The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Nine

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

July 15, 1953   Fox   91 minutes

The Fox fanfare is back over the logo, but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes wastes no time in thrusting its best assets forward; Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell in glittery tangerine bodysuits, strutting onto a nightclub stage in an act that Roxie & Velma would die for—even before the credits. This was the moment MM caught fire, exploded on the public consciousness as an unstoppable force, right on the heels of her noir siren in Niagra; and just before confirmation in the Cinemascope pin-up fest, How to Marry a Millionaire.  Here she fuses her own bubble-head personality with a cartoon extreme that cements her image for posterity. She’d made 18 pictures in 7 years by then, including some potent cameos in All About Eve and Asphalt Jungle. Her films were frequently shown on TV in the early 60s, and I thought she was pure enchantment; full of fun and innocence, a sex-bomb appealing to children. I worshipped her, and her sudden death in August 1962, was the first time that anyone I knew, or even just knew of, had died. The shock was palpable. A different sort of shock (a few years earlier) was the sight of MM turning away from the bandstand in Some Like it Hot, the zipper of her gown down to her very ass.  I was less than 7, but even then I knew this was sex. After that I eagerly sought her movies on TV and this was how I first caught GPB: on a local channel Mid-Morning Movie—butchered by a careless hack editor devoted to filling a 90 minute slot with clockwork commercial interruptions. (They cared so little, they’d cut in the middle of a song.) It was years before I ever saw the whole film, uncut and in color. Oh the luxury of DVDs.
You’d never know it from Fox’s Technicolor Sex-tacular, but on Bway Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a satire of the Roaring '20s. Previous attempts to revisit that decade were unsuccessful, or simply too soon, but at the mid-century mark GPB found the magic ingredient: Lorelei Lee. Was Anita Loos’ Jazz Age gold digger the first dumb blonde character—or is it that I just can’t think of an earlier one? Edith Wharton called it the Great American Novel. A silent movie was made of it in 1928 with a Ruth Taylor playing Lorelei. No copies are known to exist. Thru the wartime '40s the book faded as a relic of the recent past, until set to music on Bway and given stunning new life by an Amazon kewpie doll named Carol Channing—whose unique personality drew comparisons to Beatrice Lillie, Fanny Brice and Texas Gunian, and was, quite simply, the biggest Bway musical breakout since Mary Martin. But unlike Martin, or Merman, or even lesser Bway lights like Grable or Ginger Rogers, Channing wasn’t whisked off to Hlwd for even a trial run. She was too large for the screen—too loony and unique. Besides, Hwld had no shortage of potential Loreleis. Every studio had a candidate. Columbia was first to step up with an offer of $165g for screen rights, as a custom vehicle for recent Oscar winner Judy Holliday—a certified specialist in dumb blondes. It’s easy enuf to imagine, but what a different film that would’ve been! Reportedly the deal was botched when Jule Styne demanded $6,000 for each new song of his and allowed for no interpolations from others. So it’s a bit ironic the film wound up at Fox (for the lesser $150g) with only three of his songs (none of them new) and two additions from others. Fox was then giving Monroe the big promo, but added Jane Russell (with top billing) for insurance. They needn’t have worried--the film was a smash; the 9th biggest hit of the year—and this was a huge year for Hlwd.

Charles Lederer’s screenplay jettisoned the 20s, and as Styne’s score never had a period flavor anyway—a new arrangement brought it up to date. But after showing Irving Berlin such reverence in Call Me Madam, Fox felt free to plunder Styne’s work and revert to the old Hlwd practice of adaptation: In Name Only. Having seen GPB on stage, I can’t say I blame them for rethinking the show, but when it comes to the score they threw the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, this may be the thinnest musical I’ll see in this entire project; 5 songs total (plus reprises) explains the 91 minute length. And yet, curiously, the film really drags in the long middle stretch. A hoary storyline, even on Bway—a tired trope of blackmail and stolen jewelry—was just an excuse to hang a dozen songs on.  But take the songs away, and what have you got? A stretch nearly forty minutes long without nary a tune (and shockingly little underscoring too); the movie really sags. Worse yet, these scenes have little of the wit or character-definition we get in the fast first half hour. There’s too much time and plot spent on retrieving some compromising photos that you’d think this was the crux of the show. Worse yet, is seeing how easily this could have been fixed, as well as giving us the extra pleasure of Russell & Monroe in more numbers and eye-popping dresses.

