Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
1 July 1953
Marilyn’s Dumb Blonde Trilogy, Movie No. 1
Once upon a time, a beautiful young maiden named Lorelei threw herself into a treacherous river out of despair over a faithless lover. In death, she was transformed into a beautiful siren and from that moment on, her beauty, along with her hypnotic voice, lured many mesmerized sailors to their deaths on the rocks from which she sang.
An Ancient German Legend
I’ve been told that confession is a tonic for the soul, so I readily confess that I am not a fan of musicals. During my more than seventy years on Planet Mearth, I have never observed a person or a gaggle of them erupt spontaneously into song with complex choreography, accompanied by an emotive and thrilling orchestral composition. Not once. The only musical display I’ve ever witnessed that even approximates what you’ll see in musicals occurred on Bourbon Street, a cartoonesque universe in and of itself. A group of ten or twelve aging and portly gals, dressed in pastel colors, looking ever so like Southern Belles, wearing large droopy flower festooned hats, suddenly appeared in two by two parade formation, twirling parasols while some youngsters followed along playing a rousing J. Philip Sousa march. It was an indelible sight. But regarding Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I have to correct a previously stated opinion, that the movie is not an authentic musical. Well, it is; but, since this is my web site, I am going to call Gentlemen Prefer Blondes a screwball comedy featuring several musical numbers, not a real, full blown musical; and in so doing, I can still claim to be a non-fan of musicals. Silly? Maybe so, but even if it truly is a musical, due to Marilyn’s presence, I make exceptions and this second, soul cleansing confession: I love this movie. Now, I’m gonna have to revise some of the things I’ve written about There’s No Business Like Show Business.
The plot of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is relatively simple. Two beautiful showgirls, Lorelei Lee, the blonde, and Dorothy Shaw, the brunette, are best friends forever. Lorelei has ensnared her future husband, the junior Gus Esmond, but Dorothy is still searching. During a transatlantic voyage en route to Paris, financed by junior Gus, Dorothy meets Ernie Malone, a private detective hired by senior Gus to observe and report on the behavior of Lorelei, whom he distrusts. During the voyage, Ernie falls for Dorothy and she for him as Lorelei falls for a diamond tiara owned by the wife of Lord Beekman. The owner of a diamond mine, the Lord is affectionately known as Piggy. Lorelei instigates a benign flirtation with the old man and convinces him to give her the tiara. Lady Beekman reports it stolen after Piggy professes ignorance of its whereabouts. Gus strands the blonde and the brunette, because of Ernie’s negative reports, by withdrawing their financial aid. Virtually penniless and left to their own considerable devices, they end up headliners at the Paris cabaret, Chez Louis, performing as Les Chanteuses Americaines. Then comes an arrest, a denial, a humorous appearance in a French court, a humorous imitation and a profession of love by Dorothy; but the tiara ends up in the hands of its rightful owner and our beautiful showgirls end up with what they wanted all along.
For a movie that presents the countenance of a happy, fun-filled, screwball, romantic-comedy-musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has generated a considerable amount of controversy since its release, fueled in large part by Gloria Steinem’s negative assessment. As a nineteen year old feminist, she attended a screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes only to flee the theater even before the movie reached its humorously merry but odd marital conclusion. Gloria was disgusted, annoyed and angered even, not so much by Lorelei, it seems, as by Marilyn’s portrayal of the sweet, baby-talking blonde. Steinem’s pronouncements, along with criticism by some other radical feminists, created a controversy―confusion is probably a better word―revolving around this comedy, one that pivots on the actual intent of what some perceive as social commentary. Howard Hawks adapted and modified the screenplay that Fox already had in its possession so naturally he gets credit for any social commentary or messages contained within.
As many highly intellectual words have been written about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I’ll wager, as have been written about Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but not as many as have been written about Welles’ Citizen Kane. In an article for Sight and Sound, Jonathan Rosenbaum remarked on
… the movie’s innate capacity to suggest readability and unreadability, feminism and sexism, optimism and pessimism, beauty and grotesquerie at one and the same time makes it the ideal capitalist product, malleable to every consumer need: a distillation of Hollywood which is also a parody of same, a calculated / innocent excess of effect which rewards characters and spectators equally so that everybody gets what they think they want. (Gold Diggers of 1953: Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.)
