Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Blonded by the Light

I started writing this review last week, but put it aside for other things. Yesterday, my movie networks were lit up with the news that Jane Russell had died at 89. Suddenly, the circumstances of this review turned into a eulogy. Which is all kinds of wrong for a movie as full of life as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, directed by Howard Hawks). Russell appeared in a handful of iconic roles and was notorious for her plunging neckline in Howard Hughes's The Outlaw, but it's in Blondes that she staked her claim to immortality, even in the shadow of Marilyn Monroe.

Has there ever been a sexier musical than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Somehow, I doubt it. Better musicals? Maybe. But not sexier. It's a bitches brew of sexual politics, in which our two heroines, Dorothy and Lorelei, are on the make for suitable mates in the best tradition of the Gold Diggers musicals of the 1930s. They are both sexually self-possessed. They know what they like, and they go after it. This would be at home in a pre-Code movie, but in 1953? This is downright revolutionary: simultaneously sexist, retrograde, and of its time and feminist, sex-positive, and forward-looking. It's a movie that completely explodes the male gaze by turning the tables upon it.

Oh, and it's LOADS of fun.

The story finds unapologetic gold-digger Lorelei embarking on a cruise to Paris after becoming engaged to milquetoast heir Gus Esmond, whose father distrusts her. Lorelei brings her best friend and show business partner, Dorothy with her to keep her out of trouble, while Gus's father plants a private detective on board to keep an eye on things, and to break up the pending nuptials if he can. The detective, on the other hand, has his eye distracted by Dorothy. Dorothy, meanwhile, is searching for love herself, but she's sick of men trying to impress her with their wealth and success. She wants a man who can be himself. She's a tough cookie. Also thrown into the mix is Sir Francis 'Piggy' Beekman, a swindler and jewel thief, who absconds with a diamond tiara that has been loaned to Lorelei. Once in France, a warrant for Lorelei's arrest is issued, and Dorothy impersonates Lorelei to buy her time to make things right with Gus's father and pay for the missing jewel.

The story is okay, I guess, but it's the characters and the set pieces that really make the movie sing. Howard Hawks was famous for his dictum that a good movie consisted of good scenes, and this movie has some doozies. Virtually every scene in which Jane Russell's Dorothy cracks wise is a treasure. She's the apotheosis of the Hawksian woman: competent, sarcastic, vulnerable beneath the diamond-hard exterior, and completely in tune with her sex drive. She's a wit worthy of Mae West, actually, and she all but steals the movie from her co-star. No small feat. Her big musical number, "Is There Anyone Here for Love" amid a bevy of athletes who she inspects like a connoisseur, is virtually unique in so far as it's a pure distillation of female sexuality into a Hollywood musical number. Men are purely ornamental in this scene, purely meant as an object of the female gaze and as objects of sexual desire.

The end of the movie is a tour de force for Russell, whose chops as a mimic are given a workout as she impersonates (and gently lampoons) her co-star. She's doesn't cede an inch of sex appeal to Monroe.

This movie is at the center of the Marilyn Monroe legend, featuring THE iconic Monroe performance (in a part that is significantly underwritten for her). The "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number is such a part of the popular imagination that it supercedes every other image of the actress (with the exception, perhaps, of the white dress and the subway vent in The Seven-Year Itch). The interesting thing about this number is that it repeats the feminine gaze of Russell's "Is Anyone Here for Love." Men are again ornaments in this number, which is even more amplified in this scene by the color design. Men are again objects of sexual desire, and, interestingly, exploitable assets.

Maybe I'm just dense, but this is the first time I really took note of the fact that in her best-known movies, she's paired with men who are significantly weak and, well, unmasculine. Was this a deliberate strategy to amplify her image as a sex goddess? Maybe. Probably. Norma Jean was a shrewd manager of her public image. Monroe was a significantly better actress than she's sometimes given credit, and she makes the most of a character that's totally underwritten. I love the vindication of the gold-digging impulse provided at the end of the movie:

Esmond Sr.: Have you got the nerve to tell me you don't want to marry my son for his money?
Lorelei Lee: It's true.
Esmond Sr.: Then what do you want to marry him for?
Lorelei Lee: I want to marry him for YOUR money...Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?

She totally sells it.

One of the final shots of the movie amuses me no end. This is it:

There's a part of me that imagines that Russell and Monroe are marrying each other in this shot because NONE of the men in the movie are even remotely worthy of either of them. I'd like to think this was accidental, but I'm deeply suspicious. Hawks plays with gender all across his filmography (see, for instance, Cary Grant in a maribou robe in Bringing Up Baby, or in drag in I Was a Male War Bride). The director wasn't shy about puncturing notions of masculinity and femininity in a coded queer context. I like to think of this as a the greatest gay marriage in movies. But that's just me.


Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius:

Well, Monroe and Russell married. Thank you. Thank you for a day’s worth of daydreams.

I always loved Russell’s pairing with Robert Mitchum (His Kind of Woman and Macao). A match made in Heaven by my lights. Cool observation about Monroe being paired with un-masculine men (or at least men not overtly masculine). Perhaps the actress actually liked the thin sensitive type in real life? I’ve read that she had a preference for bookish men (with the exception of the rather free-swinging DiMaggio who was, to say the least, not a book lover).

Very cool woman, Russell. RIP.

Per usual, good post!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal! I know, right? All kinds of daydreams. And night dreams. Sigh.

I LOVE His Kind of Woman, but with all due respect to Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, I don't even remember them in that movie because Vincent Price steals it so shamelessly.

Andrew said...

Man, this post makes me wish I still had Turner Classic Movies....
So many gems!

Samuel Wilson said...

Doctor, your fantasy of a Monroe-Russell marriage reminds me of a possibly apocryphal story recounted in Joyce Carol Oates's Monroe bio-novel, Blonde. Monoroe and Russell are at the premiere, if I recall right, and Jane tells Marilyn there's one thing they can do to drive all the men in the crowd berserk. "Strip?" Marilyn assumes. "Kiss," Jane corrects her.

I agree with you on His Kind of Woman, too. That whole film is a riot but Price rules it as the ham who talks the talk and walks the walk.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Sam. I remember that! And if it ain't true--it probably isn't--it oughta be.

Hi, Andrew. Not having TCM is one of my very few regrets about not having cable. Fortunately, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is on Netflix Instant right now, along with a smattering of other Marilyn Monroe movies.