Archive for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The Monroe Doctrine

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2017 by dcairns

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.”

 

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Mean, moody and magnificent

Posted in FILM with tags , on March 1, 2011 by dcairns

Also a good laugh. RIP Jane Russell.

Take Infinity

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2009 by dcairns

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I got a copy of O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE ages ago, through my sister-in-law taping it off Sky Cinema, and of course failed to watch it. All I knew at the time was that it was a compendium film adapting stories by O. Henry, and that one episode was directed by Howard Hawks. I had no strong feelings about the other directors.

Fast-forward a couple of years (on V.H.S. that’s going to take looong time) and I’ve grown quite interested in Jean Negulesco, and somewhat more interested in Henries Koster, King and Hathaway (given the name of the author, did they try to cast only men called Henry to direct this thing, then give up when they suddenly thought, “Wait — what the hell are we doing?”) , so I eventually overcame my boundless inertia and played the thing. Well, I have a kind of creeping dislike of O. Henry’s famous story The Gift of the Magi, recreated here with Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain, who inevitably fit right into the heart of mush that beats and oozes within that tale, so that ended the film on a sour note, (I don’t think I’ve actually enjoyed a Henry king movie yet) but the rest was not bad ~

To take the stories in no particular order — Hathaway’s adaptation of The Clarion Call was perfectly fine, it’s a good story, and here it was used as an excuse to have Richard Widmark play another cackling black-shirted psychopath. No bad thing, and the story was genuinely smart.

Negulesco’s episode, The Last Leaf, with Anne Baxter, Jean Peters and Gregory Ratoff, was another sentimental tale, but it did boast some florid and eccentric work from the Romanian maestro — his camera lurches into Dutch tilts as Baxter staggers home, feverish in a snowstorm. The camera makes little darting movements, motivated by nothing at all, perhaps trying to create a discombobulated and fevered reaction in the audience.

Hawks confirmed his reputation as the best filmmaker of the bunch by turning in the best short, a sterling adaptation of the Ransome of Red Chief. The late Donald Westlake riffed on this idea in his third Dortmunder novel — the kidnappers outkidded by the kid they kidnap. Hawks’s dry approach to comedy is here exaggerated by very very dry performances indeed — Fred Allen and Oscar Levant realise that the only way to deal with this overwritten, literary comedy dialogue is just to say it, with a little inflection but zero emotion. The mighty Kathleen Freeman also turns up as the kid’s mother, and the kid himself is an astonishing prodigy called Lee Aaker. His throaty, serious, preternaturally adult delivery makes him like a country cousin to legendary comedy child Henry Spofford III (George Winslow) in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. “I’ve changed my mind about you, Slim. I still don’t like you, but now I think you’re stupid,” he intones, with a level, deadly gaze.

But the most exciting moment was in Henry Koster’s comedy episode, The Cop and the Anthem. Charles Laughton is great value as a tramp trying to get arrested so he can spend the winter in a nice warm penitentiary. David Wayne makes a fine sidekick. But it was the brief appearance by Marilyn Monroe that caught my imagination.

Laughton and Monroe shared a scene? How long did THAT baby take to film? Between waiting for Laughton to “find the man”, waiting for Monroe to show up, waiting for Laughton to “feel it”, and waiting for Monroe to actually give voice to her lines, surely this is a sequence which would have had to be begun years before the film’s projected release date. My theory — they’re still shooting it NOW. By the time the scene (a couple of shots long) is complete, time travel will have been invented, and Koster will be able to pop back to 1952 and seamlessly insert the fresh footage into the cut negative, all ready for its release. And we can already see that it will be worth the effort.

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Oh — the film also features introductions to each section delivered by John Steinbeck. He has the porous, jowly features of James Ellroy, but he doesn’t say “copacetic” all the time so is clearly a better writer.