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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes – by Anita Loos

GentlemenPreferBlondesAnita Loos is one of the most accomplished female American writers of the 1900s, author of novels, screenplays (for both silents and talkies), subtitles for silent movies, several memoirs, and Broadway plays. She also personified the flapper in the 1920s with her bobbed hair and wit and was just as much a prominent figure as a movie star, moving not only in Hollywood circles, but literary ones, as well. In fact, it was her friend, H.L. Mencken who inadvertently inspired her to write her most famous work, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Loos got the idea while traveling on a train with some friends, including Douglas Fairbanks, and she noticed that one woman, a blonde, was receiving all the attention. Men were practically bending over backwards to help her, whilst ignoring Loos, who felt she was just as attractive and youthful as the blonde, and a good deal more intelligent. Likewise, she noticed that her brilliant and satiric friend, H.L. Mencken, fell for a whole procession of low-intelligence blondes. In response, Loos wrote the novel that embodies the flapper era better than any novel I’ve ever read. As classic and iconic of the era as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a great deal more fun.

Published in 1926, the book is constructed as a diary, written by Lorelei Lee, who was told by a gentlemen friend that “if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book.” The diary lasts from that point until she marries, a period of several months. It’s a satire. Loos skewers everyone in sight. Lorelei Lee is the blonde who is astonishingly ignorant, though with impressive street smarts. Practically every man she encounters is predatory, though their street-smartness is never up to Lorelei’s. Dorothy Shaw is Lorelei’s irrepressible friend, who never does learn how to be refined (Lorelei is striving for refinement, though her notions of what is refined is rather shaky) and constantly dismays her friend by falling in love with poor men. Lorelei would never allow herself to do anything so ill-advised as to fall in love at all, let alone with a man who had no money.

In New York, everybody parties, everybody drinks though it is the height of prohibition (Lorelei is filled with wonder, when she travels to Europe, at how people can go to hotel and order a drink). There are actors, musicians, intellectual gentlemen, movie producers, reformers, rich business men, old money, new money. But all the men seem curiously the same. They all profess to be interested in Lorelei’s brains and they all talk a great deal. One of Lorelei’s greatest assets is not only that she an irresistible blonde, but that she is an excellent listener.

Jean Harlow and Anita Loos - Loos wrote the screenplay for Harlow's hit movie, Red-Headed Woman

Jean Harlow and Anita Loos – Loos wrote the screenplay for Harlow’s hit movie, Red-Headed Woman

When the story begins, Lorlei is being ‘educated’ by Mr. Eisman, the button king. He is always sending her books and allows her to rack up a truly impressive array of bills. Lorelei chiefly likes him because he knows how to treat ‘we girls,” which is to say, he knows to shower them with presents and jewelry. However, being educated by Mr. Eisman does not prevent her from seeing other gentlemen friends, who all profess to be fascinated by her mind and long to educated her. And when Mr. Eisman sends Lorelei and Dorothy to Europe for more education, she meets Mr. Henry Spofford, whose business is censorship and who goes completely nuts over Lorelei. The question for Lorelei is, can she stand him enough to marry him?

Meanwhile, Lorelei and Dorothy travel through Europe: London and Paris, Central Europe, Germany, Austria. What is so funny is that they are on the trip to broaden their horizons, but Lorelei never ceases to look at the world with her unshakably unique, American perspective. She has little use for London gentlemen since they don’t buy presents. She comes to the conclusion that only American men are worthwhile, since only American men spend so liberally. She does, however, manage to wangle a diamond tiara out of a Sir Francis Beekman, but she has to work at it.

She is unimpressed with Central Europe because all she sees are farms where the women work and the men seem to take it easy, which is an experience that has no bearing on her life. In Germany, all the men eat sausages. She is not so much interested in landmarks as she is in shopping. New York, she decides, is really the place to be. In Vienna she meets Dr. Freud (she spells it Froyd), whose theory that inhibitions are the root cause of neuroses is somewhat upset when he discovers that Lorelei has no inhibitions. She even once acted violently, shooting a man who was two-timing her.

Loos prose is clever and absolutely a hoot. Lorelei cannot spell to save her life. ‘Subject’ becomes subjeck, intrigued is intreeged, negligee is negligay Most hysterically is how the Eiffel Tower is spelled the Eyefull Tower and the Hofbrau becomes the Half Brow. A Frenchman, who’s name I assume is Robert (pronounced ro-bair in French), is spelled Robber. Ironically, he is trying to rob Lorelei.

Movie adaption of Broadway play adaption of Loos' novel - 1953

Movie adaption of Broadway play adaption of Loos’ novel – 1953

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was extremely successful when it was published, so Anita Loos wrote a sequel in 1927 called But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. The book is still written from the perspective of Lorelei, who is now married and crashing the social register, but she now has literary ambitions and wants to write the life story of her friend, Dorothy Shaw, who grew up on a Carnival, upgraded to working in Ziegfeld’s Follies and still has the unfortunately tendency to fall in love with penniless men.

But Gentlemen Marry Brunette‘s is still fun, but it lacks the irrepressible sparkle of the first novel. Loos is still taking aim at hypocritical, reforming morals, middle class morals, upper class decadence, artistic pretense, etc. However, because Lorelei is no longer recounting her own story, complete with her unintentionally funny and revealing comments, the prose suffers a bit and has a less spontaneous, stream of conscience feel and is more straightforward.

Edith Wharton called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the “great American novel.” It’s certainly one of the most entertaining. But it is also a fantastic examination of an era with cultural references, real people, attitudes, prohibition. I would recommend it over The Great Gatsby any day.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2015 in Fiction

 

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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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