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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

download (1)Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was made in 1953, a movie adaptation of the 1949 musical of the same name. The musical was an adaptation of a play, which was adapted from the novel, written in 1925 by Anita Loos (a prominent screenwriter of ’20s). The original book was a satire of the flapper culture in the 1920s. The movie has none of that satire, mostly being an excuse for catchy songs sung by Hollywood’s leading sex icons of the era, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, in glorious (occasionally gaudy) technicolor.

However, I found it a very entertaining extravaganza. What I really enjoyed about it most was the great camaraderie between Russell and Monroe as they sail through the film, making mincemeat of the men, all the while having each other’s back. There’s none of the usual Hollywood female cat-fighting in this film.

The film follows the exploits of two showgirls, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw. Monroe is Lorelei, the blonde ditz and dedicated gold digger (diamond digger, really). Jane Russell plays Dorothy, her fun-loving, snarky, but utterly loyal friend. Lorelei has managed to ensnare the hapless Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), the son of a millionaire. However, Gus’ father is determined to prevent their wedding and when Lorelei and Dorothy make a transatlantic crossing to Europe, Gus’ father sends a private detective along to watch Lorelei.

Lorelei, meanwhile, meets the very rich Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), who owns a diamond mind, but is also married. Dorothy meets the detective, Malone (Elliott Reid), not knowing he is a detective and they mutually fall for each other while he still tries to spy on Lorelei. His vigilance pays off, too. Sir Francis has traveled a great deal in Africa and while he demonstrates to Lorelei how a python wraps up a goat, with Lorelei as the goat, Malone manages to snap some pictures. But Dorothy catches him taking pictures and between her and Lorelei, they swipe the pictures back. Lorelei gives the pictures to Sir Francis to destroy and in gratitude he swipes his own wife’s diamond tiara (that Lorelei has been coveting) and gives it to Lorelei at her request.

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell

This proves to be her undoing as Malone gets wind of it, who passes the information on to Lady Beekman and Gus’ father. Gus breaks up with Lorelei and Dorothy breaks up with Malone, leaving the two girls broke in Paris; down, but by no means out. Through more machinations, the girls manage to get everything they want, including Gus and Malone.

The film is often characterized as being about two gold diggers, but there is actually only one gold digger and that is a big reason why these two women can be such good friends in the film. They are not competition for each other. They want different things out of life and they both get what they want.

Lorelei Lee, as played by Monroe, personifies the blonde ditz, but nevertheless has a razor sharp streak of pragmatism and smarts. She may not know that you wear a tiara on your head, but she certainly knows how to get what she wants and has a surprisingly well developed philosophy on the matter.

Movies and novels have always popularized the notion that you can’t help who you love, but Lorelei earnestly believes that you can chose who you fall in love with and there is no reason in the world why you shouldn’t find a millionaire that you can also love. And nothing in the film contradicts this belief. She is not made to fall in love with a poor man or repent of her scheming for money. In fact, when Mr. Esmond says that she only wants his son for his money, she admits that money is a factor. Being a rich man is like being a pretty woman, she says. Men don’t marry women just because they are pretty, but “my goodness, doesn’t it help?” If he had a daughter, surely he would want his daughter to marry a man with money, too.

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-jane-russell-marilyn-monroe-1953

Dorothy and Lorelei ponder a problem

Dorothy, unlike Lorelei, is not a ditz and gets to deliver some of the films funniest and snarkiest lines. She also has a completely different philosophy in life. She likes “a beautiful hunk of man” and she likes to have a good time and she can’t stand playboys. When Gus wants her to chaperone Lorelei while they are on their trip to Europe, she is very excited to see that the whole US Olympic team will be on board. Gus is worried (he needn’t have been; athletes are too poor for Lorelei to glance at), but Dorothy replies that “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.”

The film is generally regarded as being Monroe’s film, but I have to say I really enjoyed Jane Russell. She brings an intelligent good humor to the character, with staunch loyalty to Lorelei. Russell has always had a reputation for not being the most versatile actress, but I like her low-key, comfortable persona and how she has a way of looking as if she’s really there with the other actors, instead of just using them as a prop, as Monroe can occasionally do.

The iconic song is, of course, “Diamond Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” sung by Marilyn Monroe, in pink dress with red background and dozens of men dancing in tuxedos, offering her dozens of diamonds. It’s a very catchy song, but my favorite songs are from the first half of the film. There is “Bye, Bye Baby,” which I absolutely cannot get out of my head, “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” and the song that Dorothy sings when she learns that the entire Olympic team has to be in bed by nine, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love.”

Notes

Lorelei, Dorothy and Gus

Lorelei, Dorothy and Gus

I have always had a lukewarm opinion of Marilyn Monroe’s singing abilities. She has a way of breathing through a song instead of singing. However, Monroe does a fairly good job in this. She still manages to whisper/sing many of the lyrics, but she studied hard for the film and she’s better than usual. For the really high, operatic notes in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” however, her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Deborah Kerr’s voice in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn’s in My Fair Lady.

