The Silly Secretary Trilogy

Marilyn first appeared on film as a secretary in Hometown Story, a pro-capitalist message movie financed by General Motors Corporation for the minuscule sum of $243K. An interesting feature of the movie is the appearance of Academy Award winner and Hollywood legend, Donald Crisp, whose career began in the silent era as both an actor and a director. In 1906, opera impresario, John C. Fisher, discovered the fledgling actor’s singing talents; so Donald joined Grand Opera in New York City. He eventually became a stage director for George M. Cohan, also a legend. Donald appeared in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915: he portrayed U. S. Grant. With Griffith, another legend, Donald learned a how to make movies and directed seventy silent features. During his lengthy career, he acted alongside most, if not all, of the film industry’s acting legends. To mention a few: Lilian Gish, Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, Charles Laughton, Buster Keaton, Bette Davis, Douglas Fairbanks, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Kate Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe at an early stage in her brief career. In 1942, Donald won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in John Ford’s revered, How Green Was My Valley. It is indeed remarkable to see an actor of Donald Crisp’s renown starring in a B grade, low budget production like Hometown Story. He portrays the benevolent businessman, John MacFarland.

As Young As You Feel clearly falls within a category of bedroom comedies in which Marilyn appeared, like Love Nest and Let’s Make It Legal, during her second tour of duty on Fox’s lots. The only distinction with the film is her role as Harriet, her second instance as a secretary. She also appears for the first time in a movie with David Wayne. She appeared in four movies in which David also appeared but he actually only shared scenes with her in two of the four: We’re Not Married and How to Marry a Millionaire. David was complimentary of Marilyn’s photogenic qualities but he never spoke very highly of her acting ability, not uncommon among the actors with whom she competed.

Marilyn’s role in Monkey Business as Miss Lois Laurel, a secretary who has a girlish crush on Cary Grant’s research chemist, Barnaby Fulton, represents three significant demarcations in her movie career: 1) it marks the end of her early career as primarily a bit player; 2) it immediately precedes Niagara; and 3) Miss Laurel represents the initial incidence of Marilyn’s fully developed dumb blonde persona.

Of additional significance to Marilyn’s career, Monkey Business is the first of her two movies directed by Howard Hawks; and apparently, the correct title for Marilyn’s final adventure in secretarialism is not just Monkey Business but Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business. By adding the director’s name, one creates a distinction between it and the Marx Brother’s 1931 flicker show which has the same name. Apparently for some, that’s an important distinction to draw. However, Howard Hawks’ involvement in this movie is not what makes it marketable or sellable six decades after its original release. As a matter of fact, the movie is not packaged or sold as a Howard Hawks movie or even a Cary Grant movie. O No! It is packaged and sold as a Marilyn Monroe movie. So I want to be the first person to propose that this movie should now and forevermore be entitled Marilyn Monroe’s Monkey Business.

While Howard Hawks made uncredited contributions to the Monkey Business screenplay, the talented writers credited with the screenplay include Charles Lederer, I.A.L Diamond and Ben Hecht, an impressive trio. Marilyn has an additional connection to Mr. Hecht: he ghost wrote her autobiography.

The Impression Trilogy

Marilyn appeared in five films before 1950, only one of which was a co-starring role as Peggy Martin in the low-budget musical, Ladies of the Chorus. Two films released in 1950, The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, along with one released in mid-1952, Clash By Night, provided Marilyn with roles through which she could both create in and leave an impression on the minds of both the cinema critics and the general public. Those three films I call The Impression Trilogy.

Marilyn’s portrayal of Angela Phinlay in The Asphalt Jungle for director and screenwriter John Huston marked her first appearance in a drama helmed by a renown auteur. Huston directed The Maltese Falcon in 1941, and his 1948 movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, won two Oscars: Best Director and Best Adapted Screen Play, both for Huston. In My Story, Marilyn recalled her audition for Huston and the movie’s producer, Arthur Hornblow:

A pulse was pounding in my stomach. I couldn’t have been more frightened if I were about to step in front of a locomotive to get run over … I felt sick. I had told myself a million times that I was an actress. I had practiced  acting for years. Here, finally, was my first chance at a real acting part with a great director to direct me. And all I could do is stand with quivering knees and a quivering stomach and nod my head like a wooden toy (Monroe 111-112).

