Friday, August 5, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) ***
Directed by: Howard Hawks.
Written by: Charles Lederer based on the musical by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos.
Starring: Jane Russell (Dorothy Shaw), Marilyn Monroe (Lorelei Lee), Charles Coburn (Sir Francis 'Piggy' Beekman), Elliott Reid (Ernie Malone), Tommy Noonan (Gus Esmond Jr.), George Winslow (Henry Spofford III), Marcel Dalio (Magistrate), Taylor Holmes (Mr. Esmond Sr.), Norma Varden (Lady Beekman).

Marilyn Monroe never received much credit for her acting abilities during her all too brief career. Even when she delivered good performances, in movies critics liked, they spent much more time commenting on her appearance, her brazen sexuality (especially by the standards of the 1950s) and pretty much dismissed her as a dumb blonde. Part of the reason she was dismissed as such, was because she was so damned good at playing dumb blondes – as Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes so aptly proves. Monroe is the reason to see the movie. It is breezy, lightweight, musical entertainment. For me, the movie never really achieves the type of greatness Hawks was capable of – it is a little too much of a mishmash for that – yet the screen lights up whenever Monroe shows up.

Monroe plays Lorelei Lee, who along with her friend Dorothy (Jane Russell) has a routine at a dance club in New York. All Lorelei wants is to marry a rich man, and in the shy, na├»ve Gus Esmond Jr. (Tommy Noonan), she thinks she has found her man. His father is wealthy beyond belief, and she has her hooks into Gus, who is head over heels in love with her. His father, of course, does not approve. The two are supposed to travel to France together, but his father tells Gus he has to stay home. So instead, Dorothy gets on the boat with Lorelei, as they head to France. Little do they know that Gus Sr. has sent a detective, Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid) along with them to keep an eye on Lorelei – hoping to catch her doing something that would make Gus Jr. not want to marry her. And when Lorelei meets diamond magnate Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn), they may have their desired scandal. But then Ernie has to go and fall for Dorothy, complicating matters greatly.

Director Howard Hawks was the prototypical studio era auteur. He directed everything from screwball comedies to film noir to westerns to war films to musicals to horror films. His films seem somewhat different than most of his studio peers, with their natural, casual dialogue and his preference for strong female characters, who hold their own with the men in his movies, and are often more frank and open in their sexuality. Known as “Hawksian women”, these characters inspired many filmmakers who would include the archetype in their own films. He became a hero to the Cahiers du Cinema crowd of film critics, who would go onto start the French New Wave film movement, although Hawks himself was said to be amused by how intellectual this group thought his films were.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of Hawks’ most popular films, and it is easy to see why. The film is superb, old school Hollywood entertainment. The songs are fun and jazzy – especially the now iconic Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number, which is undeniably the best scene in the movie – and overall the film is fast paced and funny. Monroe has rarely played the dumb role better, and she is funny, sexy and sweet as the nicest gold digger I can recall seeing in a movie. I loved her. Jane Russell is nearly as good, as more of the prototypical Hawksian woman, tough, strong, smart and independent. When the movie focuses on these two, it’s great.

And yet, I don’t think Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a great movie overall. By Hawks’ own definition, a great movie has three great scenes, and no bad ones. I don’t think there is a bad scene in the film, but I also don’t think, that aside from the Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend number, that there is a truly great scene in the film either. Part of the problem, I think, is that the men in the movie don’t deserve either one of these women – they are weak willed and worse, kind of boring.

Overall though, Gentlemen Prefers Blondes is just a great deal of fun. It’s hard to complain about a movie that you have such a good time watching. But I know that Hawks was capable of better.

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