Marilyn: Behind the Icon — Monroe Catapults to Global Fame in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes signified an ideal pairing of star & role, catapulting Marilyn Monroe into global superstardom, endearing her to the public, and cementing her comedic & musical talents. According to Sarah Churchwell, the breakout role of Lorelei Lee remains Marilyn’s iconic role “because she so closely approximates the cultural fictions about Marilyn herself.”
Monroe’s interpretation of the role of Lorelei—with affected speech, exaggerated lip and eye movements, and deadpan delivery—provided fodder for impersonators for generations to come. The role was a perfect embodiment of the Marilyn Monroe persona and became the screen image that the public and critics would equate with the actress for the remainder of her career. Yet, what Monroe made look so natural and effortless on screen was a well-crafted performance.
The plot of 20th Century-Fox’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes involves gold-digging, diamond-obsessed showgirl Lorelei Lee and her loyal sidekick Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei is described as a girl “who can stand on stage with a spotlight in her eye and still see a diamond inside a man’s pocket.” She is focused solely on marrying for money. Lorelei’s fiancé, Gus Esmond, sends her to Paris with Dorothy to test her fidelity. Esmond’s father employs a private detective to spy on the women and report back any suspicious behavior.
During the transatlantic cruise, Dorothy and the private detective fall in love while Lorelei befriends a married diamond merchant, Sir Beekman, and convinces him to give her his wife’s diamond tiara. Beekman covers his tracks by feigning theft of the tiara and retreats to Africa. When Esmond learns of Lorelei’s escapades, he cuts off her line of credit. She is eventually charged with grand larceny. Dorothy poses as her friend in a court hearing and straightens out the mess. Spoiler alert: The film ends with a double wedding.
Monroe engenders the audience’s sympathy by effectively projecting a perfect balance of kindheartedness and materialism. She also mastered the art of gaining laughs by pretending to be ignorant while endearing herself to the audience. Neither is an easy feat for any actress. In one of her final scenes, Monroe skillfully delivered a thoughtful speech to the father of her fiancé:
“Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help? And if you had a daughter, wouldn’t you want her to have the most wonderful things in the world? Then why is it wrong for me to want those things?”
“Hey, they told me you were stupid,” the fiancé’s father exclaims. “You don’t sound stupid to me.
“I can be smart when it’s important,” Lorelei responses in a line Monroe herself seized the power to amend. “But most men don’t like it.”
Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck tapped Howard Hawks as director. Having directed Monroe in Monkey Business (1952), Hawks was known for a wide range of films including dramas, Scarface (1932) and The Big Sleep (1942), as well as screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). “We purposely made the picture as loud and bright as we could,” Hawks said about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “and completely vulgar in costumes and everything.”
Zanuck needed “loud and bright” name recognition for box office draw and passed on Carol Channing who portrayed Lorelei Lee on stage. He envisioned Betty Grable as the blonde & Monroe in a brunette wig as Dorothy. After hearing a recording of Monroe singing “Do It Again” for the Marines at Camp Pendleton, he decided she would remain blonde as the perfect Lorelei Lee. Zanuck was also getting a bargain. The second year of Monroe’s contract stipulated her salary of $750 per week, compared to Grable’s $150,000 per film.
In an early script conference, Zanuck realized the necessity of the audience’s belief that Dorothy felt genuine affection for Lorelei. This bond motivates Dorothy to defend her friend in the courtroom scene near the end of the film. Ultimately, Fox appropriately cast Jane Russell to deliver Dorothy’s acerbic wisecracks. Russell was five years older than Monroe and assumed the role of her big sister during the production. Russell had graduated from Van Nuys High School, and Monroe’s first husband James Dougherty was Russell’s classmate. Russell had also met Monroe when she was still Norma Jeane at a dance in the early 1940s.
As Lorelei’s fiancé, Gus Esmond, Fox considered David Wayne before deciding upon the often-bespectacled Tommy Noonan. Monroe was again joined by swag-bellied Charles Coburn, her costar in Monkey Business, as Sir Francis Beekman.
British-born Norma Varden was cast as Lady Beekman. In a delightful scene, Lady Beekman offers Lorelei to wear her diamond tiara. When Lorelei tries to display it around her neck, Lady Beekman explains that it designed to wear on the head. Lorelei squeals, “Oh, I just adore finding new places to wear diamonds!”