Thus, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a movie that can be many things to many people. In Jonathan’s opinion, this accounts for why some feminists condemn the movie as misogynist while others applaud it for being just the opposite. As he notes in his article, for Maureen Turin the movie is sexist, racist, and colonialist; but for feminists Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca it is jubilantly feminist and … by implication, proto-lesbian. According to Molly Haskell, the movie is as close to satire as Hawks’s films ever get on the nature (and perversion) of sexual relations in America, particularly in the mammary-mad 50s.
I hereby invoke Occam: the less complex explanation is most likely the correct one. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is, first and foremost, an escapist, comic movie. Slightly vulgar at its core, not nasty, merely vulgar, it features some memorable musical numbers, some screwball comedy and some romance. Although I hesitate to label it a satire, it has a satirical, or at least a cartoonesque, inclination; but then musicals are, just by their very nature, cartoonesque, not like an animated feature but in the terms of not believable. They simply stretch the credulity of the audience. So I use the terms cartoonesque and cartoon, not as an indictment or an insult, but as a way of expressing the playful and childlike quality of the movie.
Set in the cartoonesque environs of a luxurious ocean liner occupied by the überwealthy, the movie pokes some silly, genial fun at the extravagant denizens of that world while also poking affectionate fun at weak men, the sexes’ supremacy battle and the compulsion of all human beings to seek satisfaction for their basic needs and desires; and to a certain extent, the human compulsion to seek revenge for heartache and pain, not in a dark sense but in a humorous one. And since Lorelei and Dorothy are best friends, the movie is also about the strength of their friendship, their bond and their commitment to each other. I think Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is essentially a road flick for girls in which the road has been replaced by the Atlantic Ocean and the beat-up 1950 Ford Custom replaced by an ocean liner, the Île de Paris: women, you see, are just classier and smarter than men. No self-respecting showgirl, regardless of hair color, would be caught dead in a smelly, dirty Ford.
All of the main male characters in the movie approach the level of caricature.
Lord Beekman, AKA Piggy, for instance, is the aristocratic, unhappily married, portly and aging playboy, whose cuteness and allure derives from by his status and wealth, his South African diamond mine. Piggy is a type of man with whom Howard Hawks must have been familiar and at whom he pokes some benign fun. Piggy’s nom de guerre obviously references his appetites.
Ernie Malone is less of a caricature, but also less cute, than Piggy, and while we could call the private eye a villain, in Hawks’ cinematic world, Ernie is a professional merely doing his job and should not be judged too harshly. But since he gets emotionally involved, his view of Lorelei assumes a personal, vindictive and unprofessional flavor when he refers to her as a mercenary nitwit. This apparent dislike for Lorelei is not resolved by the movie’s final scene and therefore Ernie is a dangling plot thread.
Gus’s father is primarily a plot device character. His disapproval of Lorelei creates some of the movie’s humorous conflict but he is also an archetype: the over-protective rich father who must stop his idiot son from falling into an ill-advised marriage. But his idiot son is a cartoon character.
Slightly effeminate, virtually spineless, he purchases Lorelei’s affections with lavish gifts and letters-of-credit to French banks. She. along with Gus’ domineering father, manipulate him unmercifully. While Junior should garner some sympathy from us due to his weakness, he mostly garners laughter. Yet, in the end, the milk toast idiot son is somewhat emboldened by his professed love for Lorelei and her fearless encounter with Gus Esmond senior.
The female characters in the movie are much stronger than the males but they are nonetheless caricatures as well. Lady Beekman, the pompous, arrogant showoff who flaunts her aristocratic wealth, the many diamonds that so enthrall Lorelei, is the movie’s one real villain; but she is certainly in control, not Piggy. Her many diamonds represent her icy demeanor; and, she’s the iceberg personified, the one mentioned early in the movie by an Olympic athlete, the floating menace that almost sinks Lorelei and Dorothy. Dorothy is the movie’s Hawksian Woman. She also represents the quintessential sexually assertive female who devours men like Lorelei cajoles them to obtain diamonds; and if junior Gus is presented as a cartoon character, then Lorelei is presented likewise, Gus’ willful, self-confident female opposite.
