Last Completed Musical-Comedy:
Let’s Make Love (1960)
“Marilyn Monroe is the greatest farceuse in the business,” Fox film producer Jerry Wald asserted. “A female Chaplin.” In the summer of 1959, Wald approached Monroe with The Billionaire, a musical comedy by Norman Krasna who had scripted the sophisticated Indiscreet (1958) for Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Professionally, Monroe was hot, and Fox wanted to capitalize on the success of its own star who’s last two films were made for rival studios. In fact, Monroe hadn’t worked on the Fox lot since Bus Stop (1956).
Fox wanted Billy Wilder to direct, clearly hoping to recreate the magic of Some Like It Hot, but he was editing The Apartment at Paramount. George Cukor, another director on Monroe’s approved list, was the next choice. Cukor, a talented gay man known as a “women’s director,” had a string of successes including The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and A Star is Born (1954).
“[Marilyn] had this absolutely unerring touch with comedy,” Cukor would later say. “In real life she didn’t seem funny, but she had this touch. She acted as if she didn’t quite understand why it was funny, which is what made it so funny.”
Retitled Let’s Make Love, the film is a backstage story about a French billionaire, Jean-Marc Clement (Yves Montand), who learns his Casanova reputation is being satirized in an off-Broadway musical. Dismissing his attorney’s (Wilfrid Hyde-White) urge to shut down the production, the billionaire instead heeds the advice of his public relations agent (Tony Randall) and visits the theater during rehearsals to show good humor. At the theater, he is mistaken for an inexperienced actor auditioning for his part. Dazzled by the production’s leading female performer, Amanda Dell (Monroe), the billionaire accepts the part of the playboy to court her and pretends to be “Alex Dumas.”
Amanda, who attends night school, is serious about self-improvement and voices a strong prejudice against wealthy playboys. She is more interested in the art of acting, men who are awkward with women, and the show’s male singer (Frankie Vaughan). Amanda begins to coach this would-be impersonator whose disguise prevents him from relying upon money and power to impress her. The billionaire hires famous virtuosos in comedy, singing and dancing (Milton Berle, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly) to assist him in stirring Amanda, but discovers he is utterly untalented.
The plot’s premise borrows from the previous year’s hit Pillow Talk in which a man pursues a woman disinterested in his playboy reputation by disguising himself as more sensitive and approachable. Even Some Like It Hot was a more skewed variation on the formula.
Contenders for the role of Clement included Gregory Peck, Yul Brynner, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson. As casting finalized, Monroe’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller, arranged her introduction to the French actor and vocalist Yves Montand performing in a concert tour in New York, who would become her co-star. Monroe campaigned for Montand’s casting and won. Although he was born near Florence, Italy, the film’s trailer promoted Montand as “the greatest gift France has sent to us since the Statue of Liberty.” With his prominent nose, Montand bore a slight resemblance to Joe DiMaggio.
“Next to my husband and along with Marlon Brando,” Monroe told the press at a reception she hosted at the studio’s Café de Paris commissary, “I think Yves Montand is the most attractive man I’ve ever met.”
Frankie Vaughan, “the singing idol of England,” plays Tony Danton, a cabaret singer in Amanda’s production. Vaughan released more than eighty recordings over the course of his career, mostly covers of American songs.
As Clement’s protective attorney Mr. Wales, Wilfrid Hyde-White, was a British actor best remembered for his role in My Fair Lady (1964). He amused Monroe with a story he heard of a man visiting the wilds of Africa who told a savage tribesman that he was from America, and the head-hunter responded, “America—Marilyn Monroe.”
Screen legends Milton Berle, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly portray themselves in cameos as the comedian, singer and dancer who coach Clement.
Cukor, accompanied by songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and musical director, Lionel Newman, traveled to the Monroe’s Manhattan apartment to audition the musical score. Using her white baby grand piano, the team sang four original songs created for the film: “Specialization,” “Incurably Romantic,” “Hey You with the Crazy Eyes,” and “Let’s Make Love.” The four men had a rare glimpse of Monroe as a stepmother when, in middle of a song, she jumped up and attended to her young stepson and his best friend.
Monroe’s opening number, a Beatnik version of Cole Porter’s standard “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” The six-minute sequence was on the scale of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Heat Wave”. Immortalized by Mary Martin, the song was updated to include jazzy “ba-da-da” back-up male vocals. The melody of the chorus is in a minor key while the bridge is in major. Monroe delivered staccato phrasing with precise pitch.
As the number begins, the camera focuses on a series of firehouse poles as Monroe’s legs appear from above, opening and closing as she shimmies down a pole and into frame before whispering, “Boys!” Ten male dancers in casual beige outfits join her. Wearing a bulky blue Aran sweater over a black leotard body suit and black pumps, Monroe announces, “My name is…Lolita, and I’m not supposed to play…with boys.” This phrase calls to mind Nabokov’s controversial novel. Furthering the literary allusion, Monroe plays with jacks and crawls across the floor between the spread legs of a row of male dancers.