John Huston recalled in many interviews during the years after Marilyn’s death, that her audition was more than satisfactory. Even though she asked for a second, her initial reading of the lines he gave her that day, he stated, immediately landed Marilyn the part; however, Hornblow contradicted Huston on more than one occasion: he recalled that Marilyn’s audition was not at all impressive. According to Arthur, Huston was not going to cast Marilyn; but outside forces intervened, forces named Lucille Ryman, the Talent Director at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Louis Mayer. Apparently, Lucile forced the director to reconsider his decision and make a screen test of Marilyn. Mayer ordered Huston to cast Marilyn after he saw her screen test.

Regardless of how she acquired the part or who actually cast her, her portrayal of a corrupt lawyer’s young mistress received a considerable amount of attention and positive reviews. Despite that attention and the reviews, despite the impression she left in the minds of those who saw the movie, she received two relatively insignificant roles in relatively insignificant movies, Right Cross and The Fireball, before she garnered her next impressive role.

Like John Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz was also an Academy Award winning director and screenwriter. Marilyn observed the following about Joe: Mr. Mankiewicz was a different sort of director than Mr. Huston. He wasn’t as exciting, and he was more talkative. But he was intelligent and sensitive (Monroe 120).

In 1949, Joe Mankiewicz both wrote and directed A Letter to Three Wives, for which he won Academy Awards. He received the same Oscars for directing and writing the next impressive film in which Marilyn appeared. All About Eve is the only movie in which she appeared during her career that won the Oscar for best picture. Huston’s Asphalt Jungle received multiple nominations; but Joe’s female drama was the big winner among 1950’s movies.

Her appearance as the naive, beautiful starlet, Claudia Caswell, marked her first performance within an ensemble cast that also featured a Hollywood Legend, Bette Davis. Again, Marilyn’s portrayal of Miss Caswell received a considerable amount of attention and positive reviews, leading to a seven year contract with Fox. However, she would appear in four relatively insignificant movies, Home Town Story, As Young as You Feel, Love Nest and Let’s Make It Legal, two of which appear in The Silly Secretary Trilogy, and wait almost two years for her next impressive assignment.

The scandal involving Marilyn’s nude calendar photographs broke in early 1952 when she was filming Clash By Night for German auteur Fritz Lang, world famous for his silent masterpiece, Metropolis. The last movie in her Impression Trilogy, Clash By Night, is the film, along with her nudity scandal, that set Marilyn’s feet firmly on the path to stardom and fame. Once again, she found herself appearing within an ensemble cast featuring two renown stage actors, Paul Douglas and Robert Ryan, and another legendary movie actress, Barbara Stanwyk.

Marilyn never said much about Clash By Night during her later career, possibly because her rising fame and popularity were not appreciated by her co-star, Mr. Douglas. Apparently reporters and cameramen only wanted to interview and photograph the calendar pinup girl with the large breasts, prompting the following querulous remark from Mr. Douglas: Why the hell don’t these goddamn photographers ever take any pictures of us? It’s only that goddamn blonde bitch. Keith Andes portrayed Marilyn’s love interest in Clash By Night and he offered this memory years later: There was a lot of publicity going for this girl, and man, did she work those crowds. She’d pout that mouth and kind of rub up against them with her tits, and these guys would go crazy. It was great. What a doll (Buskin 95).

Often overlooked by Marilyn’s misguided detractors, she maintained a fealty to truth and realism in her performances, regardless of the characters she portrayed; and her portrayal of Peggy, a young but tough cannery worker, was no different. She immersed herself in realism, the culture of a fishing village and the lives of its citizens. As noted by Stacy Eubank: In order to absorb the realism, Marilyn rode all night on a bus to Monterey, some 300 miles from Hollywood. She spent a day talking to boat owners and cannery workers and returned home that night. For Hollywood columnist, Hedda Hopper, Marilyn described her night trip as a chance to get close to humanity, something no actress should ever miss. I didn’t use any makeup and I wore a shabby old camel hair coat and tied a babushka around my head. Obviously, Marilyn remembered and was still connected to her past as an assembly line worker at Radioplane Munitions: I never forget what it was like to be one of those women, she commented to Hedda. For her realistic performance and her willingness to associate with the cannery workers, the Fish Cannery Workers Union appointed her Honorary Shop Steward (Eubank 228-230).

Like she did in both The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, the doll acquitted herself well with her sensitive and realistic portrayal of Peggy, leading directly to her first real starring role as Nell Forbes in Don’t Bother to Knock.

The Dumb Blonde Trilogy

During the middle three years of Marilyn’s career, 1953 thru 1955, years that encompass her meteoric rise to stardom and international fame, she appeared in six movies, all of which were successes of varying degrees. In three of the six, she portrayed happy, beautiful young women who were allegedly shallow and dumb numbskulls. Those films comprise what I call The Dumb Blonde Trilogy: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch.

