When I first became enamored of classic Hollywood, there were a handful of actors who were responsible for introducing me to this new wonderful world. At the time, the one who shone the brightest was Marilyn Monroe; today, she is still someone I cherish. To belatedly celebrate Ms. Monroe’s June 1st birthday, I’ve decided to forget the tragedies, the romances, and the what-might-have-beens of her life and instead focus on her work, more specifically the iconic performance she gave us in Howard Hawks’s magnificent musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).
From the second Jane Russell and Monroe stepped out from behind a glittering black lace curtain, drenched in ruby red sparkles, I fell in love with Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee. Their introduction to us is like an assault on the senses: immediately after the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare, before the opening credits even roll, the first chords of “Two Little Girls from Little Rock” jolt the audience with its brash loudness while Russell and Monroe burst out of the darkness, their spotlight seemingly unnecessary thanks to their shimmering gowns and megawatt smiles. It’s a bold entrance for any character to have, but for Dorothy and Lorelei, it’s the only kind of entrance that makes sense.
After this introduction, the plot moves along swiftly and smoothly. Engaged to milquetoast millionaire Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), Lorelei tries to get him away from his domineering father by convincing him to take her to Paris and marry her there. As part of their plan, they have Dorothy act as Lorelei’s “chaperone” on the boat trip to France and Gus will join them in Paris later. Unbeknownst to them, Gus’s father, who is convinced Lorelei is a golddigger, has hired private detective Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid) to keep an eye on her. Complications arise when Malone and Dorothy fall for one another and Lorelei meets wealthy diamond mine owner Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn).
While the film looks and sounds phenomenal, the heart and soul of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are Dorothy and Lorelei. Russell and Monroe’s performances ultimately determine the film’s success and they do not disappoint. As Dorothy, Russell is a revelation — hilarious and sharp-minded, she exudes a warm earthiness that betrays her character as a hard shell with a gooey center. When I saw this film at the IU Cinema a few years ago, everyone walked out of the theater gushing over Russell.
Out of all of Monroe’s characters, Lorelei is the one that became the most conflated with the star, helping to stereotype her as a ditzy blonde even though Lorelei isn’t quite the dummy she seems to be. With her breathless voice and exaggerated facial mannerisms, Monroe threatens to turn Lorelei into a caricature, but she manages to show us glimpses behind this facade that remind us that Lorelei is a flesh-and-blood woman who has her own desires and ideas.
Monroe’s comedic brilliance always astounds me. She had such good timing and we definitely don’t talk enough about the way she used her voice for comic effect. Just listen to her vocal inflections here: the unnecessary drama added to “Pray, scat!”; her claim to Piggy that she “gets real starved” for quality conversation; how she deepens her voice to evoke laryngitis and then pitches it real high a moment later to excuse herself from the room. For Lorelei, her cartoonish facial expressions and voice are her weapons against the opposite sex. With one pout of her lips, she can manipulate a man, particularly Gus, into doing anything — and the suckers fall for it every time.
One of the rarely discussed aspects of Monroe’s talent is her singing. Although her voice wasn’t as strong as Russell’s — her high notes at the beginning of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” were actually dubbed by Marni Nixon — there was a confident sweetness to it. You couldn’t mistake her singing for anyone else’s, especially when you hear her distinctive tremolo. It isn’t enough to listen to her voice, though. To me, for Monroe to fully sell a song, you have to watch her perform it. Her body language and her presence are just so captivating. When she is crooning “Bye Bye Baby” in Tommy Noonan’s ear, you become just as tongue-tied as he does. When she shakes her hips and bounces alongside Russell, you want to join in on the fun.
While it is true that Hawks’s camera often objectifies Monroe and Russell’s bodies, there is power in their characters’ frank sexuality. These women are very much in control of their bodies and obviously take care in how they present themselves. (The scene where they stride through the ship’s dining room, happily aware that all eyes are on them, comes to mind.) Dorothy and Lorelei are also unafraid to hide their lust, sexual or materialistic. It isn’t a secret that Dorothy loves men, just like it isn’t difficult to tell that Lorelei likes the finer things in life. One of the film’s best moments is when she outright admits to Gus’s father that she wants Gus for his fortune. It isn’t malicious — it’s survival.
At a casual glance, these two showgirls couldn’t be more different. Dorothy, a brunette, is the sardonic, practical one who enjoys chasing good-looking men. Lorelei, meanwhile, is a naive, supposedly dumb blonde who enjoys chasing good-looking diamonds. However, as the film goes on, we see that both women possess an intelligence that goes largely overlooked by the other characters. Fiercely loyal to one another, it becomes clear that Lorelei and Dorothy are the only ones who truly appreciate and understand each other. Dorothy knows that her best friend isn’t stupid, just like Lorelei knows Dorothy isn’t the hard-bitten cynic she pretends to be.
The film’s romantic storylines depend on whether the men in their lives can learn to value these women as fully as they value one another. Men like Piggy easily fail this test because they don’t bother to look beyond the women’s looks. Gus, who struggles to keep up with Lorelei’s effortless switching between wise seductress and wide-eyed innocent, also fails, but Lorelei decides to accept him anyway, telling Dorothy, “I really do love Gus. … There’s not another millionaire in the world with such a gentle disposition. He never wins an argument. He always does anything I ask, and he’s got the money to do it with. How can I help loving a man like that?”
Malone, on the other hand, passes the test. He certainly finds Dorothy attractive, but that isn’t the only thing that draws him to her. He genuinely cares about her, but because he believes Lorelei is trouble and will drag Dorothy down with her, he continues to spy on Lorelei. When the women figure out what Malone is up to, it becomes a game of one-upping one another until Malone manages to get the dirt he needs. Although his love for Dorothy is sincere and she returns his feelings, the couple can’t be together until Malone can prove he is worthy. He eventually does this by helping Lorelei get out of a jam, which, in a way, shows that he has come to accept Lorelei and the important role she has in Dorothy’s life.
In the end, though, you aren’t watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the romances, and the film acknowledges that, such as in the final scene where Lorelei and Dorothy walk down the wedding aisle singing a reprise of “Two Little Girls from Little Rock.” As they take their places besides their grooms, the camera pushes in on the shot of the four of them until it squeezes the men out, leaving just Dorothy and Lorelei. The women share a giddy glance at one another before the shot fades to black, reiterating that this is first and foremost a film about female friendship.
Although Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is glossy and great fun, the prominence of Lorelei and Dorothy’s friendship gives the film a substance that is more than glitz and glamour. They support and love one another unconditionally, and the idea of a man coming between them is completely out of the question. Dorothy and Lorelei know that at the end of the day, friendship fulfills you in a way that romance cannot. It was a crucial representation to see in 1953 and it is still crucial to see today. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell may be known for other things, but it is safe to say that the legacy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will continue to be a significant part of how they are remembered for years to come.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.