George “Foghorn” Winslow (1946-2015), a six-year-old with a stentorian voice and deadpan delivery, portrayed Henry Spoffard III. A child with the voice of a man, Winslow contrasted with Monroe, a woman with the voice of a child.
John Weidemann, a stunningly handsome and well-built 1950s physique model, was heavily featured in close-ups with Jane Russell in “Bye Bye Baby” and “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?”
The production, beginning in November 1952 and ending in February 1953, recycled ocean liner sets used for Titanic (1953) and required weeks of grueling pre-production rehearsal and sound recording. Monroe was the first to arrive on the set each morning and worked on the dance routines for an hour or two after Russell went home in exhaustion. She begged for extra coaching to allay her insecurity, but her dancing needed no improvement.
Was Monroe difficult on the set? According to musical director Lionel Newman, Monroe was always punctual for rehearsals and courteous and friendly to the men in the orchestra. Monroe made a special point to personally thank everyone who worked with her. Although she had a definite idea of what she wished to accomplish vocally, Newman saw no signs of a temperamental diva. Monroe received Newman’s blessing upon her first take recording “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” a particularly challenging playback because of its length. Monroe asked to record eleven takes. In the end, she led Newman to the podium where she apologized to him and the orchestra. Monroe announced that he was correct and requested to use the first take.
Did Monroe sing in the soundtrack? Although Monroe’s voice is clearly on the soundtrack, she was challenged to hit some high notes only in “Diamonds” and required minor assistance. Enter Marni Nixon, a soprano who ghosted for Deborah Kerr & Natalie Wood. Nixon provided vocals for only Monroe’s highest notes in the final lyrics “Are a girl’s best…best friend” and sang the song’s operatic prelude of repetitive “No-no-no!” “I don’t even know why they wanted to re-dub [portions of] her voice,” Nixon said, confident of Monroe’s rendition. “Thank goodness they let her sing in her own way. That breathless, sexy sound suited her screen persona perfectly, even if she did need a little help on the high notes.”
Working with legendary choreographer Jack Cole, Monroe felt a sense of confidence that few of her directors inspired. “There was no sexual tension,” wrote William J. Mann, referencing Cole’s sexual orientation as gay, “and besides, Cole had no loyalty to the studios in the way her directors might: he loathed them and all they stood for, and so could afford to be fully present and attentive to Monroe’s insecurities.” The Cole-Monroe partnership created magic, and Monroe would collaborate with him on five additional films. Gwen Verdon also assisted with choreography. ““My mom liked both Marilyn and Jane,” said Verdon’s son, James Heneghan. “Marilyn especially displayed a tough work ethic that was a big deal with my mother.”
For Monroe’s big production number, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Fox spared no expense to showcase her talents for what would become the single most identifiable film sequence of her career. Shot in long takes requiring few edits, the number’s perfect blend of dramatic art design and superb choreography is forever enshrined as an iconic film scene and aided by Monroe’s incomparable execution.
Joseph C. Wright’s original art direction called for Monroe in black against a black background, an Empire bed with pink sheets emblazoned with black satin Napoleonic emblems. William Travilla’s original costume for the number was excessively revealing, comprised of a pair of black fishnet hose attached to a leotard that came up to a bodice of nude fabric. In the wake of the discovery of Monroe nude calendar pose from 1949, Zanuck called Travilla and ordered him to “Cover her up.”
What about Jane Russell’s solo? The premise for Russell’s solo number “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” is her seeking the attention of the Olympian gymnasts while they exercise, none breaking concentration to notice her. The humor exists in the subtext. Many of the male dancers were gay, and in real life on the set, were disinterested in her. The number is hugely homoerotic. The men wear flesh toned short swimming trunks, simulating a nude appearance if not for the black band on the leg openings. Jack Cole coordinated the body-builders’ exercise routines to music. “The resulting images could have come straight out of the then-popular gay magazine Physique Pictorial.
What happened to Monroe’s gold lame gown? In her deleted number “Down Boy,” Monroe performed in the gold tissue lamé halter gown with plunging neckline forever linked to her image through publicity photographs. An audio recording of “Down Boy” surfaced in 2006, but film footage remains lost. The only glimpse of Monroe wearing the gown onscreen is a brief longshot of Lorelei dancing with Lord Beekman, seen from the perspective of Dorothy watching through a window.
