Marilyn: Behind the Icon —
Something’s Got To Give: Monroe’s Final Film Performance:
Marilyn Monroe’s final, uncompleted film, Something’s Got to Give, inspired two documentaries, Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (2001) and Marilyn: Something’s Got to Give (1990). During the tumultuous production, the star suffered from an upper respiratory infection, fever, symptoms of a serious mental illness, and self-medicated with prescribed medication; however, in fragments of scenes Monroe remains incandescent.
Only brief dazzling excerpts from Monroe’s 30th film appearance would appear in documentaries on her remarkable life, most recycled from Fox’s retrospective, Marilyn (1963) and said to be gleaned from the entirety of only about eight usable minutes of footage. Then in 1990, an investigative Fox News reporter, Henry Schipper, set out on a mission to locate surviving scenes at Fox Entertainment’s archives. He discovered six crates of film reels that vindicated Monroe’s reputation as an actress. Editors eventually compiled about thirty-seven minutes of the footage into a reconstructed, coherent short film.
“It has been accepted ever since that her work on SGTG was a sad finale to an otherwise spectacular career,” Schipper reported. “This film proves the studio wrong. In fact, Monroe never looked better. Her work there is on par with the rest of her career — funny, touching and, at times, superb. She was lighting up the screen as only she could.”
By 1962, Monroe owed Fox two films to fulfill her renegotiated 1955 contract. After satisfying this obligation, she would have the freedom to pursue her own productions, select dramatic roles, and demand script approval. Monroe was one of Fox’s remaining 12 contract players; the studio had boasted 55 the previous year. However, her title as the queen of the studio offered no solace; Monroe wanted out.
Fully aware of Monroe’s box office draw, Fox strategically assigned her Something’s Got to Give, a remake of RKO Studio’s My Favorite Wife (1940), a screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. The property offered Monroe a chance to portray a mother and wife, Ellen Arden, who returns to her family after being declared lost at sea for five years.
Turning 36 during production, Monroe faced a pivotal point in her career that might afford opportunity for a wider range of roles. Fox faced an equally crucial crossroads as its star. The studio had lost nearly $22M due to the production turmoil of Cleopatra, in production with Elizabeth Taylor since 1960. Originally budgeted at $2M, Cleopatra would ultimately cost $44M, the equivalent of about $320M today.
Jean-Louis designed Monroe’s elegant and sophisticated costumes, several made of imported Chinese silk, befitting Hepburn, Kelly, Day, or Turner. Having dressed a fuller Monroe for The Misfits, Louis immediately noticed her drastic reduction to one hundred-fifteen pounds. “The change in her was breathtaking,” Louis said of Monroe. “She had never been so slim and glowing. And, because she was to wear a bikini in several scenes, she had been working out.”
Sydney Guilaroff designed seven hairstyles including a teased bouffant with elements of a “flip,” a style Monroe had preferred during her last year.
Monroe campaigned for Dean Martin in the role of her husband, Nick Arden. Most recently, he costarred in an ensemble piece with his Rat Pack cronies, Ocean’s 11 (1960). Martin smooth voice and laid-back image made him a popular crooner, and his recording career on the Capitol Records (“That’s Amore” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?”).
For a second female lead who would not upstage their sexy star, Fox cast Cyd Charisse as Bianca Russell, Ellen’s elegant but neurotic rival. Charisse had recovered from childhood polio to study ballet and dance across the screen with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and Silk Stockings (1957).
Before Fox cast Tom Tryon in the role of Steven Burkett, Ellen’s male companion on the island, he played the title role in the Disney television series Texas John Slaughter. Later, Tryon was involved in a relationship with Calvin Culver, also known as Casey Donovan, a star of gay pornography.
Monroe passionately campaigned for comedic actor Wally Cox over Don Knotts in the role of the meek shoe salesman who Ellen attempts to pass as her companion on the island. Cox voice the animated cartoon series Underdog and shared with Monroe a mutual friend, Marlon Brando.
Much of the script’s action takes place on production designer Gene Allen’s set, a reproduction of George Cukor’s six-acre estate and opulent pool on Cordell Drive in Beverly Hills, costing $100,000 (Marilyn’s salary for the film). In 1935, Cukor had remodeled the home as an Italian villa with assistance from silent film star turned interior designer William “Billy” Haines.
The film opens in a courtroom where Ellen’s husband, Nick, petitions for a judge to declare her legally dead. During a regatta in Hawaiian Islands, Ellen had fallen overboard in a storm. Immediately following the declaration of death, the judge begrudgingly officiates Nick’s civil wedding to Bianca, a neurotic woman dependent upon her psychoanalyst.
On the day she is declared dead, Ellen is rescued by a submarine crew and returns to Honolulu after spending the last five years stranded on a deserted island in the South Pacific. Before returning home, she checks into the Honolulu resort and spots Nick entering an elevator with his new bride. Nick recognizes his “dead” wife but dismisses the vision as guilt for his remarriage.
