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.