Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

by Steven LaVigne

It’s doubtful that anyone would dispute Howard Hawks’ place in cinema. With a legacy of films that includes the original Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, The Thing (from Another World) Sergeant York and Rio Bravo, Hawks never won a competitive Oscar, instead earning an Honorary Award in 1974.

Two decades before this, Hawks had his name above the title for his only musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s based on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, Anita Loos’ 1925 delightful collection of short stories, full of misspelled and misused words, malapropisms and hilarious situations. It’s also based on a stage version first produced in 1926, as well as the 1949 musical written by Joseph Fields and Loos, lyrics by Leo Robin and music by Jule Styne. It played 740 performances and it made Carol Channing a star. (In the early 1970s, Channing starred in a sequel of sorts, Lorelei, which essentially told the same story as a flashback).

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is perhaps best remembered for its iconic 1953 film version, intended as a star-making vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. The film’s climax features Monroe, surrounded by older male dancers with grey streaks in their hair, holding diamonds as she sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” wearing Travilla’s pink satin dress. It’s one of the happiest screen moments for this great actress.

Marilyn Monroe? A great actress? Absolutely yes!

Monroe was a gifted natural with an impeccable sense of timing and, because of her troubled upbringing, a dramatic depth far greater than anyone realized. Her performances as the conniving, murderous wife in Niagara and the disturbed babysitter in Don’t Bother To Knock are perfect examples of her dramatic abilities. Her comic timing is strong in both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and in How to Marry a Millionaire (released the same year), which pairs her with David Wayne, and costars Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, William Powell and Rory Calhoun.

The film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an improvement over its stage counterpart for many reasons. Besides Hawks’ direction, the screenplay by Charles Lederer, the magnificent choreography of Jack Cole (assisted more than ably by Gwen Verdon) and a cast that also featured Jane Russell (from Bemidji, MN) as Dorothy Shaw; Charles Coburn as Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman, Norma Varden as Lady Beekman; Tommy Noonan as Gus Esmond, Jr; Taylor Holmes as his father; George Winslow as Henry Spofford III and Elliott Reid as Ernie Malone.

Lederer’s script moves the story from the 1920s to the 1950s. Diamond-obsessed gold digging showgirl Lorelei Lee and her best friend and co-star Dorothy Shaw are headed to Paris where Lee’s fiancé Gus, against his father’s wishes, will join them later and marry her. His father’s hired private detective Ernie Malone to keep an eye on them, but Ernie finds himself attracted to Dorothy. Also on board is Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn), owner of a diamond mine. When his wife (Norma Varden) shows Lorelei her tiara, problems quickly ensue. When the tiara disappears, Lorelei and Dorothy arrive in Paris, to learn that their letter of credit has been canceled. No matter, soon they’re starring in a lavish Parisian revue. It’s here that Monroe performs the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” (Marni Nixon dubbed Monroe’s coloratura notes for this number).

Much of the original plot and all but three songs from the Styne-Robin score have been eliminated. A pair of songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson were added instead. While Hawks takes director’s credit, he acknowledged that the film is essentially the work of Cole and Verdon. This is especially evident in Russell’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love,” where she dances around a US Olympic Team training session. She’s costumed in a black pantsuit, but the men are shirtless and wearing (almost) flesh-colored shorts with black bands that, at moments, resemble the straps of an athletic supporter.

It’s during the final moments of this number that Russell, sitting by the pool as the team jumps in, accidentally falls in herself. The men lift her up for her final two notes.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is every bit as much Russell’s film as it is Monroe’s. Russell had been given the star treatment a decade earlier when Howard Hughes cast her as Rio McDonald in his film, The Outlaw, notoriously designing a bra for her (which, evidently, she never wore, but is on display at the Frederic’s of Hollywood Museum). She continued working in such films as The French Line, His Kind of Woman and The Paleface. For Playtex, Russell would advertise undergarments for “full-figured gals,” and she replaced Elaine Stritch in the Broadway cast of Company when Stritch went to star in the London cast. (If you don’t know who Elaine Stritch is, what are you doing in theater?)

Russell called Monroe “Blondie,” and they got along well, famously put their foot and handprints into the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater together to promote this movie. Russell was frequently called upon to coax Monroe out of her dressing room during stressful times on set. Monroe, under contract to 20th Century-Fox, was only paid $500 weekly, while Russell was paid $200,000.

Watch closely, too, because Oscar-winning actor George Chakiris (1961, West Side Story) is one of the dancers. He can be seen clearly during the “Diamonds” number. He’d also be featured the following year in White Christmas.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a treat, no matter how many times you see it, and this is the film that made Marilyn Monroe a Hollywood Icon!