tiara, property of Lady Beekman (Norma Varden). With the advent of the tiara, and the entry of diamond magnate Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), all the pieces for this comedic tour de force are in place.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is adapted from the 1925 book of the same name by Anita Loos. Adapted is perhaps not the right word, that said. It is more that they share a relationship: the title and the characters. Yet they also share a social context. The book was written in the booming ‘20s, a time of great prosperity in the US as a result of its involvement in the First World War. The film was released in 1953, in another period of prosperity that occurred after the Second World War, which ended the Great Depression and established the US as the leading world Super Power. Lorelei Lee is as dedicated to money and stability as the banking magnates that bankrolled and profited from US involvement in both World Wars.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a film about glamour, music, money, love and power. It is superb comedy and is carried by two exceptional movie stars. It is standard fare to propose that Some Like it Hot is the great film of Monroe’s career. Her performances in Bus Stop and The Misfits are perhaps her greatest, but in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes her gift for comedy is seen at its best. Just look at the delivery of her response to Shaw who, when she finds out that Malone is a detective, declares “I think I’m falling in love with that slob”. Lee tosses her head and says, “You just feel that way because he’s poor”.