Bust: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)

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By Scott Ross

A Technicolor® curio. Although ostensibly based on the 1949 Broadway musical that made a star of Carol Channing, as well as on its source, Anita Loos’ comic novel of 1925, the movie jettisons the plot and most of the Jule Styne/Leo Robin score, adds a couple of pleasing songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, and although Loos’ book is one of the most famous, indeed era-defining, books of its time, capriciously alters its time-frame from the Roaring ’20s to the Mordibund ’50s. It was shot, tellingly, by a cinematographer (Harry J. Wild) whose previous work was solely on Westerns. Maybe that’s part of the reason it doesn’t look like a Howard Hawks picture. Or could it be that, unaccustomed to musicals — the numbers were not only choreographed by Jack Cole, but directed by him as well — Hawks was bored, and phoning it in?

It’s not a total loss, by any means, although the color photography is occasionally headache-inducing. The best things in it, despite the joke casting, is the double-act of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. But their mammarian assets are the first tip-off that the movie isn’t set in the 1920s, when flat chests were prized by flappers (and which Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond will have Monroe make a point about, later, in Some Like it Hot.) The second hint is the alternately bland and grotesque costuming. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a movie that feels as if it was put together by boobs, for little reason other than showing off the boobs of others.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Diamonds

Marilyn performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” with chorus. The gent at the right with the touch of gray at the temples is George Chakiris. Larry Kert was also a chorus boy in the picture. A Jet and a Shark in the same picture!

Lorelei Lee was Monroe’s star-making performance and she’s very funny, emphasizing the resolute gold-digger aspects of the role in such a forthright manner it almost becomes a virtue and she looks, frankly, fabulous in the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number, a blonde-and-pink vision on a field of black and red. As her pal Dorothy, Russell, who knew well that her cartoon bust was the reason for her stardom, gives a wry, likable performance. Her approach is almost a comic shrug, relaxed and amused, and she’s particularly good in the otherwise ludicrous courtroom sequence in which she imitates Monroe’s wide-eyed, cheerfully corrupt innocence. She also has an eye-poppingly homoerotic Jack Cole number called “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” in which she cavorts in and around a bunch of Olympic athletes narcissistically intent on flexing their muscles and resolutely ignoring her; when she ends up being dunked in the pool at the end, and laughs at herself (it was accident the filmmakers left in) you like her even more.

The screenplay by the usually reliable Charles Lederer is a bore, and includes such knee-slappers as a solemn, intellectual child (George Winslow) and a randy old British knight (Charles Coburn). Even the nifty Carmichael/Adamson blues “When Love Goes Wrong” is sabotaged by a comic approach at variance with the lyrics; Lorelei and Dorothy are lamenting their failed love-lives, and grinning like idiots the whole time. It’s as if the people involved didn’t think we could hear the words. And there is one truly bizarre moment, at the beginning, when Tommy Noonan, as Monroe’s rich swain, having witnessed her and Russell performing their “Two Little Girls from Little Rock” duet in a nightclub, gets up from his table to go backstage and confront her and literally minces, in a way that makes Quentin Crisp look butch. While the character Noonan plays is hardly macho, there’s nothing about him to suggest he isn’t heterosexual. So what the hell was that about?

The movie’s director, famous for his stories of intense, intimate relationships between men — who nonetheless also often vie for the affections of the same woman — seemed to think a man who wore glasses was suspect. (cf., Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, who “just [goes] gay, all of a sudden!”) You can almost hear Archie Bunker talking:  “I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer. A guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes. A guy who is a fag is a queer.” He may have made more entertaining movies than almost anyone else of his time, but Howard Hawks was a very strange man. If you noticed these things, however, and said so to him, you, not he, were the strange one.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

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