The more Technicolor films involving Marilyn Monroe I watch, the more I realize their rather grand influence on the whole of cinema. Whether it be the obvious examples like the cultural knowledge of a song like "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," or less obvious things like Howard Hawks making a veritable lesson plan on how to direct a musical. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is as much a textbook example of how to make a musical as it is something entirely detached from its lavish and extravagant predecessors. It is easy to attach an explanation to its lasting success, because simply put it is one of those rarely made films that are in essence perfect. Ignoring the possibilities for social criticism, all of which can be chalked up to the societal standards at the time of the films release, there is hardly a flaw to be found in a film like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I found myself relishing in the glorious colors, zany dance numbers and down right hilarity of the script more than I tend to for musicals of this era. It is certainly a feat of filmmaking and easily one of the best films to emerge from America in 1953. However, what is perhaps the most important attribute of this film, like The Seven Year Itch, is its ability to help me detach myself from the cultural ideal of Marilyn Monroe to better understand her as the marvelous actress she was, without the lingering tragedies of her life off screen.
The film opens unabashedly with two showgirls performing on stage. These women are Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) a woman who is almost entrepreneurial in her quest for wealthy men and her friend Dorothy (Jane Russel) who is longing to find an intimate relationship with a man that is both meaningful and void of false pretenses. The duo is about to engage in a trip to France that is sponsored almost entirely by Lorelei's beau the foolish and rich Gus Edmond (Tommy Noonan). Before the trip, Lorelei hopes that Gus will propose to her only to discover that he plans to hold off his asking. While boarding the ship we are shown Gus Edmond Sr. (Taylor Holmes) demanding that private investigator Ernie Malone (Elliot Reid) watch over Lorelei to catch her in an act of infidelity. Ernie agrees to this task but also admits to an instantaneous attraction to Dorothy, who he begins to engage with the moment they both are on the ship. Once the ship sets sail it is apparent what the two girls are after, Lorelei is after a new suitor and Dorothy is on a quest for love, which seems impossible despite having a ship full of male athletes. Ernie continues his quest to frame Lorelei, a task that is proving rather simple given her recent attraction to a wealthy diamond tycoon appropriately nicknamed Piggy (Charles Coburn), despite the ever-invasive presence of his wife. However, Ernie fails to efficiently trap Lorelei in the act of infidelity, because of his preoccupation with Dorothy who becomes aware of Ernie's double life quite quickly. Lorelei succeeds in convincing Piggy to give her a diamond tiara which belongs to his wife, an action with dire consequences as it results in both Lorelei and Dorothy's banishing by Gus to the streets of Paris with not money or residence. Trying to free himself of trouble Piggy manages to steal back the tiara, although this does not happen before Dorothy attempts to pass as Lorelei in court, making a complete mockery of the judicial process. Piggy manages to free the women of their assumed guilt by appearing at the courthouse with the tiara. The women leave court and are later approached by Gus's father who is irate with Lorelei for her desire to marry his son, although Lorelei in a moment of brilliance states that her desires are no different from men wanting to marry a pretty girl, it is a matter of social status. The film then closes on a rather high note in a double wedding of Lorelei to Gus and Dorothy to Ernie, implying that, despite their new relationships with men, the girls will still engage in their wily ways as independent women of the world.
I had the fortune of reading a few insightful articles regarding Gentlemen Prefer Blondes after viewing the film. Both were excerpts from an older edition of Issues In Feminist Film Criticism, which focused on how positive the film was concerning its images of women. One would be surprised to discover that the individuals that authored these articles found the women to be positively portrayed. It would seem that the overarching patriarchal dominance that closes the film would nullify any sort of liberated image, but this is not the case when the film is taken as a whole. As one article argued through a Marxist lens, the film is about trading commodities, and the character of Lorelei should not be seen as a woman using her body sexually for money, because it was simply a respected job for a fifties era woman. Lorelei should be seen as an entrepreneur who engages in business transactions, all of which she gains financial advances, without ever officially giving up her commodity, which is in this film her body. The other article discusses the two women's relationships to the filmic space, noting that they both dominate it throughout the film and serve as the focal point for most every scene in the film. Take for example the dance and song number in the swimming area, it is clear that Dorothy dominates the men in the scene and is aggressively pursuing sexual power, a truly liberating act for women in this era. Finally, I have mentioned The Bechdel Test on here before concerning women's images in films and it may surprise you that this film passes all the sections of the test, something films still fail to do, but something that rarely happened in 1950's films. It is amazing to section a movie like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in such a pro-feminist place, because when one looks at a movie poster or simply recollects this era in Hollywood it is easily assumed that this occurrence was impossible.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a majestic film from the fading years of Hollwood grandeur. It is a Technicolor masterpiece that has tragically yet to be released on Bluray. Given this, a regular DVD will have to suffice for this must have film to any respectable collection.