Everything about the blonde beauty is exaggerated to the point of satirical mimicry; and she is certainly the focal point of the movie’s sexual humor, although Dorothy receives a considerable amount of attention in that regard as well. But we must admit that Lorelei is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and knows how to use her gorgeous sexuality to get it: wealth! Lorelei Lee is the gold-digger’s gold-digger; and while she might be slightly deceptive in order to obtain Lady Beekman’s tiara, she is brutally honest regarding her intent to marry a wealthy man. Likewise, Dorothy is just as honest regarding her intent to land a handsome hunk of man, one that can run faster than she can, and one that can satisfy her sexually, that is, if she can be satisfied. While their forthright assessment and honest valuation of men may be callous, it is definitely humorous, if not admirable.
Additionally, Lorelei and Dorothy are totally honest with each other; and more important than money or men to each of them is their friendship. The friendship that exists between Lorelei and Dorothy is the most Hawksian aspect of the movie. They are unified and committed to each other. When Lady Beekman arrives and punches a hole in their ship, they don’t sink and they don’t drown, as predicted by the Olympian. They merely put their beauty and their talent to work and proceed with life and they do so with each other. Even the appearance of the French police with an arrest warrant for Lorelei doesn’t sink them. The suddenly missing tiara and the gendarmes cause them understandable alarm and concern, but they engage their intelligent resolve and their friendship. While there may be a certain maternal, protective aspect in the way Dorothy intervenes on Lorelei’s behalf during the movie, Lorelei is equally as protective and would intervene for Dorothy if life reversed the circumstances. After all, they are sisters.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes features outstanding performances by all the actors. Both Marilyn and Jane are in complete control of their characters just as their characters are in complete control of themselves and the men around them. Obviously Jane’s Dorothy is the foil to Marilyn’s comic portrayal of Lorelei and Marilyn plays the gold-digger’s gold-digger for all the belly laughs possible, almost to the point of satire. She steals each and every scene in which she appears and practically every scene is iconic. From the opening scene, in which the women virtually strut in their sparkling red gowns, their heads festooned with feathers, almost like gal roosters, to their grand entrance into the dining hall to meet Henry Spofford III, the screen is constantly filled with magnificent images.
Marilyn’s initial scene with Piggy and the ice berg’s tiara is funny and more than cute; but the excessive amount of groaning and moaning over Lorelei’s apparent stupidity and ignorance regarding where women wear tiaras, along with the conflation of Lorelei and Marilyn, borders on the ludicrous. Does anybody really believe that Marilyn Monroe, at age twenty-six, didn’t know where to wear or know that a tiara is not a necklace? That entire scene exists just so Lorelei can say I just love finding new places to wear diamonds and the sexual innuendo contained in that line could find its way into the dialogue.
Marilyn’s python scene with Piggy is equally humorous and similarly cute. The agility with which she controls her expressive face and her equally expressive eyes is amazing. Equally amazing, she delivers her lines with an earnest commitment. In spite of their silliness, they sound absolutely natural and believable. Although I have watched GPB more times than Carter’s got little liver pills, when Lorelei says Gee, Piggy, a girl like I never gets to meet any real interesting men. Sometimes my brain gets real starved! I almost fall out of my chair laughing; and then, of course, Dorothy delivers that banal and crude line about Piggy choking the goat. Well, it’s funny, too. And the penultimate scene in which Lorelei outsmarts Gus Esmond senior, her line delivery and gesture are perfect. I can be smart when it’s important but most men don’t like it. Delivered with conviction, that line gave Joan Mellen a stomach ache. She opined: Marilyn must have winced at having to say (Mellen 95-97) that line. Actually, the line was suggested by Marilyn because she knew the character of Lorelei―and men―better than anybody on the set (Spoto 229-230).
Yet, as you might expect, not every critic agrees with my assessment of the acting or the movie but some do. New German Cinema auteur, Rainer Fassbinder considers Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to be one of the top 10 movies ever made, not just among musicals but movies ever made. High praise, indeed. On his top ten movie list, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes resides in the sixth slot.
However, with a contrary opinion, in his book regarding the movies and genius of Howard Hawks, Robin Wood offered this evaluation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: … distinctive without being particularly distinguished … contains striking things, but disintegrates under analysis (165-166). So unimpressed by Hawks’ musical was Mr. Wood, that he relegated it to “Appendix: Failures and Marginal Works”.