Marilyn and Jane Russell, Marilyn’s dark-haired costar in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the first movie in The Dumb Blonde Trilogy, performed all their scenes on Fox’s Sound Stage 3 located at Century City during the end of 1952.

The three gold diggers in How to Marry a Millionaire, the trilogy’s second movie, also filmed in late 1952, performed their scenes at three locations: Stage 14, Century City, 38 Sutton Place in Manhattan and Sun Valley, Idaho.

For Marilyn’s third and final movie in the dumb blonde trilogy, she and Tom Ewell created TheGirl and Richard Sherman on Stage 10 at Century City during the summer of 1954. They also filmed at 164 61st Street in Manhattan, Richard’s apartment. Billy Wilder filmed the now famous and iconic dress billowing scene featured in The Seven Year Itch at the Trans-Lux Theater in Manhattan, then located at 52nd street and Lexington Avenue, on September the 13th. He filmed retakes of that indelible scene, made necessary due to the noise generated by a large crowd of excited on-lookers, mostly men, at a recreated Trans-Lux Theater on Fox’s back lots in Hollywood during January of 1955.

During the decade of the forties, Betty Grable was Fox’s biggest star and also every GI’s pin-up fantasy girl during WWII. She was known as the gal with the mi$$ion dollar legs because Fox insured her perfect gams for that amount with Lloyds of London. Darryl Zanuck originally cast Betty as Lorelei Lee; but both he and his director, Howard Hawks, believed that Betty was probably too old to play the gold-digging blonde even though Betty was only thirty-five years old at the time.

Hawks was not a Marilyn fan. He did not like nor understand her, thought she was goddamn dumb and as phony as a three dollar bill; however, when Darryl Zanuck approached Hawks about directing the movie and replacing Betty Grable with Marilyn, Hawks agreed she would make a perfect Lorelei Lee. Moreover, Hawks had experienced Marilyn on the sets of Monkey Business in 1951 and Zanuck hoped experience would help Hawks deal with Marilyn’s increasing insecurity, her reliance on Natasha Lytess and her request for multiple takes; but such was not to be the case. She got under Hawks’ skin by demanding retakes long after he, the director, was satisfied with her performance and delivery. Adding to his discontent and aggravation, Hawks often had to send Jane Russell to get the reluctant blonde and escort her to the set. When the movie began to fall behind schedule, executives at Fox sent Hawks a note asking what could be done to speed things up. He replied tersely: Three wonderful ideas: replace Marilyn, rewrite the script and make it shorter, and get a new director. Once again, Marilyn was directed by a man who had little or no respect for her.

The main reason, some contend, that Zanuck assigned the role to Marilyn, then ten years younger than Betty, was simply a financial one: Betty would cost Fox $150K while Marilyn, a contract player, would cost them $25K at the most. Also, Zanuck wanted to capitalize on his hottest star’s new fame, her sexy performance in Niagara and of course, whether admitted or not, her recently discovered nude photographs.

We have to ask ourselves if Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be the same movie had Zanuck left Betty Grable in the blonde’s role? Would it now be viewed as the classic it has become? Also, we have to ask ourselves if any of the scholarly, highly intellectualized feminist analysis of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would have transpired if Betty had portrayed Lorelei Lee; and equally as interesting, we must consider that Marilyn’s career might have taken a totally different course had she not received the seminal role of the naive, diamond-loving, blonde gold-digger. Marilyn’s star was ascending due to her performance in Niagara and the probability that her star would have continued its ascent is high; but her rendition of the frisky, sexy, sneaky-smart Lorelei, alongside Jane Russell’s wise cracking Dorothy, galvanized Marilyn’s glamorous image of innocent sexuality in America and the world.

During the late forties and early fifties, television was bleeding customers from movie theaters. The studios introduced an expensive, complex and difficult Cinerama filming and curved-screen-projection-system, along with early attempts at 3D, in 1952. They hoped to stop the bleeding. These and other new technologies appeared to reverse the trend, at least temporarily, and convinced Skyros P. Skouras, then president of 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, that similar technological advances would ultimately vanquish Hollywood’s new rival.

Skouras dispatched Earl Sponable, head of Fox’s research department, to develop a new, exciting film projection system, one that could be easily and economically added to the projection systems in existing theaters. Sponable remembered a projection system developed by the French inventor, Henri Chrétien, Hypergonar. Henri’s system delivered a wider image at the moment of projection. Using the Hypergonar lenses as their beginning, Bausch & Lomb developed the CinemaScope projection system along with the modern anamorphic format.

