Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 31min

Casting a glamorous cultural icon as magnetic as Marilyn Monroe in a film directed by a master of gender comedy like Howard Hawks could only ever lead to the wildly vibrant musical romp that is Gentleman Prefer Blondes. A luxurious cruise liner to France is the stage upon which the young star performs as naïve showgirl Lorelei, teaming up with Jane Russell’s sharper-minded Dorothy to deliver a series of duets that charm and entertain, while behind the scenes both women pursue different lines of love. Given that their audiences consist largely of suited men enraptured by their sultry enchantment, it often seems as if they are swimming in a sea of potential lovers, and even in one song taking place offstage, Hawks cleverly turns scantily clad male gymnasts training for the Olympics into background dancers for Dorothy’s playfully pining number ‘Anyone Here For Love?’

There can be no ignoring the major musical set piece of Hawks’ film though, which marks one of the finest moments of both his and Monroe’s careers. ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ may be the purest visual manifestation of the star’s compelling allure, not just over her audience, but towards the choreographed crowd of handsome men gathering around her like a band of besotted devotees. Her pink dress stands out brilliantly against their black-and-white attire and the dazzling red background, shining a deep vibrancy that seems to radiate out from Monroe. As she glides across the stage, Hawks’ camera remains glued to her face, tracking it with adoring infatuation. Around her, women in black dresses become candelabras and chandeliers, and others dance in attractive ballroom formations wearing flowing, pink dresses – though none so tight-fitting or vivid as that which adorns Monroe.

There are few images that so evocatively capture the image of a Golden Age Hollywood starlet as this, offering a brilliant visual panache that the rest of the film never quite delivers again. Still, this is not to say that Gentleman Prefer Blondes is a one-trick pony, as around his musical numbers Hawks builds out an unusual buddy comedy that indulges in Lorelei and Dorothy’s unlikely friendship. Where Monroe’s blonde bombshell speaks with a breathy whisper and falls into comically unfortunate situations through her own guilelessness, the wiser, more sensible brunette Dorothy keeps an eye out for her friend, all while pursuing more conventionally attractive men.

Still, there is something unassumingly shrewd about Lorelei’s own attitude towards the opposite sex, gradually revealing a more perceptive mind than she is given credit for. Though she has a fiancé back home she is perfectly happy with, she is also well aware of the effect she has on men, and is happy to use this to her advantage in feeding her love of diamonds – especially if that man is the affluent elderly businessman, Piggy. As superficial as her desires may seem, she is fully conscious of the double standard being held against her.

“A man being rich is like a girl being pretty. You don’t marry a girl because she’s pretty, but my goodness doesn’t it help?”

Hawks does not seek to make any grand, insightful social commentary, but instead his keen subversiveness rises organically in his genre archetypes, pointedly observing modern gender roles by revealing their artificial limitations. Lorelei and Dorothy’s expectation that a wealthy man onboard may be a potential suitor is hilariously overturned when, after specifically arranging to be seated with him, they discover that Henry Spofford III is in fact a seven-year-old boy with the comically straight-faced mannerisms of an adult.

“I expected you to be much older.”

“I’m old enough to appreciate a good-looking girl.”

Hawks draws in this wonderfully deadpan character again later when he discovers Lorelei stuck climbing out of a porthole from Piggy’s room. When Piggy approaches, some quick thinking and resourcefulness turns Spofford into Lorelei’s lower half hidden beneath a shawl, while her head pokes out the top. This wafer-thin façade is all it takes to trick an old fool like Piggy, who still does not suspect anything even after kissing Spofford’s hand and noting its small size.

In these situations where wealthy, powerful men fall over themselves just to win the attention of attractive women, there is an amusing status-reversal that the two friends have learned to skilfully manipulate. Hawks’ superb command over physical comedy plays an important part in underscoring this, incrementally removing his narrative from reality with each consecutive visual gag, so that by the time Dorothy has invited an entirely male courtroom into a wild musical number, it has fully transformed into a madcap fantasy. There are few Golden Age Hollywood directors as willing to embrace the comical leading power of his female stars as Hawks, but it is through Monroe’s mesmeric screen presence carrying entire songs and visual gags that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes becomes all the more flamboyantly intoxicating.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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