Richard Buskin weighed in with this opinion: … not a great movie, but it does have some outstanding moments and an all-time classical musical segment that amply justify its celebrated status (137-145). And since I don’t want to slight our feminists friends, Joan Mellen believes the movie is heavy handed, drumming in the theme that this is the raison d’etre of every attractive woman if she is normal and true to instinct (Mellen 95-97). Mr. Buskin considers Tommy Noonan’s acting an asinine performance as Marilyn’s rich beau that is more annoying than humorous (137-145). Richard compliments Jane Russell’s work as Dorothy and Charlie Coburn’s work as Piggy but remains silent regarding Eliot Reed’s Ernie Malone. Richard reports the Motion Picture Herald opined: In her own class is Marilyn Monroe … Miss Monroe is going to become part of the America fable, the dizzy blonde, the simple, mercenary nitwit with charm to excuse it all. Offering a different opinion, according to Richard, The New Yorker complimented the pleasant configuration of both Marilyn and Jane Russell but noted that neither of them have more than a glancing acquaintance with the business of acting (137-145). O well, you just can’t please everybody.
Both women deliver outstanding musical performances, particularly in the opening salvo of “We’re Just Two Little Girls From Little Rock”; and Marilyn’s rendition of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” has become the world’s most recognized and iconic performance of that song. Her on stage performance is, arguably, the most memorable scene in the movie. The French cafe scene, during which they perform “When Love Goes Wrong” immediately after they have been stranded by Gus junior, is a terrific number. Both Marilyn and Jane are luminous. One observation I must note is this: Marilyn is just more relaxed and fluid than Jane. And considering the reported anxiety, the fear the blonde experienced on the sets of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes along with the often unfiltered, often unkind direction of Howard Hawks, her relaxed performance is a testament of her ability to overcome what must have been a nearly debilitating handicap, caused in large part by some of the loons with whom she had to work.
A considerable amount of noise has been made about the set decorations of Lorelei’s iconic song and dance, primarily the chandelier and the floor mounted light standards, both of which feature live women as part of their design. According to feminists, the intent of those decorations is to reinforce the perception and belief that women are merely objects of visual and sexual pleasure and are presented that way in all Hollywood movies generally and this movie specifically. Some of the women within the chandelier are even reclining on their backs with their legs in the air. Could it be more obvious?
There is deafening silence from feminists, however, regarding the movie’s objectification of men. Piggy gets transformed into Lorelei’s vision as a literal cartoon diamond―an image of sparkling, ageless stone superimposed over his ancient hogshead countenance (Rosenbaum); and in the poolside song and dance number that Dorothy performs alone, the Olympians are presented as mechanical, expressionless but desirable bodies; and despite their scant attire, appear to be eunuchs, interested not in Dorothy, her femininity or her sexuality, but interested only in themselves and their stiff, machine-like movements. Most of the pool side observers are young women who grin and ogle the eunuchs in what is obviously a reversal of Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze even though her goofy theory would not be published for another twenty-two years. Was Howard Hawks, the Grey Fox of Hollywood, that far ahead of his time; and how did he make the guys’ genitals disappear?
And finally we arrive at what has been called the navel of the movie, the double wedding scene. It’s impossible to watch the scene without questioning its intent. Obviously Lorelei is wedding Gus and Dorothy is wedding Ernie, the men for whom each has declared their love, declarations that invariably go unnoticed. Their entrance in their white, un-red, wedding gowns, re-imagines the opening scene; but the lyrics of their song transform into:
We’re just two little girls from Little Rock
And we lived on the wrong side of the tracks
But at last we won the big crusade
Looks like we finally made the grade.
Dorothy advises Lorelei: Remember honey, on your wedding day, it’s alright to say yes. Meaning it seems, Lorelei no longer has to barter for diamonds and wealth with a sexual promise, one she may or may not deliver, because she can now give the appropriate response, like Molly Bloom: Yes.
The closing frame centers on the women as they look and smile at each other, holding their white roses against their breasts. The suggestion is obvious: Lorelei and Dorothy are wedding each other. Thus, are they lesbians and is Hawks advocating same sex marriage? No, Hawks is not advocating anything and the women are not being presented as lesbians.
