Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby [1938]; Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings [1939]; Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday [1940]; Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not [1944] and The Big Sleep [1946]; Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo [1959]; and Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953]: these are among the most iconic performances by women, some of the most enduring female characters, to come out of classical Hollywood. Never mere damsels, these women—probably one of the origins of a different stereotype—can “hang with the men.” They’re often a step ahead of the male characters, cracking jokes at their expense; they project an attitude of personal and sexual freedom; they are driven by their own, often complex motives. 

What ties these films together is their director, Howard Hawks. This is by no means to claim that either Howard Hawks or his films are feminist; each of these films share the same broad socio-sexual trajectory as nearly every other Hollywood film, partnering or marrying the central male character with his corresponding “Hawksian Woman,” and each betrays in both script and image the phallocentric Hollywood point of view. In almost all of them, the Hawksian Woman is the only woman in the film, implicitly the exception, the only “female” who is tough enough to take part in the overwhelmingly masculine communities of Hawks’s films. 

Nevertheless, when Hepburn mischievously and endlessly antagonizes Cary Grant, when Rosalind Russell undercuts the latter’s ego with a sharp barb, when Angie Dickinson downs a whiskey and lectures John Wayne about his repression, when Bogie and Bacall brazenly discuss “horse racing”—these moments give glimpses of sexual and romantic relationships not based on dominance and submission, but on mutual desire, personal chemistry, and equality of intellect, if not equality of socio-cultural power.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, based on a novel and Broadway musical by Anita Loos, fits this recurring pattern in Hawks’s films, but is unique among the films he directed in that both of the central characters are women. But it’d be hard to say it passes the famous Bechdel Test, as each is obsessed with men, albeit in different ways. Jane Russell’s Dorothy Shaw and Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee are showgirls whose profession, it would seem, has given them singular insight into the psychology of men. “We’re just two little girls from Little Rock/we lived on the wrong side of the tracks,” the first lines of the film, sung in unison by the pair, goes, “But the gentlemen friends who used to call/they never did seem to mind at all:/they came to the wrong side of the tracks.”

The titular blonde, Lorelei—or Miss Lee, as the film’s obsequious old rich men call her—has embraced a cynical conclusion from this life-lesson, playing the “just a little girl” part to excess, complete with pouty lips, mousy voice, and childlike naiveté. Her goal: to acquire as much wealth, in particular as many diamonds, as possible. When Lorelei mulls over a potential suitor who is said to own most of “some state—Pennsylvania, I think,” Dorothy quips, “I guess I’d settle for Pennsylvania.”

Dorothy is the foil to Lorelei’s gold-digging ethos, but not in the way you might expect from a Hollywood movie. The alternate model she offers to Lorelei’s naked materialism isn’t romantic love but sexual pleasure. Lorelei chastens her for how often and how quickly she falls in love, but it becomes clear that “love” is a euphemism. On an ocean liner bound for Paris, Dorothy is overjoyed to discover the men’s Olympic Team is also aboard; discovering their team regimen means they’re in bed by 9pm, she exclaims, “Nine?! But that’s just when life begins!” She proceeds to sing a choreographed number, flanked by dozens of male gymnasts in flesh-colored short-shorts, asking, “Don’t anyone know about birds and bees/Ain’t there anyone here for love?”

Dorothy is the film’s Hawksian Woman: she develops an attraction to the private detective Ernie Malone [Elliott Reid] based on mutual respect, as expressed through playful banter. But despite Dorothy’s being a clear foil to Lorelei, the film doesn’t moralize either perspective, something more typical of Loos’s comedy than of Hawks’s work. Dorothy repeatedly sticks up for her friend, refusing to allow Malone to malign her for her greed or alleged man-eating. Moreover, she chooses Lorelei’s happiness over her relationship Malone, helping to drug him and steal his pants in order to recover incriminating photos that could ruin Lorelei’s relationship with her wealthy fiancé Gus [Tommy Noonan].

The two most striking, borderline subversive moments come toward the end of the film, each delivered by one of the lead actresses. In Lorelei’s trial for stealing a diamond tiara, Dorothy appears in court disguised as her blond friend, playing the role of the “ditzy” seductress. This scene, which is almost a kind of drag performance from Jane Russell, exposes the artificiality of Lorelei’s dumb-blonde act, the ease with which it can be adopted by another woman to great effect on clueless men. It also performs something of a reversal, emphasizing that it is the rich men—in this case, diamond-mine baron “Piggy” Beekman [Charles Coburn]—who are to blame for the seeming excesses of a woman like Lorelei.

The second scene is the one in which fiancé Gus’s father [Taylor Holmes] confronts Lorelei, asserting that though she may have fooled her son, she doesn’t fool him. “I’m not trying to,” Marilyn Monroe replies in her breathy undertone, “but I bet I could though.” He goes on to impugn her money-centric motives in marriage, to which Lorelei counters, “Aren’t you funny. Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness doesn’t it help? And if you had a daughter, wouldn’t you rather she didn’t marry a poor man?” 

The sentiment here is hardly progressive, but that’s also hardly the point: the underlying message of this scene, of the film, is that it is the culture, not blondeness or womanhood, that makes Lorelei behave how she does. “Say,” Gus’s father says, “they told me you were stupid. You don’t seem stupid to me.” Lorelei purses her lips. “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” She is represented as the reflection of the capitalist outlook, part of the very same ethos that drives the [masculine] American accumulation of wealth.

Loos’s novel [1925] was a satire of the excesses and hypocrisies of the Roaring Twenties; the film transcribes this satire into the prosperous and intensely patriarchal postwar culture of the 1950s. It’s a film about the ways capitalist excess corresponds to excess in the expression of gender roles, with Marilyn Monroe embodying a caricature that, nevertheless, is highly sympathetic. Jane Russell’s Dorothy, though, is the film’s anchor—not because, as one might expect, she believes in true love and docile femininity, but because in contrast to Lorelei’s capitalist abstractions she seeks pleasure in the bodies and minds of her partners [roughly in that order].

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has its share of problems—racist representation and sexist jokes do dominate some scenes, much to their detriment—but the glimpse it offers of women’s ownership of their own desires makes it a relatively unique film from its time and context. Moreover, as a comedy it has aged spectacularly well; it remains among the best American comedies, and certainly among the best work of Hawks, Loos, and Monroe, each towering figures in Hollywood history.