Now this is the Marilyn Monroe I’ve seen before. This was pretty much the film that catapulted her into the spotlight – as a ditzy blond sex kitten, unfortunately for her – but not quite as dumb-bunny as I was expecting.
This is a total fluff of a film. Monroe is Lorelei Lee, half of a performing duo alongside her BFF Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell). Lorelei and Dorothy are both single, but while Dorothy is more blatantly out for a good time, Lorelei considers herself more discriminating – she only gets involved with rich men. And has landed one at the top of the film – the milquetoast Gus (Tommy Noonan), the son of a wealthy businessman. Gus has proposed and Lorelei has accepted – but Gus’ daddy has raised a blocking objection. Lorelei and Gus plan to elope to Paris, but when Gus wimps out, Lorelei still keeps her plans to head for Paris by boat, bringing Dorothy along as “chaperone” and expecting that Gus will come following soon.
Dorothy’s all for it – hey, free trip to Paris! – and is even happier to discover that the men’s Olympic Team is on board, all ripe for the flirting. There’s another dude, Ernie Malone (Elliott Reed), who also catches her eye – he seems to continuously be running into her and Lorelei, and he seems equally as interested in Dorothy as she becomes in him. However, Malone is a private eye hired by Gus’ father, assigned to follow Lorelei in the hopes of turning up evidence of an indiscretion. He very nearly abandons the case, so he can woo Dorothy with a clean conscience – but then Lorelei meets the diamond merchant Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn) and gets awfully chummy, giving Malone the chance to take some incriminating photos. In turn, this gives Dorothy a chance to catch him in the act. And it’s still another few days before they get to Paris…
So, yeah. Lorelei is presented as kinda ditzy – but not completely brainless, more like an odd combination of monomaniacal and naïve. She knows that her only advantage is sex appeal, and she knows that there are few opportunities for women to have money – so she’s gonna work that one advantage, and just be really focused on where she works it. She frequently lectures Dorothy about her flirting – but not for the flirting as such, more for being unfussy about her targets. “I want you to find happiness and stop having fun!” she scolds Dorothy – and for her, “happiness” is financial stability, period. In another conversation – one she finally has with Gus’s father – she defends herself: “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” Lorelei’s big number towards the end (more on that in a minute) sums it up: “Men grow cold as girls grow old, and we all lose our charms in the end,/But square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks don’t lose their shape….”
Lorelei’s focus on money is softened by her obvious loyalty to Dorothy – and Dorothy’s loyalty to her. These are clearly friends through thick and thin, who would do anything for each other. They have their differences – Dorothy doesn’t care a fig for wealthy men – but just sighs and accepts that this is what makes Lorelei happy, and tries to help where she can. Before discovering Malone’s job, she’s starting to genuinely fall for him – but the second she discovers him trying to hurt Lorelei, he is history. He messed with her girl, and that’s that. Lorelei also tries to help Dorothy as well a time or two, albeit with less success; one scene sees Lorelei determined to set Dorothy up on a blind date with a single rich man on ship, and she peruses the ship register looking for the names of unmarried men traveling with a valet. She picks one and sets up the date – only for Dorothy to discover that her intended is only nine. (The young man in question, played by child actor George Winslow, is only in two scenes and has maybe only five lines – but they are so witty and Winslow is so deadpan that I laughed out loud.)
And this film runs on musical comedy logic anyway, so trying to find deep meaning and Socratic logic is kind of ridiculous; instead you look at the goofy tropes, the pretty costumes, the pretty dancing, and you go with it. The ever-versatile Howard Hawks guides this, too – we’ve met him before, with the original Scarface and To Have And Have Not, where smart women were celebrated, so Hawks was probably trying to avoid making Lorelei look too stupid. Some of the men, on the other hand, look a little dim-witted – and there’s a sequence involving Dorothy and the Olympic team that is 100% pure beefcake, with Dorothy slinking her way through the gym and admiring the view as the team works out. As a friend would put it – “I think the subtext in that scene is becoming text.”
You’ve likely seen Monroe’s big number from this film. I’ve seen bits of it before; I’ve also seen it referenced a thousand times in other contexts and in other works. Seeing the original article was interesting, if only to see the context in which it was set – it’s meant to be a sort of manifesto for Lorelei, a way to defend herself to Gus (who’s heard about the photos and is considering cutting her loose). Dorothy does a reprise later in the film, giving it more of a raunchy take (and it is a long story as to why), but Monroe’s take is…elegant, while still being kittenish. I’m not sure how Monroe pulled that off.
When the film was done, I pulled up the video for Madonna’s Material Girl for a re-watch. I knew that parts of it were a direct homage – I hadn’t realized just how closely it followed Monroe’s original. But Monroe’s naivety was missing, and Madonna’s video felt a little more…tawdry, or something.