Even though How to Marry a Millionaire was the first movie completed using the new wide screen format and lense system, it was not the first to be released for public viewing. The Robe received that honor. Fox was concerned the public might not accept the new, wider format, particularly on a romantic comedy. Fox released the family oriented, more significant biblical epic first and filled the wide screen of the romantic comedy with three beautiful blondes: Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and their newest, hottest star, Marilyn Monroe.

When cast to star alongside Lauren Bacall and Marilyn in How to Marry a Millionaire, Betty was on the downhill side of her illustrious career. Fox’s publicity department hoped for sparks of resentment and jealousy to fly between Betty and Marilyn due to the fact that Marilyn had replaced Betty as Lorelei Lee, but the two blondes became fast friends. The studio, in a rather ham handed manner, attempted to use Marilyn to notify Betty that they had found her replacement. During the production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn asked Fox for her own dressing room. According to Gary Vitacco-Robles:

Marilyn had warranted only a cubicle in the studio’s changing room. Now, Fox offered her Betty Grable’s plush dressing room, but the gesture was intended more to dethrone Fox’s former blonde champion than to coronate its current one. It sent a strong message to Grable that her star was fading as Marilyn’s was rising. ‘They tried to take me into her dressing room  as if I were taking over,’ Marilyn said. ‘I couldn’t do that’ (Vitacco-Robles v1:309-310).

The beautiful blondes respected each other. When the younger blonde was criticized in the press for her outlandish wardrobe choices, the older blonde objected. According to Donald Spoto, Betty correctly observed: Marilyn’s the biggest thing that’s happened to Hollywood in years. The movies were just sort of going along, and all of a sudden—zowie!—there was Marilyn. She’s a shot in the arm for Hollywood (Spoto 238). Apparently Betty told Marilyn directly: Go and get yours honey! I’ve had mine! Despite their friendship and their mutual respect, it’s generally recognized that with How to Marry a Millionaire, Marilyn replaced Betty as Fox’s top star. Two years later, in 1955, after making How to Be Very Very Popular with Sheree North, Betty tore up her Fox contract Fox and all but retired from film making. Betty’s last film was intended as a vehicle to reunite her and Marilyn. Marilyn refused to make the movie: she thought the scrip was poor. During her conversations with W. J. Weatherby in 1962, Marilyn clearly declared her respect for Betty and understood the foundation laid by her. As Weatherby observed: She [Marilyn] admired Betty Gable as someone who had helped maker her own  career possible: she saw herself not as a unique sex symbol of her own publicity, but as part of a tradition (Weatherby 57)

It’s ironic that three times in Marilyn’s career, first in Let’s Make It Legal, next in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and then How to Marry a Millionaire, she was cast as a gold digger. Marilyn was unquestionably the least materialistic movie star in the history of movie stars. According to those who knew her, she was generous to the point of actually jeopardizing herself financially. According to her friend and costar, Robert Mitchum, she was one of the most honest, loyal, earnest people that I’ve ever met and generous to a fault. She was not really interested in and did not own much jewelry, many furs or expensive clothes. What she owned of those articles had been given to her and most of what was given to her, she often gave away. She never owned a huge or a lavish home or a fleet of expensive automobiles.

The three movies in The Dumb Blonde Trilogy enshrine Marilyn on celluloid while she was at the zenith of her physical beauty, particularly The Seven Year Itch. Although Marilyn was indeed beautiful for the entirety of her brief life and career, during the early and mid-fifties, she was virtually untouchable. Each movie was a marvelous vehicle for Marilyn to display her many and varied talents: her impeccable comic timing, her genius and her prowess as a singer and dancer and her remarkable skills as an actress. The later, unfortunately, was often overlooked during her career and is slightly undervalued today.

Her performances, not only in the movies of her Dumb Blond Trilogy, but many others as well, were, and often are, dismissed as Marilyn just being Marilyn, no acting involved; but nothing could be further from the truth. The three women she portrays, Lorelei, Pola and TheGirl, are similar one to the other but they are also distinctly different women and they are not just shallow, cardboard cutouts. They may be the embodiment of an ultimate male fantasy, particularly TheGirl, but Marilyn invests each with totally real, totally believable traits that distinguish one from the other.

Marilyn was, and remains, the embodiment of feminine charm, innocence, beauty and bubbly sexuality. And for that embodiment, no actress before her was―or after her is―quite as exquisite as she. A historical American figure and icon, it is not unfounded to contend that much of the respect as an actress that she is beginning to receive relates directly to her Dumb Blonde Trilogy.

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