The director, Howard Hawks, is best known for films like Bringing Up Baby and Only Angels Have Wings. He did not get along with Marilyn Monroe at all. He didn’t like that she had her acting instructor on set all the time or that she wanted many retakes. However, Jane Russell was evidently a very easy going person and was able to intercede between Hawks and Monroe.

All the songs were written by Jule Styne, with lyrics by Leo Robin. However, two additional songs were written by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson: “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” and “When Love Goes Wrong.”

Here is “Bye Bye Baby.” The first woman you hear singing is Jane Russell. Later, when you hear somebody crooning breathily that is Marilyn Monroe, singing to her fiance, Gus.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Comedy, Movie Musicals

 

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The Big Sleep – Movie and Book

220px-Bigsleep2[1]It is practically axiomatic that The Big Sleep does not make sense. When director Howard Hawks asked author Raymond Chandler who had killed the chauffeur, Chandler wired back that he had no idea. Somehow, that lack of clarity has only enhanced the mystique of the story…especially the movie.

The reasons for the confusion in the film are three-fold: the book never made that much sense anyway, the studio wanted a romance between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which came at the cost of clarity, and the Hays Code was in effect, which meant that there were many things that could be written about which could not be shown on screen.

I read the book, therefore, in the hope that it would elucidate certain aspects of the film, which it mostly did.

The Big Sleep (1939), by Raymond Chandler

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What Roger Eberts writes of the movie could also be written of the book, that it is “about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.” Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired to look into the blackmailing of General Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen, but everyone – including his other daughter, Vivien – assume that he was hired to look into the disappearance of Vivien’s husband, Rusty Regan.

There are two parts to the book. The first half deals with the death of Carmen’s blackmailer, as well as other sundry murders and sordid affairs. The second half deals with Marlowe’s search for Regan, which involves a lot of the same characters who were involved in the death of the blackmailer, like the casino owner whose wife supposedly ran off with Rusty Regan and seems to have something on Vivien.

There were obviously quite a few aspects of the book that were not allowed in the movie. It’s not so much that the movie changed things (though it did change things), but that it let certain details drop out of the picture. The result was a general lack of understandable motivation for certain characters. Why did this one young man randomly show up and shoot this other man? Oh, the blackmailer was his lover, but he shoots the wrong man because the real murderer was the chauffeur who died (nobody knows how). And what does it mean to be running “a racket?” Oh, that’s a pornographic shop. That makes sense.

Another, significant, difference is that there is no romance in the book. A romance would be too hopeful for a hardboiled detective novel, where women are wild and licentious and men are cynical and cold.

th1V1FJYF7The Big Sleep (1946) Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – Directed by Howard Hawks – Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman

I’m not sure if Chandler was pleased with the movie adaptation of his book, but he did feel that the actress playing Carmen (Martha Vickers) completely outshone Lauren Bacall as Vivien in the early release of the film. He felt that when the script was rewritten to increase Bacall’s part and decrease Vicker’s, it further confused the plot.

Bogart and Bacall were currently an item. They had met and fallen in love in the very successful 1944 film To Have and Have Not. During the filming of The Big Sleep, Bogart was going through a divorce so he could marry Lauren Bacall. There had been an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the chemistry between the two in the film and the studio wanted to capitalize on that.

They made one version of the movie and released it in 1945 to the troops overseas. However, Bacall’s agent was concerned that she was being overshadowed and since she had just starred in a dud film with Charles Boyer, her agent was concerned about her career and persuaded the studio to shoot some more scenes and cut out a few others. The result was a delightful combination detective/noir/romance – not a usual combination. Most noirs end in tears…or at the very least death, misery or despair for all.

The book ends on a sour note. Spoiler! Rusty Regan was killed by Carmen because he rebuffed her advances and Vivien was trying to hide the fact. End Spoiler! Marlowe notes how he has now become part of the general nastiness of the characters, but that at least he can spare the general any part in it. It’s not an upbeat ending. But the movie is far less nasty (nastiness still occurs, but is not so tainting).

img14[1]In fact, Marlowe, in the movie, is a genuine hero, unlike his Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941). Sam Spade has no particular morals or convictions (apart from not letting people get away with shooting his partner – even if he didn’t like the man, but it’s the principle that counts), but Bogart’s Philip Marlowe does, if not have morals, at least have a code, as he’s striving to do right, catch the criminals, spare his client and help the woman he loves out of the jam she’s in.

Note: for a witty and spot-on article about The Big Sleep film, The Man on The Flying Trapeze writes in the chivalric vein of the many ways that he loves the film. He calls the film a “screwball noir” and Marlowe “Sir Galahad in a 1938 Plymouth coupe who saves the honor of the Sternwood family while falling in love with one of the princesses.” This article is what inspired me to watch the movie, and also to read the book.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2014 in Books, Movies

 

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