Nick and Ellen reunite at the resort. Ellen tells him of rescue, and they recommit their love for each other. Nick asserts his fidelity to Ellen but avoids telling his reactive new wife the truth. Incensed, Ellen returns home to reclaim her role in the family and reunite with her children.
In the reunification scene, Ellen watches her children playing in the pool. Marilyn conveyed emotion through her tears and facial expression without the assistance of speaking lines.
The surviving film allows us to observe the actress who impressed the Actor’s Studio in scenes from Anna Christie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Monroe’s work on this film suggested the professional heights she might achieve.
Ellen immediately establishes rapport with Timmy and Lita but discovers they have no memory of her. She is crushed to learn she is only recognized by the family Cocker Spaniel, Tippy. Monroe filmed the scene with a Cocker Spaniel and his handler. Over twenty takes survive of Monroe repeatedly delivering her lines letter-perfect as the dog missed his mark. Tippy had also been the name of Monroe’s childhood pet that had been tragically killed; perhaps she requested the dog in the film be given the same name in order for her to summon real emotions in the true Method approach to acting.
Ellen adjusts to civilization while bonding with the children and teaching them about survival in the South Pacific as well as the culture of island natives. On a version of the script, Monroe inscribed comments alongside this scene: “Too flat/it’s painting black on black so to speak/We don’t have to worry about Heart/I have one/Believe it or not/Either they have to trust me to play the scenes with heart or we are lost.”
Ellen’s son, portrayed by child actor Robert Christopher Morely, dives into the swimming pool and accidently hurts himself. Monroe runs toward him as he climbs up the pool ladder. Morely cries on cue, playing a boy concealing his tears. “When boys in the South Sea Islands get hurt and don’t want to show their feelings,” Monroe says. “They bravely ask someone to cry for them. Can I cry for you? I’m good at it.” The child smiles as Monroe embraces him.
Monroe’s personal pain motivates her acting to a deeper level and creates convincing scenes. Having miscarried twice during her marriage to Arthur Miller, her children would have been ages 4 and 5. Monroe embraces both children simultaneously and expresses her love for them, calling them her “two best sweethearts in the whole world.”
On the verge of tears, she shifts to pure joy as the three actors roll on the floor giggling. The delightful shot was completed in one take.
Ellen skinny-dips in the family swimming pool under the moon, her routine on the island. That evening, an insurance agent visits Nick at home to resolve the issue of his company having paid Ellen’s life insurance claim and discusses an investigation into allegations that Ellen survived as a castaway: she had not spent the last five alone, but her companion on the island was an athletic playboy, Stephen Burkett. According to Burkett’s statement, the couple addressed each other as “Adam and Eve,” implying sexual involvement in the tropical Eden. “My, listen to that splashing…” the agent (Phil Silvers) says, hearing Ellen in the pool, “they must be doing the breaststroke. I hope the pool is heated.” Nick drolly replies, “It’s being heated right now.”
This leads to a confrontation between Nick and Ellen, each insistent upon their respective fidelity during the separation. Monroe and Cukor conspired to make the nudity appear improvised, but carefully choreographed each step. Jean-Louis had designed a flesh-colored, strapless bikini top and bottom of the silk soufflé to simulate nudity, but Monroe would remove the top for realism.
To allay her husband’s doubts about her fidelity, Ellen recruits a mousy shoe salesman to pose as Burkett. In the sequence, Wally Cox assists Monroe in trying on a pair of shoes, but they are obviously too tight. While trying to squeeze her foot into the shoe, she nearly slides off the chair and realizes her foot has grown from going barefoot on the island. Suddenly, Ellen schemes to solicit the clerk to pose as Steven, her island companion. When she invites him to lunch, the clerk nervously says he brings his lunch to the store to “eat in.” Ellen leans forward and whispers “I’d be ever so grateful if you’d take it out.”
Meanwhile, Nick has already sought out and confronted the playboy at the local yacht club. Ellen presents the show salesman to Nick as “Adam.” Nick plays along as Ellen and the imposter stumble along in describing the island and their struggle for survival.
This comic scene was Monroe’s final performance of her illustrious career on June 1, 1962, her 36th and final birthday. Martin’s character has already discovered the playboy but humors his wife by quizzing the coached imposter. “We lived in huts,” Ellen explains. The shoe salesman clarifies, “Separate huts.” Nick asks where they lived during the rainy season. Ellen replies that they moved into the trees. The salesman interjects, “Separate trees.”
Monroe’s stand-in, Evelyn Moriarty, coordinated a surprise birthday celebration on the set with a sheet cake from the Farmer’s Market. It was decorated with sparklers and a plastic doll wearing a bikini and swimming in a pool, depicting the infamous nude swimming scene. Evelyn hid the cake in a prop room as Cukor demanded that she present it only after production wrapped to “get a good day’s work” from Monroe.
20th Century-Fox subsequently terminated Monroe from the film in early June citing excessive absences. Indeed, the star had struggled with physical and mental health challenges impairing her ability to work. Monroe and the studio were involved in negotiations to resume production in the fall when she died two month later, on August 5, 1962. Retitled Move Over, Darling, the film was remade with Doris Day and James Garner and released the following year.
–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.