not in our stars, but in ourselves
11/52: A comedy
What was the state of comedy in 1953, you ask? Sexism, sexism, and more sexism. Of course. All the fun and frivolity of the 1920s, the relative anarchy of the early 1930s, the physically demanding labor of the 1940s, went out the window after World War II ended. Women were supposed to resume their status as sexually available, marriageable, and motherly (in that order) without much else to redeem them. You might wonder, then, how someone with any feminist leanings whatsoever could love a piece of fluff like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – and love it I do. Well, as was often the case in the 1950s, there’s more going on than might meet the eye. Not much more, of course, but a little bit more.
Based on Anita Loos’s novel of the same name, originally published in 1925, the movie updates Loos’s satire to suit ’50s mores. Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) are showgirls – somewhere in New York, it seems. Lorelei is an avowed gold-digger, but she seems quite happy with her current conquest, Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan). He’s fabulously rich, young, cute in a nerdy way, and utterly devoted to her. Dorothy, on the other hand, wants nothing more than a humble working-class bloke who happens to be drop-dead gorgeous. Lorelei is a bit of an airhead, shall we say; Dorothy takes it on herself to look out for her best friend. Gus and Lorelei want to get married, but Gus’s father – who strongly disapproves the match – won’t let them. Lorelei therefore decides to sail to France, where she’ll stay until Gus comes to rescue (and marry) her. All on Papa’s dime, most likely. Papa Esmond has hired a private detective, Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), to keep an eye on Lorelei – because Papa assumes that she must be a fast little number who does whatever anyone asks her to do when Gus isn’t looking. Ernie falls for Dorothy almost instantly, and she reciprocates, unaware that he’s out to get Lorelei in trouble. Lorelei, meanwhile, gets herself in plenty of trouble all by herself: she finds out that Lord Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn), an elderly fellow passenger, owns a diamond mine in South Africa. She flirts with him recklessly – to his delight – until Dorothy sees Ernie taking photos of the two of them through a porthole. (He was “explaining” how pythons in South Africa can squeeze a goat to death. He was the python, and she was the goat.) Dorothy and Lorelei realize that they’ve been had, and they sever all ties with Ernie. When they arrive in France, however, they find that he’s already told Papa Esmond all about Lorelei’s supposed infidelities – and the girls are penniless. They rise again, of course, and everything ends happily ever after, but it’s a hell of a ride to get there.
First and foremost: this movie is certainly sexist in how it fetishizes the two leads – well, Monroe especially. Every costume, every shot, is ecstatically built around her extraordinary curves. William Travilla, the costume designer, worked on several Monroe pictures, and more or less admitted that he was in lust with her throughout their working relationship. Her waist-to-hip ratio is the star of the show, really. In case you missed the point of all the skin-tight dresses and hip-wriggling, there’s even a scene in which Lorelei miscalculates the width of a porthole, and gets her callipygian self stuck – ass wiggling, legs flailing – as she tries to get out. Only in the ’50s.*
Curiously enough, Russell isn’t presented as the same sort of sexual catnip. She’s usually wearing large overcoats, or plain dresses, with very little attention paid to her once-famous chest. It’s almost as if she’s the smart, cool, older aunt – not someone exactly as sexy and desirable as Monroe. It’s odd, then, that Russell plays the sex-crazed Dorothy – when the film spends very little time emphasizing her own sexual allure – while Monroe plays the money-grubbing Lorelei – when the film spends every spare moment drooling over her. Could it be that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is more subversive than it looks?
Well, yes, of course. However much the film luxuriates in these ladies’ charms, it’s a film in which the women get exactly what they want, on exactly their terms. Lorelei wants to be rich and happy and dripping in jewels. She knows Gus is easy to knock over, but she explains to Papa Esmond that she’s doing exactly what he would want his own daughter to do: make a successful marriage. Besides, as she says, “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” Exactly so, Lorelei. And as for Dorothy, she does love Ernie, for whatever reason, but she refuses to accept him until he agrees to help her friend. He does. He gives up the case, helps Lorelei to reunite with Gus, and lives happily ever after with Dorothy – who will probably continue to force him to do as she says.
In short: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes trades in all the usual sexist cliches of the 1950s, and at first glance, seems not to go beyond them. However, it’s clear that these two showgirls are acutely aware of all those cliches, and use them to their own advantage. If they have to live in a rotten, patriarchal society, they’ll use every weapon in their arsenal to make sure that they’re happy and comfortable in it. And it’s their friendship that matters most to both of them. They’d give up any man for the sake of helping each other out. (Don’t believe me? Ask The Toast.) I mean, it’s not a watershed moment for feminism, but it’s not bad.
*The famous urban legend, that Tinkerbell in the Disney Peter Pan was based on Monroe, is just that: pure legend. Despite the evident similarity between the porthole scene and a scene in which Tinkerbell’s ample proportions get similarly stuck in a keyhole, it’s apparently just coincidence. Tinkerbell was modeled on Margaret Kerry, and there are plenty of pictures to prove it.