But let’s start with what works: Jack Cole does wonders with all the musical numbers (his “Diamonds” is still being copied in diva videos today). Jule Styne’s songs (with Leo Robin’s lyrics) were the essential three from the show, tho changing “Little Girl from Little Rock” into “Two Girls from Little Rock” was as  nonsensical  as  it   was  entertaining—for what had previously been Lorelei’s mission statement was turned into a nightclub duet.  The show’s anthem, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” has had a long healthy life independent of the movie, and comes like a welcome beer after a long drought. Compared to the simple floor show for “Little Rock,” here we get a soundstage screaming red, a chandelier of leather-strapped women, a platoon of formally attired dancers and MM in hot pink satin. The song itself, with its newly arranged middle section—“Tiffany’s! Cartier!” punctuating a sultry vamp—is the movie’s and MM’s signature moment. Later on, a plot device has Russell impersonating Monroe in court. She gets the breathy voice right, then drops it entirely the moment she jumps into a reprise. Nice of them to let both gals have a go at it, but after Monroe’s class act what was left for Russell to do but reach for pure vulgarity. She gets a pretty good handle on it. (Jack Cole was the master of Bway-style bump & grind.) But for my money the best song in the show, is “Bye Bye Baby,” one of the great swinging Styne ballads. A perfect shipboard sendoff number, Jane starts it off in an upbeat tempo, joined by the very handsome chorus (more on them shortly), before Marilyn brings it down to a lullaby crooned to her lover; then ‘all ashore’ has the group racing to the ship’s edge for  a grand choral climax. Musicals love arrivals and departures; boats, trains, carriages, stairways—it’s the start of a journey or the arrival of new blood. Here we’re off on the Ile de France, and the song makes us feel it’s absolutely swell.

The two new songs by Hoagy Carmichael & Harold Adamson are welcome highlights and not simply for filling out a thrifty songlist. “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?” is a jaw-dropping beefcake festival, with the mannish Russell strutting thru a field of nearly naked men (in tight flesh-colored shorts); steel buns and fleshy thighs, bare feet and chests thrust in her direction as she laments the lack of male interest from the Olympic team. Hmm. The number ends with hunk after hunk diving over her shoulder until one finally drags her into the water—an accident left in the final reel. This too, I knew was about sex. The second song is better, if not quite the pulse-raiser. Set in a Parisian sidewalk café, “When Loves Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right),” has the two shimmying their way into the hearts of the locals, including two cute Algerian urchins. Unlike On the Town, here there’s no obvious difference in quality between the new songs and the Bway score. With the exception of Russell’s raunchy reprise of “Diamonds,” the numbers are the film’s high points; all the more reason the long tuneless narrative in the middle of the movie is such a letdown. At least another 4 songs from Bway could have served well; most obviously in a moment (39 minutes in) where a giggling MM dances with diamond-tycoon, Charles Coburn (‘Piggy’) for all of ten seconds. “It’s Delightful Down in Chile,” served this scene on Bway, and it’s a shame it was cut. Can’t you see MM moving her hips to the rhumba beat while Coburn stammers his way thru the lyrics, luring her to South America? “Mamie is Mimi” is a hot nightclub number suitable for both stars, and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is a catchy throwaway song that could have taken up all of a minute and half. And finally, “I Love What I’m Doing (When I’m Doing It for Love)” could have served as another song for Jane, somewhere, tho the sentiment was similar to her gym-boy-ree.
With such star wattage, you wouldn’t think they’d bother casting such attractive chorus boys—including George Chakiris, Larry Kert, Matt Mattox, and no less than Steve Reeves (making his film debut and still five years ahead of his Hercules days). The film has no shortage of lookers, tho it’s easy to miss those on the sidelines when the two stars take focus—and boy, do they! The cliché about either was their bust lines (It wasn’t labeled the era of ‘mammary madness’ for nothing), but what I found both surprising and appalling is how modest their peaks seem now in comparison to today’s super-sized and ubiquitous breast enhancements. (Snookie, anyone?) Both women were Hlwd bombshells, but I wonder, are there straight men these days who go gaga for Monroe? Or what about Russell for that matter? All sharp angles and a hard veneer, she wears lots of black in this movie, to go with her hair—but to me she looks like a female Dick Tracy. Another 8 movies in 4 years and she was washed up in Hlwd. But that’s not unusual; Hlwd goes thru women like Warren Beatty, and a female film star with longevity is a rare thing indeed. As for MM, the ‘joke,’ but also the charm of her, is her romancing of ‘wimpy’ men. Her fiancée (Tommy Noonan) is a complete  dork.  She  hasn’t  a  flicker  of interest in the Olympic team, but the 75-year old Charles Coburn takes her fancy: “I thought you’d be a much older man,” she croons to him. Even he gags, “Older than what?” Russell furnishes the quip: “The pyramids.” Sure, Lorelei’s a gold digger but Monroe’s attentions never seem feigned. In a true sense she is playing drag herself, but as a woman playing a woman; and with such joie de vivre, a wink, and a true innocence that her incandescence has burned in the public image consistently for the last 60 years. For better or worse, that’s an icon. She was great with kids, too—as demonstrated here by a basso-voiced tot; George ‘Foghorn’ Winslow (a billing he actually used in his next few movies) who isn’t too young to abandon his ethics in appreciation of MM’s “animal magnetism.” A cute scene with her stuck in a porthole (that recalls a similar one with Lucy) has Winslow hiding below a blanket when Coburn comes along, serving as body to Lorelei’s protruding head. “Such a flowery hand,” marvels Coburn, as ‘Foghorn’ slaps him away. The three of them would’ve made a great road movie.

