Monday, November 11, 2013

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) at the film history class at Aalto University

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. US 1953. PC: Twentieth Century-Fox. D: Howard Hawks. Based on the novel by Anita Loos and its Broadway musical adaptation. Blu-ray at the Marilyn (yes!) screening room at Lume, Department of Film, Television and Scenography, Aalto University (School of Arts, Design and Architecture), Helsinki, 11 Nov 2013

The topic was Marilyn Monroe at the film history class for students of film and theatre schools. We discussed the Hollywood star system, the genre system, and the studio system, and the pressures they put to screen acting in a big budget film production.

Yet there was room for personality and individual expression of talent even under such conditions especially if the director was of the caliber of Howard Hawks. Marilyn Monroe had just become a superstar in Niagara, but in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes she created, in the direction of Hawks, her unique variation of "the dumb blonde stereotype". She did it already so well that she soon grew tired of it, although her studio just wanted her to repeat it and do little else. That meant war with Twentieth Century-Fox. In 1954-1955 MM declared her "Monroe doctrine" and moved to New York, where she soon found a network of new friends passionate about art. One of the first was the writer and playwright Carson McCullers who introduced MM to Cheryl Crawford.

I never tire of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It is a tough, bold, direct, and garish film in a pre-pop art kind of way. It seems to glorify money, power, sex, and glamour, but is actually a brilliant satire of them all. In his action films Hawks celebrates the team of male professionals; in Hawks's comedies the men are clowns, never more than here. There is an ostensibly happy ending with a double marriage, but with men like this the film ends up being also a satire of the marriage institution.

There is one real and human relationship in the film, though, and that is between Lorelei and Dorothy as incorporated by Marilyn and Jane Russell. They chide each other incessantly like true friends do.

Howard Hawks often delegated action sequences, location shooting and special scenes to second unit masters and other professionals. The unforgettable and often imitated production numbers of GPB are not directed by Hawks but by Jack Cole, who was also responsible, credited or uncredited, for many of the subsequent musical numbers in Monroe's films.

Hawks concentrated on the direction of actors. He was a master of bringing actors together and creating a wonderful ensemble. He was a genius in discovering the unique quality of the actor. He made the actor feel comfortable, at home in his role. His focus was in creating a character who enjoys being who he is, no matter how incredible or fantastic, and as a consequence we also enjoy the company of such characters. In GPB Hawks created fantasy characters in a brilliant and timeless parody of class and gender.

A paradox of Marilyn Monroe is that since the 1940s she was being educated in the general direction of Method acting - starting from Actors Lab, the West Coast version of Actors Studio - Michael Chekhov (Anton Chekhov's nephew) - Natasha Lytess, and  - since 1955, Actors Studio itself after she met with - Cheryl Crawford who introduced her to - Lee Strasberg (who led her to - the infamous black lady Paula Strasberg). That was the interior approach to acting as opposite to the star system glamour acting in films such as GPB. The glamour acting MM already mastered, but now she wanted to break new ground, yet she never got a great vehicle for her new approach.

I recommended to the students one book: Barbara Leaming's Marilyn Monroe (1998). It is a unique study of the Elia Kazan - MM - Arthur Miller triangle. Leaming is also good about the paradox of The Prince and the Showgirl, the first independent production by MM, directed by Laurence Olivier who hated the Method. Vivien Leigh had played Blanche DuBois in the direction of both Olivier and Kazan, and to Olivier's chagrin she preferred Kazan. Now there was Monroe, also in the spell of the Method. Leaming is good about the drama behind the drama. About MM's death most biographers have a bias and an agenda. Leaming's (unsensational) agenda and bias is (a bit too much) pro-Ralph Greenson. Otherwise her book, based on original archival sources, is balanced and sober, ideal for professionals.

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