Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Marilyn Monroe has become such a legendary icon, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is such a celebrated part of her filmography, that it's surprising to discover she wasn't the first choice to play Lorelei, the voluptuous gold-digger who never met a diamond she didn't like. Production chief Darryl F. Zanuck had Betty Grable in mind when Twentieth Century-Fox bought movie rights to the eponymous Broadway show, and a large factor in Zanuck's change of heart was Monroe's salary, considerably lower than Grable's when the picture was made in 1953. Then too, Monroe's star was rising and Grable's was on the wane.
Monroe received only $18,000 for her services, and the modest fee may have been justified. Although she was an experienced actress by this time this was her seventeenth credited role and her sixth movie of the year she often arrived late and was frightened of starting work on intimate scenes and musical numbers alike. At rehearsals she usually looked "like she'd just crawled out of bed no makeup, tangled hair, and blue jeans," costar Jane Russell wrote years later. Yet in other ways Monroe gave her all to the project, staying after hours to learn dance numbers and singing all her own songs except the intro to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." She was a creative contributor, too. When a character tells Lorelei that he'd heard she was dumb, she answers, "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it." This line, added at Monroe's direct suggestion, was "her own sly riposte to the prevailing sexism of the 1950s," Monroe biographer Donald Spoto declares.
Zanuck hired Russell to play Dorothy, the brunette of the picture, as insurance in case Monroe underperformed. This was only Russell's eleventh role since her debut in Howard Hughes's notorious 1943 western The Outlaw, but she was a more even-tempered professional than Monroe; by all accounts she helped director Howard Hawks keep her insecure costar under control, calming her down and repeating Hawks's instructions when Monroe chronically failed to understand or remember them. The hardest work for both Russell and Monroe was the dance numbers, which were directed by choreographer Jack Cole, since Hawks had no interest in them. Cole was an indefatigable artist who "worked dancers to death," Russell wrote in her autobiography, "but...was patience itself" with her and Monroe, even though "we didn't know our left foot from our right."
In all, Russell recalled, "I had a ball on that picture, but I don't think Marilyn did altogether." One reason why Russell had such a ball is that the studio had to borrow her from Hughes's company, where she was still under contract, and the loan-out deal stipulated that her wardrobe, hair, and makeup crew would come along with her, plus cinematographer Harry J. Wild, who earned Monroe's gratitude by not favoring Russell in his shots. Russell was certainly a good sport about the production, as the climax of a big production number shows. A line of men were diving over her head into a swimming pool, and one diver came in too low, knocking her head first into the water, where she surfaced looking like the proverbial drowned rat. The shot was redone a few days later, but the first take was used in the final cut, and Russell applauded the decision.
The tale of Lorelei and Dorothy first appeared in a novella by Anita Loos called The Diary of a Hasty Traveler, which was serialized in Harper's Bazaar in 1925. Later that year Loos published it as a book called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, and then she turned it into a play, which ran on Broadway in the 1926-27 season before becoming a Paramount picture in 1928. Loos used the characters again in the novellas Why Not Brunette and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes not every gent prefers blondes, it appears and teamed with Joseph Fields to adapt the play version as a Broadway musical, which opened in 1949 with Carol Channing and Yvonne Adair in the leads. (A revival in 1995 tanked after two dozen performances.)
Of all the story's versions, the 1953 movie is easily the most popular, thanks in part to Hawks, who enjoyed directing it despite some compromises he had to make. One concerned the film's gaudy Technicolor look, which went completely against his preference for low-key hues, but was unavoidable for this splashy $2 million production. A more serious problem concerned Monroe, whom Hawks found vulgar, dim-witted, and unsexy. He had worked with her in Monkey Business the previous year, so he had some idea of what to expect, but he said later that "there were a lot of times when I was ready to give up the ghost." Still, he appreciated her charisma on the screen, and as Todd McCarthy writes in his Hawks biography, "he played with it and helped make her into a great star in the process." In the end, Hawks considered himself lucky to have directed Monroe before her anxieties grew even more disabling in subsequent years, and his final verdict on her is as accurate as it is unsparing. "There wasn't a real thing about her," he said in the interview book Hawks on Hawks. "Everything was completely unreal....Gentleman Prefer Blondes was the first [picture] where she really went good, and then [Hollywood] had no sense to stick with that."
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has a lot going for it besides its glamorous female stars. Charles Coburn is excellent as Sir Francis Beekman, an infatuated diamond mogul better known as Piggy, and while Elliott Reid is just adequate as the guy who woos Dorothy, awkward Tommy Noonan is just right as Lorelei's filthy rich fiancé. The bouncy score includes tuneful songs like "Two Little Girls from Little Rock" and "Anyone Here for Love?" as well as the memorable ditty about diamonds and best friends, and the production numbers are as brassy and bold as the Technicolor colors that jazz them up. Reviewers were generally pleased with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the public loved it, buying more than $5 million worth of tickets by the end of 1953, which made it the second-biggest hit of Hawks's career to date. As for the dialogue, I could quote it endlessly, but I'll settle for the screenplay's last line, a marvel of innuendo in a heavily censored era. Dorothy to Lorelei as they walk down the aisle to marry their respective men: "Remember, honey, on your wedding day it's all right to say Yes."
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Screenplay: Charles Lederer, based on the musical comedy by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos
Cinematographer: Harry J. Wild
Film Editing: Hugh S. Fowler
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, Joseph C. Wright
Music: Jule Styne and Leo Robin, with songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson
Choreography: Jack Cole With: Jane Russell (Dorothy Shaw), Marilyn Monroe (Lorelei Lee), Charles Coburn (Sir Francis "Piggy" Beekman), Elliott Reid (Ernie Malone), Tommy Noonan (Gus Esmond), George Winslow (Henry Spofford III), Marcel Dalio (Magistrate), Taylor Holmes (Mr. Esmond Sr.), Norma Varden (Lady Beekman), Howard Wendell (Watson), Steven Geray (hotel manager).
by David Sterritt