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 nitwits. 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, 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.