Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis in Niagara
In 20th Century Fox Studio’s black and white trailer for Niagara (1953), the narrator describes Marilyn Monroe’s character as “flaunting her charms as she lured men on and on to their eternal destruction…” A close-up of Monroe is superimposed on the footage of the cascading falls. Monroe, the actress, is described by stilted voiceover as “skyrocketing to new dramatic heights.” Promotional posters featured a rendering of a colossal Monroe lounging across the falls, emblazoned with slogans such as, “Marilyn Monroe and Niagara are a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control!”
Fox correctly calculated Niagara as a vehicle to propel Marilyn Monroe into overnight global stardom by introducing her as a titillating leading lady of high budget, A-class films. The screenplay describes her role—an adulterous wife plotting her husband’s murder with her lover amid the backdrop of Niagara Falls—as a beautiful girl “with clear eyes and untroubled expression of a girl with no moral restraints whatever.” Perfect material to pry the public from television sets and into theaters.
Written and produced by Charles Brackett, Niagara was a retooled treatment by Walter Reisch and Richard Breen. Beginning in 1950, Brackett obsessed about the idea of a suspense film set in Niagara Falls, subconsciously inspired by a Currier and Ives print of the cascading falls in the men’s restroom of his office.
The film’s perspective is told from the perspective of a young couple, Ray and Polly Cutler (Max Showalter & Jean Peters), enjoying a postponed honeymoon to Niagara Falls where they meet George & Rose Loomis (George Cotten & Monroe)—a dysfunctional pair returning to the Falls where they had spent their honeymoon but who are now consumed by jealousy, adultery, and revenge. Niagara Falls symbolizes uncontrolled passion resulting in disaster and death. The message for Post-War 1950s America is that sexuality must be contained and restrained.
Niagara is a rare Technicolor film noir that employs the genre’s traditional use of stark camera angles, dramatic shadows, contrast images, and low-key lighting. The main exception is its use of Technicolor rather than monochromatic film. In true film noir style, the protagonist, George Loomis, has character flaws leading him to ruin. He is suffering from posttraumatic stress from combat in the Korean War, failure in business, and a suggested inability to satisfy his wife sexually.
This protagonist is betrayed by another staple of film noir, the femme fatale, in the form of his diabolical wife. Rose Loomis is the ultimate femme fatale. She is a cruel and dishonest woman who drives her husband toward madness with her brazen sexuality, in hope to begin a new life with her paramour. Niagara was Marilyn’s only opportunity to portray a villainous, narcissistic woman with virtually no redeeming qualities who conspires with her lover to murder her husband.
Joseph Cotten (1905-1994), whose film debut was in Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane (1941), portrays George Loomis. Welles had also directed him in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Third Man (1949). In Hitchcock’s film noir, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Cotten attracted attention as the menacing uncle who confirms his young niece’s suspicion that he is a serial killer.
Rose’s femme fatale is balanced with a pure and virtuous woman sympathetic and helpful to the protagonist. Jean Peters (1926-2000) is effective in the role of Polly Cutler, the newlywed who soothes George’s agitation. Interestingly, studio memos suggest original casting consideration of Monroe in for the role of Polly, and Anne Baxter as Rose. However, studio mogul Darry; F. Zanuck’s image of Monroe likely cemented her fate as—in the words of the film’s marketing—the “tantalizing temptress whose kisses fired men’s souls.”
Niagara would later be described as a stylized film in the directorial vein of Alfred Hitchcock and suggests how the director may have used Monroe as one of his signature icy blond leading ladies. However, Fox engaged Henry Hathaway (1898- 1985) as director. His film noir classics included The House on 92nd Street (1945), Kiss of Death (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948) with Jean Peters.
Hathaway’s reputation was that of a tyrant who belittled and cursed his actors. However, he took an immediate liking to Monroe, or perhaps she melted his icy exterior. Hathaway considered Monroe’s opinion when editing the daily rushes and allowed her input to the selection of takes chosen for the finished film.
Max Showalter (1917-2000), known by his stage name Casey Adams, was cast as the gregarious, somewhat “square” newlywed, Ray Cutler.
As Rose’s lover, Richard Allan (1923-1999) shared a powerful on-screen chemistry with Monroe.
On-location production began on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls during June 1952. Since none of the area’s existing motels and cabins could be photographed with the Falls as a background, Fox’s unit manager, Abe Steinberg, hired a local contractor to build the façade of a five-unit motel described in the script as on the edge of the Niagara River opposite American Falls in Queen Victoria Park. Upon release in early 1953, the film re-established Niagara as Honeymoon Capital of the World. Long after the film’s release and subsequent repeated broadcasts on television, the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce continued to receive many requests for information about vacancies at the long ago dismantled, fictional Rainbow Cabins.
In an iconic scene, the Niagara Carillon Tower chimes the melody of “Kiss.” Believing the song is a message from her lover communicating that he successfully killed her husband, Rose walks in the direction of the tower, flashing a smile as she dashes off to meet him. Her costume is a red bolero jacket, tight black skirt, and high-heel sandals with ankle straps. In this scene, Monroe created her first iconic image; a walk lasting nearly twenty seconds on screen and comprising one hundred sixteen feet of film. It was the longest and most luxurious walk in cinema history, and the film’s biggest gimmick. Hathaway’s stationary camera focuses on the exaggerated, horizontal sway of Monroe’s buttocks as she walks, her back to the camera, toward the tower. The audaciously allows the audience a voyeuristic moment in a style later synonymous with Hitchcock.
For the first time, Monroe was hailed for precision in her acting in a leading role. “The dress is red; the actress has very nice knees,” wrote Otis Guernsey of New York Herald Tribune, “and under Hathaway’s direction she gives the kind of serpentine performance that makes the audience hate her while admiring her, which is proper for the story.” Time hailed its full-bodied assertion, “What lifts the film above the commonplace is its star, Marilyn Monroe.”
In the final analysis, Monroe served Fox well. Niagara cost $1,250,000 and returned $6,000,000 in its first release. She had achieved global stardom. Nearly seventy years after its release, Niagara retains its nail-biting suspense, showcases Monroe’s dramatic talents, and illustrates its leading lady’s transcending appeal and charisma. She had personified the culture’s standard for beauty and sensuality.
–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.