The statement of the final scene is more profound than that. It relates to Lorelei as Dorothy and Dorothy as Lorelei. As Mr. Rosenbaum points out in his article, the blonde and the brunette are, in fact, interchangeable. During the opening song about Little Rock, they deftly perform synchronized dance steps but also dance around each other, changing positions a few times, standing face to face, then back to back briefly. Eventually, Lorelei assumes the high harmony to Dorothy’s lead. After the song and dynamic dance come to an end, you might not notice the girls have changed positions. Lorelei, at the start, on Dorothy’s left, is now on her right. Intentional? Mr. Rosenbaum believes it is. All the energetic and entwining motion, the changing positions are about presenting the two women as a team, the double threat of a unified front, that each woman can and will assume the other’s identity if and when required. These two women are synchronized and interchangeable. Their interchangeability becomes apparent and is strongly reinforced during the humorous courtroom scene when Dorothy successfully mimics Lorelei for Pritchard and the French magistrate. As Rosenbaum states: If we pause … to consider the words of their song, the notion of spiritual kinship becomes even more striking when we realize that they’re assuming precisely the same identity.
The message of the scene is, I believe, that Lorelei and Dorothy were already married, in a sense, bound by their friendship and their lifelong spiritual kinship (Rosenbaum). They may both have husbands, but the males will always be on the outside of their female friendship and their sisterhood, just as their soon to be husbands are on the outside of them in the scene. Lorelei and Dorothy finish the movie just as they started it, both front and center, shoulder to shoulder. Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead.
We could debate, without resolution no doubt, and opine about what kind of movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actually is, misogynist, feminist, advocate for lesbianism and same sex marriage. But what must be recognized and what may be the only real reason why Gentlemen Prefer Blondes exists is this: the movie was a means by which Fox could earn money, millions and millions of dollars. Its initial theater run earned $5.5M, equivalent to $48.5M in 2020 currency. Over time, the movie has no doubt earned considerably more.
While this movie may be, to some, more than what I here assert, that it is a slightly vulgar screwball romantic-comedy-musical sail the ocean buddy flick for girls, an escapist capitalist comedy produced by a capitalist, whatever each individual believes the movie is, it is a great example of it and well deserving of its iconic status. I also assert this: if Zanuck had left Betty Grable in the role of Lorelei Lee, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would, no doubt, have been a good movie, maybe even a great one. But, and there is no avoiding this, the presence of Marilyn makes it―well, legendary.
Howard Hawks Briefly
Howard Hawks was born in 1896 into a wealthy Indiana family. From the age of four, he spent most of his time in California along with his physically frail and weak mother. In 1910, when he was fourteen, Hawks’ family relocated permanently from Goshen to Pasadena. Another of Hollywood’s Golden Age directors whose career began in the silent era, Hawks worked as a prop boy during filming of the 1917 Douglas Fairbanks’ movie In Again, Out Again; but in 1925, studio head Sol Wurtzel lured the aspiring, young director to Fox Studios with the promise that Hawks would be allowed to direct a feature movie.
His filmography contains more than a few impressive movies that cross all the boundaries of genre and type and includes science fiction, screwball comedies, westerns, war movies and musicals; however, Hawks was never under contract to any studio. He attributed his diverse filmography to his independence.
Testimony from some indicate that Hawks was, or often could be, aloof and cold, even remote, with cold blue eyes and a silent stare described as both frozen and reptilian.
Most of Hawks’ movies revolve around a man or a group of men facing a crisis, a test of courage that will prove they are brave and worthy, not only to themselves, but to their colleagues. His male groups usually have a definite hierarchy and consist of fiercely independent and acutely professional men. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the strong friendship and the crisis are focused on Lorelei and Dorothy, an unusual departure for Hawks.
Although he did not consider himself a supporter of fifty’s feminism, Hawks developed an archetypical female character known as the Hawksian Woman, epitomized by willowy Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. A Hawksian Woman is frank spoken, willful and tough, capable of holding her own against her male counterparts; but she is nonetheless soft and feminine, even vulnerable at times. She is a woman who can inhabit the male group without altering or conflicting with the masculine friendships. Hawks preferred stylish, strong and sarcastic female characters who spoke in a deep, almost raspy, throaty manner and who were often as sexually aggressive as his men. In several of his movies, he used his assertive females to educe the inchoate masculinity of timid males and to poke fun at them. Such is the case with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.