As a feminist, it’s hard to reconcile my fascination with Marilyn Monroe. She is an actress who primarily played oversexualized dumb women who were only after men for their money. In other words, she perpetuated a stereotype that has plagued women for a very long time. She didn’t do anything for women’s rights or equality. But there’s something undeniable about her magnetism. People who worked with her onset frequently said that something came alive in her when cameras were rolling, something that was dormant when the cameras were off. Whatever that spark was, it has made her into a lasting pop culture icon, and a representative of a very specific manifestation of sex and fantasy in mid-century America.
Today, she has become a mythical figure, a patron saint of misattributed quotes and cheap sexuality. Teenagers wear her image on t-shirts and purses and I’d bet most of them have never seen any of her movies. That goes to show her status in pop culture: you don’t need to be even a little bit familiar with her work to know who she is. And it was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that gave her the character she would play time and time again, the character that became her public persona, the character that she is, by and large, remembered for.
Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire; The nameless “girl” in Seven Year Itch; Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like it Hot. These were all iterations of the same character [although the girl in Seven Year Itch was less gold-digger than air-conditioning and booze seeking]. If she wasn’t playing that character, then she usually played a talented girl desperately trying to make it big in show business who is sometimes helped but usually thwarted by men. What is it about these frankly lackluster characters or, more specifically, her portrayal of them that’s so enduring? After seeing every single released movie she starred in, I still can’t adequately answer that question.
Monroe had a difficult childhood. She was the daughter of a woman who was clinically insane and frequently institutionalized, she did not know who her father was and often felt the sting of abandonment, she was orphaned and passed around from family to family where she was repeatedly sexually abused, and she married at age 16 just to avoid going back to an orphanage. By all accounts, even her own autobiography, she was a sad child, desperate for attention. As she matured and started getting sexual attention, that was good enough for her. She then did what thousands of women before her had done: she equated her worth with her body, beauty, and sexuality. The rest is history.
Before Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she had starred in two films: Don’t Bother to Knock  and Niagara . Niagara was a hit, but people had been paying attention to Monroe even before that. She had bit parts in now-classic films All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle, both released in 1950. In 1952. Then people started to realize that a nude photo in a calendar looked an awful lot like the new starlet in town, and the way she handled the situation was a stroke of PR genius. She admitted that it was her in the photos, she needed to make rent, she trusted the photographer, it was all very professional [his wife was even at the shoot!], and she felt she had done nothing wrong. It worked, and there’s nothing like the rare case of a nude photo scandal gone right to make a small celebrity into a big one.
Critics and audiences alike loved Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Monroe found her place in sexy comedy. And it has aged well. It’s still charming and sharp-witted and very, very fun. Even now there aren’t very many female-led comedies [although that’s very slowly starting to change] and I’m not sure why because that formula seems to work well. Monroe and Jane Russell pair together perfectly, and the Olympic swimming team as background doesn’t hurt.
The whole film sort of turns the “boy chases girl” premise on its head; Lorelei Lee is chasing men for their diamonds and money, and Russell’s Dorothy Shaw chases men for their abs and pecs. In the end, after many goofy shenanigans, they both get what they want. Furthermore, while Lorelei Lee is a classic dumb blonde, she’s not actually all that dumb. She’s calculating in way that’s kind of endearing and while not really feminist, it’s certainly not passive, either.
I think it is one of the most genuinely entertaining films of all time. It’s one of my favorite Marilyn Monroe films, but I think it’s worth watching even beyond her charming and hilarious performance. Here's what we'll have this week for our appreciation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:
- Filmography on the all-too-short career of Marilyn Monroe
- An appreciation of Jane Russell
- A look at the film through its director, Howard Hawks
- Related Review of semi-spoof The Girl Can't Help It
- And more!