Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Playing dumb (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Once again it is time for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club to take centerstage (or, since this is a blog, take upscroll? Toppost?), and once again it is time to admit that my participation in said club has led directly to closing a gap in my general pop culture exposure which may be hard to believe ever existed in the first place: prior to watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes I had never seen a Marilyn Monroe movie. Notwithstanding my well-known enchantment with lists and rankings and the fact that Some Like It Hot tends to come up at or near the top of any rundown of Greatest Comedy Films of All Time and the like, I hadn’t sat through any of the erstwhile Norma Jean’s filmography before.

Which of course – so of course that it is in the running for most goes-without-saying acknowledgment ever – has no bearing on my knowledge of Marilyn Monroe the legend, because being ignorant of that would be practically impossible, like not knowing who Elvis Presley or Mickey Mouse or George Washington or Superman are, even if you’re not a rockabilly fan/animation lover/history buff/comicbook aficionado. Except of course that Mickey and Supes exist entirely as products of certain media, and Elvis’s rock-n-roll records are more or less the point, as is George’s historical significance … whereas Marilyn Monroe seems to have come down through the ages as being famous for being gorgeous, and everything revolves around that: being Playboy’s first centerfold, her dalliances and marriages with famous men, the oft-(mis-)quoted trivia about her measurements and her dress size, her deconstruction by Warhol, &c. Oh yeah, and people put her in some movies, too, but those performances are more or less beside the point, right? The movies themselves yielded up some memorable imagery, to be sure, Marilyn in her white dress blown up by the steam vent, or in her pink gown and diamonds surrounded by tuxedoed suitors, but those are practically static freezeframes, not living performances. (For the record, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has the latter one in it; the former is from The Seven Year Itch.)

But yes, the point being that Marilyn Monroe died eleven years before I was born and her unassailable status as prototypical sex symbol was long-established by the first time I encountered it (which would have been well before I could have really appreciated or even understood it, such is the way of the modern world) which makes it at least a semi-interesting proposition to go back and see some facet of how it all began. There’s also, I think, an interesting meditation to be had on causes and effects now that we’re multiple generations deep into the mass-media eras of civilization, namely did Marilyn Monroe tap into some collective understanding of what desirability always was, or do we now base our expectations of desirability on her specifically because she managed to be in the right place at the right time? (Not to mention the less-pleasant aspects of outright objectification, which I touched on yesterday so that I wouldn’t necessarily have to today, but again, I’m totally aware there’s an unseemliness to it all as well.)

I have to say, though, that despite girding myself with all kinds of socio-cultural questions like the above in order to get through what I expected to be a corny musical comedy from the square old 50’s, I didn’t find my mind turning to them all that often during Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I was too busy being genuinely entertained, even to the point of laughing out loud once or twice. I recently expressed some concerns to my wife that I may just be getting a little bit dumber myself (I laughed out loud at last week’s episode of The Office, too, and everyone knows that creaking hulk hasn’t been terribly funny in a while) but be that as it may, I’m willing to stand up for the charms of Howard Hawks’s work in this case. And Marilyn Monroe is more than a pretty face in it! I never once felt I had to overlook any bad acting on her part, and I didn’t think it was because Lorelei Lee was just Marilyn Monroe playing herself, either. Granted, it’s a broadly drawn character in a pretty broad farce, but she does land some solid punchlines with great delivery and timing.

Jane Russell steals the show with a lot more punchlines, though, and that was even more of a revelation. Her Dorothy Shaw is a fantastic counterpoint to Lorelei: cynical and smart where Lorelei is innocent and dumb (but not as dumb as she seems, as it turns out), but also hopelessly romantic and unconcerned about men’s money where Lorelei is pragmatic if not a downright golddigger (which, again, turns out to be a little more complicated than it seems at the outset – and I know I still sound like an ignorant ageist but I’m always pleasantly surprised and heartened when that depth of consideration shows itself in older entertainments which I expect to be as simple and straightforward as possible). Just the buddy-movie yin and yang of Dorothy and Lorelei would be worth the price of admission, and then in the climax of the movie Dorothy impersonates Lorelei in a Parisian criminal court, and Jane Russell absolutely slays with her Marilyn Monroe impression. Again, not hard given the breathy, cooing, exaggerated woman-child Monroe plays Lorelei as to begin with, but still superawesome.

There are aspects of the movie that are undeniably old-timey to many sensibilities, I’m sure. If you don’t like musicals, particularly ones which assault suspension of disbelief with choreographed musical numbers that break out in unlikely venues, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes probably won’t do much for you either. Likewise if retrograde marriage plots aren’t so much your thing. But if those elements are either not obstacles to begin with, or at the very least the kind you can work your way around, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than with this worthy addition to the Must See roster.

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