As in “Diamonds,” the male dancers chase, lift, and carry her around the stage. It is a vigorously acrobatic number, probably the most difficult of her career. Cukor shot the sequence slowly in fifteen second takes while Monroe mimicked the dance moves modeled off-set by Jack Cole. When Cole accidentally caught his foot in a camera dolly, Monroe grimaced and clutched her chest in exact imitation of her choreographer. The number took eleven days to complete
Monroe appreciated Cole’s patience. She sent him a greeting card and enclosed a check for $1500 and a note that read, “I really was awful, it must have been a difficult experience, please go someplace nice for a couple of weeks and act like it all never happened.” A few days later, Cole received another card with a check for $500 and an inscription that said, “Stay three more days.” Cole responded with a telegram: “The universe sparkles with miracles but none among them shines like you. Remember that when you go to sleep.”
The blue sweater, ordered from Ireland for $75 by costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, created more delays on the set than Monroe than the Hollywood writer’s strike that stalled production. Monroe was slender, having lost the weight gained during her pregnancy in late 1958; however, Fox executive Buddy Adler complained that she looked pregnant in the blue sweater. The sweater gave the illusion of middle fullness as it was sewn into Monroe’s black leotard to prevent it from riding up during the highly physical dance moves.
Fox promised “The Best Entertainment Offer You’ve Had in Years!” and organized a premiere in Reno, where Marilyn was scheduled to film The Misfits. Rather ominously, the city experienced an electrical blackout on the evening of the event. The premiere was canceled and never rescheduled.
With all its deficits, the film is average; but the public expected a Marilyn Monroe film to produce above average results. Regardless, Monroe is delightful and approachable in the role. She speaks in her natural voice, her manner is natural and unaffected, she portrays Amanda as an approximation to the real Monroe.
New York World-Telegram and Sun noticed the public’s positive response to her musical performance during a screening: “Marilyn Monroe is geared for some of the loudest laughter of her life…It is a gay, preposterously and completely delightful romp…Marilyn actually dares comparison with Mary Martin by singing ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ in the first scene. The night I saw it, the audience broke into the picture with applause.” Conversely, crusty Bosley Crowther commented in the New York Times, “Who (aside from his mother) would ever have expected to see Milton Berle steal a show, without much effort, from Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand?”
Let’s Make Love received an Oscar nomination for best scoring of a musical. However, it received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical Motion Picture and a nomination for Best Written American Musical by the Writers Guild of America.
What’s the story behind Monroe’s costume that got much mileage? Monroe wore two of her own dresses in the production. One is the designer Jean-Louis’s sheath with bolero jacket which she frequently wore to events from 1958-1962.
Does Monroe wear the silver gown from the premiere of Some Like It Hot? In the Specialization number that highlights the careers of Elvis Presley, Maria Callas and Van Cliburn, Monroe dons a spangled silver gown adorned with bugle beads that she had worn to the premiere of Some Like It Hot in March 1959.
Did Monroe have a birthday party on set? Monroe celebrated her 34th birthday on set and receive a string of pearls from George Cukor. She was photographed with the children of cast and crew invited to the event.
Did Arthur Miller polish the script? The writer’s strike of 1960 delayed production, so Monroe’s husband rewrote key scenes.
A pivotal scene—obviously scripted by Miller—establishes the emotional connection between Amanda and Clement. The scrapped dialogue could likely have been a conversation in the Miller living room on East Fifty-Seventh Street. When Amanda explains that she wants to be “wonderful” and entertain people, Clement cynically suggests only one in a hundred audience members really cares about her acting—the rest are “foolish, perspiring strangers” for whom she is working “like a slave.” Amanda describes the exhilaration she feels during a good performance and her connection to the audience: “You’re home. Like in a family.” “How well I know,” Marilyn printed next to this last line on her working copy of the script, which describes how an audience’s feedback makes her feel lifted off the ground and in a home. She changed the words “ground” to “earth” and “home” to “sheltered.” In the margin, she scribbled, “how true.”
Why all the publicity photos of the film’s stars drinking coffee? That was Monroe’s media campaign to save the small business of a coffee and concession vendor. She inscribed this photo of herself and the vendor, “There’s nothing like your coffee.” During production, Fox studio was terminating the contract of its coffee vendor, one man’s livelihood. Monroe wielded her power and protested the termination, demanding that he remain; there are a series of photos of her and her co-stars drinking coffee at the vendor’s portable stand which traveled to the sound stages. Monroe won, and the coffee vendor stayed.
–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.