Isn’t there another number in the trailer cut from the film? “Four French Dances,” a quartet of orchestral arrangements, was another musical number edited just before the film’s release. Wearing yellow-trimmed bustiers and Napoleon-style hats, Monroe & Russell perform the act while suspended on a quarter-moon and climbing down an ornate ladder onto a set with the Eiffel Tower. The number also included a French language version of “Two Little Girls from Little Rock.” Although the sequence appeared in promotional trailers released while Blondes was still in production, the film’s final version includes only a brief scene that followed.
Did Monroe & Russell get along with each other? At the end of her life, Monroe still appreciated Russell’s kindness in her last interview: “She was quite wonderful to me.” Russell coached Monroe, dating Joe DiMaggio at the time, explained how couples could be happy together without surrendering identities. She also coached Monroe on managing a household & balance the roles of wife & mother while maintaining a career. “We got along great together,” Russell said, “[She] was very shy and very sweet and far more intelligent than people gave her credit.”
Didn’t ‘I Love Lucy’ re-create Monroe’s porthole scene? Lucille Ball copied the porthole scene in 1954 episode of I Love Lucy on television when her character, Lucy Ricardo, crosses the Atlantic on an ocean liner. In Blondes, Monroe gets indelicately stuck in a too-small porthole. Little Henry Spoffard III agrees to help her get unstuck for two reasons: “The first is, I’m too young to be sent to jail. The second is, you’ve got a lot of animal magnetism.”
Was Monroe denied a dressing room during production? Monroe had warranted only a cubicle in the studio’s changing room. Fox. “I couldn’t even get a dressing room,” Monroe later told Life magazine. “Finally, I said, ‘Look, after all, I am the blonde and it is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Because still they always kept saying, ‘Remember, you are not a star.’ I said, ‘Well, whatever I am, I am the blonde!’” offered her Betty Grable’s plush dressing room, but the gesture was intended more to dethrone Fox’s former blonde champion than to coronate its current one. “They tried to take me into her dressing room as if I were taking over,” Monroe said. “I couldn’t do that.” Instead, Fox gave Monroe a large dressing room next to Russell’s.
On June 26, 1953, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre invited Monroe & Russell to make impressions of their signatures, hands, and high heeled shoes in the theater’s famed cement forecourt. As they simultaneously made imprints of their hands, Monroe turned to Russell & asked excitedly, “This is for all time, isn’t it?” Then they shook hands.
As the women held hands and stepped into the wet cement, the newsreel cameras recorded the event and described them as “friendly as sorority sisters.” Monroe cement was tinted yellow, and the “i” in Marilyn was dotted with a rhinestone that would be repeatedly pried out by fans and replaced.
The little girl who once fit her hands and feet in the prints of her film idols had now achieved success and joined their ranks. When Monroe reminisced about visiting the Chinese Theatre as a child, she acknowledged inspiring the next generation: “It’s funny to think that my footprints are there now, and that other little girls are trying to do the same thing I did.”
The Chinese Theatre’s immortalization of Monroe was symbolic. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes cemented Marilyn Monroe’s legacy as a superstar. The performance elevated her beyond the restraints of her pin-up persona and showed her as a full-fledged and multifaceted actress. The four minutes of Monroe’s flawless breakout solo number established her as an actress with no formal training who could sing and dance superbly in a musical comedy. Zanuck now had a formula for his star.
“In her own class is Marilyn Monroe,” announced Motion Picture Herald. “Golden, slick, melting, aggressive, kittenish, dumb, shrewd, mercenary, charming, exciting sex implicit…Miss Monroe is going to become part of the American fable, the dizzy blonde, the simple, mercenary nitwit, with charm to excuse it all.”
Other reviews were equally positive. “There is the amazing, wonderful vitality and down-to-earth Jane Russell…AND—there is Marilyn Monroe!” lauded the LA Examiner. “Zounds, boys, what a personality this one is! Send up a happy flare. At last, she is beautifully gowned, beautifully coiffed, and a wonderful crazy humor flashes from those sleepy eyes of her…Her natural attributes are so great, it’s like a triple scoop of ice cream on a hot August day, to realize she is also an actress— but, by golly, and Howard Hawks, she is…She’ll do more for 20th Century-Fox than their discovery of oil on the front lot.”
–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.