Marilyn Monroe Steps Out of the Chorus Line in her First Starring Role: Ladies of the Chorus (1948)
“It was really dreadful.” This was Marilyn Monroe’s confession to French journalist Georges Belmont in 1960 of her first starring film, Ladies of the Chorus, released twelve years earlier. “I was supposed to be the daughter of a burlesque dancer some guy from Boston falls in love with. It was a terrible story and terribly, badly photographed; everything was awful about it. So, [Columbia] dropped me. But you learn from everything.”
Monroe’s debut as a musical comedy performer in Ladies of the Chorus was arguably far from dreadful. In the succinct, B-movie with a ten-day production schedule, she portrayed Peggy Martin, a burlesque chorus dancer with an overprotective mother, May (Adele Jergens), another dancer in the troupe. When headliner Bubbles LaRue quits, the stage manager asks May to take her place, but she concedes to her daughter. Peggy’s performance is classy, and the audience is smitten by her. Randy Carroll (Rand Brooks), a wealthy young man in the audience, is especially smitten and anonymously sends Peggy orchids by the dozens. When a florist, unaware of Peggy’s identity, disapproves of Randy sending orchids to a burlesque star, Peggy plays along with a sneer. Peggy and Randy begin dating, and Randy quickly proposes.
Protective May approves of Randy but fears his wealthy mother will disapprove of Peggy based on career as a burlesque star. In the past, when May was a young chorus girl, she married a wealthy young man from her audience who had fallen in love with her. After Peggy’s birth, the marriage was annulled because May’s mother-in-law rejected her. Hoping to spare her daughter from the pain she experienced in the past, May urges Randy to inform his mother of Peggy’s profession before introducing them. Randy cannot bring himself to do this, and his mother, Mrs. Carroll (Nana Bryant), hosts an engagement party and invites Peggy and May.
Entertainers invited to the event recognize the mother and daughter, and May is forced to disclose their profession to the guests, who all pass judgment. Spoiler alert: Mrs. Carroll wholeheartedly accepts Peggy and performs a song. She also delivers a bombshell by informing her guests that she, too, had been a chorus girl, but this is a tale told to soften her guests. In the end, Peggy and Randy proceed with marriage plans, and May settles down with her longtime boyfriend, the stage manager of her show.
Named “Miss World’s Fairest” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Adele Jergens (1917-2002) had been a Rockette at Radio City Musical Hall and understudied for burlesque’s Queen of Striptease, Gypsy Rose Lee. Jergens instinctively felt protective toward Monroe but thought she was bright and capable of taking care of herself.
Having played Charles Hamilton, Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband in Gone With the Wind, Rand Brooks (1918-2003), in the role of Randy, had the distinction of giving Monroe her first screen kiss, undoubtably thrilling for the former Norma Jeane Baker who had seen the celebrated film at age thirteen. Brooks had a recurring role the Hopalong Cassidy series of film westerns and later made appearances on television in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, The Lone Ranger, and Maverick.
Columbia’s acting coach Natasha Lytess, soon to became Monroe’s on-set acting coach on subsequent films until production wrapped on The Seven Year Itch (1955), had recommended Monroe to casting director Harry Romm. Monroe auditioned by singing one of three songs designated to the second female lead. Romm found her irresistible and sent her to Columbia’s director of music and vocal instructor, Fred Karger, for refining.
Monroe performed three songs by Allan Roberts and Lester Lee with choreography by Jack Boyle. As part of a chorus, she sings “Ladies of the Chorus” in the film’s opening and breaks out in the solo, “Anyone Can See I Love You,” on the burlesque stage and in a reprise montage with Brooks. Finally, in “Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy,” Monroe foreshadows her Beatnik-inspired “My Heart Belong to Daddy” number in Let’s Make Love (1960). In the last number, she steps out of a giant picture album in a flowing gown of virginal white chiffon with a tight, spangled bodice. Poised and graceful, Monroe glows with promise as a future musical comedy queen.
“Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy” is Monroe’s first significant performance in a musical and strangely predictive. In a stylized set depicting a jewelry store with a neon sign in the shape of a diamond ring. Monroe’s long, sparkling gown with a slit up its side foreshadows her costume in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). The song’s reference to Tiffany’s prophesized her iconic number, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” in the same film. With graceful moves and silky hair styled in the coiffure of Columbia’s reigning queen, Rita Hayworth, Monroe is reminiscent of the latter’s “Put the Blame on Mame” number from the studio’s Gilda (1946). However, Monroe’s performance is far more virtuous. The studio clearly marketed her as a somewhat wholesome version of Hayworth — and a far cry from the siren image 20th Century Fox would later invent.
In Ladies of the Chorus, Monroe demonstrates the promise of star quality. She plays comedic and dramatic scenes with equal believability and speaks in her natural voice (albeit influenced by coaching in the industry’s preferred Transcontinental accent) not yet been replaced by a more breathy, artificial one. The backstory of Monroe’s affair with vocal coach Karger is coincidently reflected by the class difference in the plot’s lovers.
When production ended, Monroe’s short-term contract neared its expiration. Unfortunately, Columbia chose not to renew it. Reportedly, mogul Harry Cohn summoned Monroe to his office shortly before the ending of the contract to “negotiate” an extension, but she refused his advances. In My Story, Monroe recounted the incident without specifically naming Cohn. He allegedly showed her a framed picture of his yacht and said, “Will you come along on my yacht? I’m not inviting anyone else but you.”
“I’d love to join you and your wife on the yacht, Mr. Cohn,” Monroe replied.
“Leave my wife out of this,” he snapped. Insulted, Monroe fled and never worked at Columbia again.
The incident motivated Monroe to deliver a sarcastic message to him when she achieved superstardom by mailing an autographed portrait sarcastically inscribed, “To my great benefactor, Harry Cohn.” Perhaps attempting to claim discovery of Monroe, Columbia recycled Monroe’s “Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy” number in Okinawa (1952).
Columbia released Ladies of the Chorus on October 22, 1948, and Monroe received her first reviews. All were positive. “One of the bright spots is Miss Monroe’s singing,” proclaimed Motion Picture Herald. “She is pretty and, with her pleasing voice and style, shows promise.” Variety announced: “Enough musical numbers are inserted, topped with nifty warbling of Marilyn Monroe. Miss Monroe presents a nice personality in her portrayal of the burly singer.”
Accompanied by the Karger family, Marilyn discreetly attended a public viewing of the film at the Carmel Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. She wore an oversized coat and dark glasses to maintain her anonymity.
After the critics’ and audience’s reactions to Marilyn Monroe, Cohn may have regretted dismissing her in his knee-jerk reaction to his bruised ego. Perhaps Monroe felt vindicated by her successes, but her mind was on recognition by those in her more distant past. “I kept driving past the theatre with my name of the marquee,” she wrote. “Was I excited! I wished they were using ‘Norma Jeane’ so that all the kids at the home and schools who never noticed me could see it.”
Monroe’s relationship with vocal coach Fred Karger was outlived by her long connection to his mother and sister, Anne and Mary. Both women attended her funeral in 1962.
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.