The Monroe Doctrine

I bought Conversations with Marilyn by J. Weatherby because it was 25p, and my Scottishness exerted itself (the inability to resist a bargain can wind up being expensive). Fiona was the one who read it, though. So I suggested we watch some accompanying films. I hadn’t seen HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE since I was a schoolboy, and one thing led to another and the other was GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES which I’ve seen a lot.

Both films are about snagging rich mates, and it’s soon apparent that Fox’s takes on this theme are a bit more sympathetic to their gold-diggers than MGM’s, which always have a tang of DIRE WARNING about them. While GENTLEMEN cheerfully inverts conventional thinking about propriety and ethics (in a playful rather than iconoclastic way), it’s less easy to parse MILLIONAIRE except as a fairy tale, where the moment Bacall abandons her dreams of marrying wealthy, it turns out her new husband is in fact as rich as Croesus, if Croesus had diversified into oil and cattle and real estate.

The girls all work in the Black Lodge.

I don’t remember ever finding MILLIONAIRE that funny. My best friend at school was a Marilyn obsessive and I sort of drifted along into that. Same with the Beatles. My personal interest was always film, though I didn’t notice that my enthusiasm for it was anything out of the ordinary until friends pointed it out. Anyway, HTMAM had Monroe and so it was good, but not that funny, and it went without saying that it would have been better with MORE Monroe. Funnily enough, my response to it is about the same thirty-four years later.

I suspect I hadn’t seen MILLIONAIRE in its true ‘Scope ratio, so that was illuminating. Jean Negulesco wasn’t particularly a comedy director, but he was a visual experimenter. He’s being pretty cautious with this new medium, but he manages a few nice things. You do feel the strain of filling all that space, though, hence the inspiration of reviving the old three-girls-on-the-make-in-Manhattan sub-genre from the ‘thirties. Just line them all up, with some subsidiary menfolk if you like, and the acreage is occupied. Or have them recline languorously, which Bacall is particularly good at.

And this is a good start to a scene.

Pulls back to this.

But the endless lolling isn’t good for LOLs — the necessary pace is sacrificed to the cumbersome equipment, and something seems generally off with the comedy timing. Bacall wasn’t often called on to be funny, but she’s very amusing in her Hawks films — but that’s very different from this. Betty Grable, I think, is the one who’s contributing most to the sense of awkward timing, or, if not awkward, at least ineffective. It is quite hard to put your finger on what’s wrong, but these gals don’t gel.

A schmoe called Fred.

The film also seems seriously undercast from the masculine side (so is GENTLEMEN, for that matter — and yes, Elliott Reid, I’m afraid I do mean you. You’re fine, but you’re up against serious female firepower). Cameron Mitchell seems better suited to investigating a faceless serial killer. Rory Calhoun always seemed he should be more interesting with a name like that. And David Wayne was very effective PLAYING a serial killer… but more on him shortly. Fred Williams Clark is along for comic bluster and glower, but plays all his scenes with Grable, igniting neither laughs nor chemistry. (Incidentally, who would win in a fight between Fred Williams and his son, Fred Williamson?)

And then there’s poor old William Powell, whose scenes harp endlessly on about his old age. (Leading to one nice line, though, as Bacall insists she prefers older men: “That old guy in THE AFRICAN QUEEN, I’m crazy about him!”) Fiona thought the film, and the mercenary Miss Persky, treated him very badly, toying with his emotions like that. Though not half as badly as Hollywood movies would treat many of their leading ladies once they neared his age.

Powell, of course, is by light years the most talented comedian in the film, which gives him no jokes or comedy business whatsoever. Just the sorrows of age.

Dream sequence. In a film about models, this model gets one of the biggest laughs.

Oh, and I’m forgetting Alexander D’Arcy, so good in THE AWFUL TRUTH, here sporting a natty eye-patch. So the film isn’t undercast at all, it has several superb light comedians, it just doesn’t use them for much of anything. And it gives the larger roles to the less appealing, less funny men.

Then there’s Monroe — I think as a kid I was slightly offended by the myopia jokes — I was a prudish little jerk. The conceit that she’s blind as a bat but won’t wear glasses gives her a huge advantage over her teammates — Bacall is meant to be the smart one, which is only an active attribute when she’s dealing with her female pals — if she were partnered with dumb males it could get some real play — Grable doesn’t seem to know what’s meant to be funny about her character, though there are plenty of dumb blonde jokes (Monroe recounts being led into Grable’s dressing room and given the distinct impression by management that she was the new upgrade of the soon-to-be obsolete pin-up, which made her feel VERY awkward).

