Consider any movie with Marilyn Monroe and it’s a given to assume that she’ll steal the show. Her trademark platinum hair and sultry smile are so obviously made for the silver screen, you almost pity whoever stars alongside her—surely there’s no way they’ll be able to hold a candle to the inferno of Monroe’s star power.
And then I saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
And then I saw Jane Russell.
Russell plays Dorothy Shaw, gal pal extraordinaire to Monroe’s Lorelai Lee in a role that could’ve been destined to be overshadowed. After all, it seems like the classic scenario of the blonde in the spotlight, her dark-haired friend shunted just off to the side. But the part isn’t written that way and Russell certainly doesn’t play it that way. She’s on fire every second she’s on screen, but she’s on fire in a way that feels specifically designed to appeal to women.
Lorelai’s whole character, as charming as she ultimately is, is the picture of the male fantasy. She’s a bombshell that’s happy to dish out compliments, let men do all the talking, and act as arm candy that makes whatever man’s arm she’s hanging onto the envy of all others. Sure, she’s got a lot more going on in her head than anyone wants to give her credit for, but at the end of the day, I don’t think any woman really wants to be Lorelai.
Dorothy though? She’s every bit as gorgeous as Lorelai, but she’s also brassy and wise-cracking, disinterested in taking guff from anyone (let alone a man), and totally and utterly focused on getting what she wants, which isn’t money or a husband, but having a good time. Dorothy is fun. She openly relishes a good chunk of eye candy and can’t be bothered to even pretend otherwise. She’s so incredible to watch, I found myself forgetting about Monroe completely.
As much as her wit, I think it’s Dorothy’s brazen display of desire that makes her so endearing. Just before they board the ship to Europe, Gus insists that as Lorelai’s chaperone, she needs to be on her best behavior, too. In response, Dorothy quips, “Now lets get this straight, Gus. The chaperone's job is to see that nobody else has any fun. Nobody chaperones the chaperone. That's why I'm so right for this job,” before flashing a wicked smile and making a beeline for the men’s Olympic team that’s sharing their ship.
Later, she performs and entire musical number (“Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love”) amid the muscle-bound men as they go about an exercise routine that can only be described as overtly sexual. The men parade about the set in the world’s tiniest gym shorts, which are practically flesh toned to boot, and it’s all pecs, thighs, and buns for almost a full four minutes. Russell’s Dorothy is loving it, and in turn I loved watching her.
When I thought about how I wanted to discuss Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I’d like to say I never intended to write what’s essentially a love letter to Jane Russell, but that isn’t true. Her performance is the only thing I wanted to talk about. I fell in love with her in this movie, and it seemed cruel that I should discover her so late.
Despite enormous talent and a successful film and music career, Russell isn’t remembered the same way as Marilyn Monroe or even Lauren Bacall or Katherine Hepburn. None of her other performances have survived the way Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has and even then, it’s Marilyn’s whispery voice and that famous pink dress that get remembered—not Dorothy and not Jane. That’s what made watching her utterly hold her own in every scene with Monroe so surprising and even thrilling for a newcomer to the film.
Yes, Monroe is a delight, utterly pitch perfect as the ditzy yet crafty Lorelai Lee. But it’s Dorothy Shaw I want to emulate and befriend, and it’s Russell that steals the show.