After the many lavish sets in Call Me Madam, its surprising how spare and lean the art direction is for GPS. Each scene, every number is framed so tightly there isn’t a single wide shot in the whole movie (this is still right before everything went widescreen) Consequently, the sets are of small bed- & dressing-rooms, nightclub stages, sidewalk cafes and shipboard decks. The gowns here are what matter; and they do not disappoint. They were designed by Travilla, who draped MM in no less than 8 films, including her famous summer dress from Seven Year Itch that’s always accessorized with wind.

The sheer male pulchritude on display, combined with MM iconography, & the drag queen hardness of Jane Russell make GPB one for the gays. Which of course makes sense since it was directed by that old queen Howard Hawks. No, wait…Howard Hawks? The guy who directed the original Scarface, Sergeant York, The Big Sleep, Red River, To Have & Have Not? Real  Men’s pictures. He made comedies too, but even they have a strong whiff of testosterone: I Was a Male War Bride, His Girl Friday, Twentieth Century. What on earth made Fox pair him with this Bway musical? Aside from Jack Cole, Hawks brought in his usual collaborators, who together created this (unintentional?) camp masterpiece. He never made another musical. He didn’t have to. It was his 40th film, and he made only seven more. The musical director here was Lionel Newman, Alfred’s brother, who along with Hawks, and screenwriter Lederer, had little to no experience with musicals. Unfortunately this will become more and more common in the future, to the detriment of the genre. But Hawks pulls it off here, much as he did in the many varied genres he helmed over his 43 year directing career.
The faintly surreal quality of GPB lends it a timeless quality, and Marilyn Monroe is not soon likely to fade away as a one-of-a-kind goddess. The German film director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder cited it as one of his ten favorite movies. Lorelei Lee has made many an unlikely fan. The avant garde downtown theater legend, Richard Foreman was enamored of the show and dreamed of his own production. Why hasn’t anyone engaged him for the assignment? And then there’s Edith Wharton, who improbably called Anita Loos’ original volume (which was subtitled The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady), the Great American Novel. You can be sure there was no one like Lorelei in Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth.

As summer entertainment, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened on July 15, 1953, at the Roxy in New York. Air conditioning was bringing a welcome relief—as well as crowds—to both legit and movie houses. R&H had three shows on Bway (including their newest backstager Me & Juliet). But the big new hit was Cole Porter’s Can-Can, which despite qualified reviews (except for new sensation Gwen Verdon) was packing them in at the Shubert. Fred Astaire & Cy Charisse were at Radio City in The Bandwagon. And elsewhere on screens were Stalag 17, Moulin Rouge, Shane, Titanic (the first), Lili, Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando, House of Wax (in 3-D), and the technological-Avatar of 1953: This is Cinerama, a film remembered now, if at all, for its front seat roller coaster ride on a giant triptych screen. That summer my fresh eyes were upstate in Syracuse but I can see The Big Street now—in my mind’s eye—that summer of ’53.

Next Up: Kiss Me Kate

Report Card:     Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Overall Film:      B-
Bway Fidelity:   D
Songs from Bway:  3
Songs Cut from Bway:  16
New Songs:       2  Carmichael/Adamson
Standout Numbers: “Bye Bye Baby”
       “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend” (MM)
Worst Omission: “It’s Delightful Down in Chile”
Best Addition:   “When Love Goes Wrong”
Camp Hall of Fame: “Anyone Here for Love?
Casting:   Hlwd all the way-but it works!
Cast from Bway:  None
Standout Cast: Monroe, Russell, Coburn
Direction:  Hawks for comedy; Cole for music
Choreography:     Jack Cole bawdy
Ballet:                 None
Scenic Design:  Tight shots, minimal decor
Costumes:         Gowns by Travilla says it all
Titles:            Blah. Gold letters on pink lace?
Standout Set:  Bar on Ile de France
Oscar Nominations:  None

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