Monroe scores virtually all the laughs, with material that’s dumber than the other leads have to work with, and then she meets David Wayne on a plane to Kansas City and the film actually catches fire for the duration. Wayne was a really good actor, and he tunes in to Monroe in a way nobody else has managed (maybe SHE’S the one sabotaging the others?) It’s fascinating, because you wouldn’t peg him as a loverboy (fifteen minutes in the sack with her and surely he’d look like the Straw Man of Oz after a run-in with the flying monkeys) nor as Monroe’s kind of performer. But magic is magic.

Nothing much new to say about GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES except that it feels much more benign than its widescreen companion, and that as video technology improves, the Technicolor just gets fiercer, which is why I now have the outline of Jane Russell’s lipstick seared into my retinae. I think the moment that did it is when she says “…but nobody chaperones the chaperone: that’s why I’m so right for this job.”


16 Responses to “The Monroe Doctrine”

  1. Nice. Fred Clark surely? X

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. I like both of these enormously. As for Marilyn her best director was Jack Cole

  3. It’s a shame there isn’t a bigger record of Marilyn’s feelings about her own work, or her opinion of the directors she worked with. I’ve read a lot of stories about her insecurity, her difficulty, her tardiness, but I wish I could hear more of her side of the story, especially where directors like Hawks, Cukor, Wilder, Huston and Preminger are concerned.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    “Seriously undercast from the masculine side.” Well, yes. I think, though, that part of the strategy was to present Monroe & Company as overwhelming, as superwomen … which meant that their male co-players were cast to be, um, modest. A self-defeating strategy. Also one in accord with the era’s notions of comedy

  5. Yes, Fred Clark, of course. I can never get his name right. Which ruins the Fred Williamson joke. Or renders it not a joke, anyway.

    We know Marilyn got very angry about Wilder criticising her in the press, even when he was being funny about it. But not much about who she may have thought was her best director. Or why she thought having Paula Strasberg on set was a good idea.

    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is certainly having a joke with Charles Coburn and Tommy Noonan and George “Foghorn” Winslow as leading men, but I’m unsure if Elliott Reid is part of the gag.

  6. Jack Cole brought out the best in Grable too:

  7. And you’d never catch HIM undercasting on the masculine side.

  8. Jane reported that the swimming pool gag was a mistake and they fired the guy who knocked her in (Cole was always very tough with his dancers and very gentle with his stars). She knew the big splash would end up in the movie.

  9. Randy Cook Says:

    Not just a very good actor, David Wayne was the go-to young light comedy lead on Broadway for almost a decade, originating the roles of the Leprechaun in FINIAN’S RAINBOW, Ensign Pulver in MR. ROBERTS, and Sakini in TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (Brando played Sakini in the movie, of course, and thought himself badly cast in it, saying it SHOULD’VE been played by David Wayne). Funny in ADAM’S RIB, too, but the movies didn’t fulfill his Broadway promise. Maybe he was so off-type that they couldn’t figure out what to do with him (he was even starred in the generations-spanning 20th Century Fox soap opera WAIT TILL THE SUN SHINES, NELLIE, a bit of mawkish Americana which is pretty much justifiably forgotten).

  10. Fascinating! He has a good bit in Finders Keepers, a late Richard Lester, as America’s oldest and most boring train conductor. He really gets into it. Big monologues listing all the presidents’ dogs.

  11. And, don’t leave out – I find David Wayne astounding in Joseph Losey’s M….

  12. chris schneider Says:

    David Wayne is also quite good in THE TENDER TRAP, sharing scenes with Sinatra and Celeste Holm. The psychology of the film is odd, to say the least, but he makes it work — or at least is a significant factor therein.

  13. M is good except for all the bogus psychoanalysis. I’ve never seen The Tender Trap but I like that song, so I should.

  14. John Seal Says:

    I suspect you’ve been conflating Fred Clark with that other moustachio’d cinematic fusspot, John Williams.

  15. But Clark is a blowhard as well as a fusspot. A blowpot, if you will, or possibly a fusshard. I could never conflate them!

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