Why do so many people still care about Marilyn Monroe? Why is she so much bigger than other actresses of the time, or other eras’ biggest sex symbols?
I never considered these questions until I incidentally watched her on screen. I sought out Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch for their writer and director Billy Wilder. Wilder is definitely one of my favorite filmmakers of the era. He’s a guy that just gets entertainment and how to keep films interesting and moving forward. I was shocked at how magnetic Monroe was, but thought there had to be more to her film career considering her level of fame. My curiosity led me to watch just way too many of her movies (the best of which is easily Some Like It Hot, if you’re just here for recommendations).
Check your modern ideas about sexism at the door, because it’s about to get weird. I thought about apologizing for it (I’m going to sound real shallow constantly assessing her appearance) but I definitely didn’t take us there. Was Marilyn in on the joke, satirizing views on sex at the time? I don’t think it matters. She invented half of this stuff, profited hugely, and did nothing to change it. In my opinion she left the world shallower than she found it, and it’s the least I can do to be honest about it.
The Asphalt Jungle
All About Eve
I already wrote about these two movies here. Monroe’s looks steal the show twice in two brief appearances. In The Asphalt Jungle she proves she can play dumb (a skill she calls on frequently) and in All About Eve she proves she can stand around and attract attention.
She is extremely hot, gotta give her that. I’m a big proponent of the idea that good-looking people can add to a movie similarly to good-looking sets or scenery or action, so that doesn’t have to be a bad reason to enjoy her presence. But I don’t see this much ongoing fuss over Rita Hayworth or Jayne Mansfield, so we must continue.
Don’t Bother to Knock
In this unusual noir a recently-dumped pilot tries to seduce a woman who is pretending to be one of the rich inhabitants of a hotel room and not the babysitter of their sleeping child.
This is her first leading role and one of her few serious ones. She believably plays younger, and I’m sure the rest of her performance was fine for 1952 but nothing too impressive (Spoiler alert: she had been mentally disturbed the whole time and has a dangerous breakdown). She might be the best thing in this kinda boring movie by default. I didn’t even need to see this one for my research since no one today cares about it, so I’m gonna say her serious acting can be discounted.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Two girls travel on a cruise ship to Paris. Lorelei enjoys her momentary freedom from her fiancee and his family, not knowing that his father sent a private eye to watch her. Dorothy is obsessed with attractive guys and tries to convince Lorelei that looks are more important than money. Lorelei can’t stop gold digging for like one day and tries to get some diamonds from an old married guy.
This movie is pretty much insane. I was baffled at what I was seeing constantly and that alone made it worth seeing. The two leads have dueling musical numbers putting forth their views on men and life and it’s all very silly. I enjoyed the ending and generally all the parts featuring Jane Russell as Dorothy, who brings all the life to the movie. As Lorelei Monroe invents the sexy baby voice and has an otherworldly beauty and that’s about it. The crazy part is that Jane Russell is arguably only barely less physically attractive so I am confused as to why everyone ran away from this movie freaking out about “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. They must have really liked ’em dumb in 1953.
The other thing they probably liked, which cannot be overlooked, is that Marilyn basically acted like she was desperate to have sex with everyone, both in her movies and in her public persona. She naturally had every physical sexual characteristic cranked way up so she must have figured to go all the way with it in how she talked and moved. Sometimes it works but sometimes when she has her eyes half open trying to make her lips big while talking she seems like an alien. Enemies of subtlety are so far her most understandable devotees.
How to Marry a Millionaire
Three women move to a friend’s New York City apartment with a plan to find and marry rich men.
Yes, somehow Monroe starred in two comedies about blatant gold digging in the same year. This one is pretty unsurprising once you get past that weirdness. Her character is very near-sighted but doesn’t wear her glasses because she thinks men won’t like them and blindness humor ensues. WooOOaahh that’s wacky. Other than that she’s the same ol’ sexy idiot. I assume she had no other comedic strategy at this stage of her career since I’m pretty sure Betty Grable is supposed to be the dumb one and not her. Lauren Bacall plays the brains of the operation and, in what is becoming a theme of this post, she was more interesting than Marilyn.
I would actually like to take a moment to talk about Marilyn’s perceived intelligence. Fans defend her intelligence, usually in an argument over whether we should care about what she’s quoted as saying. Other times it’s just brought up as a surprising fun fact. She did seem to be the driving force of her own success and seemed very thoughtful about what she was doing and the role she played in entertainment. Clearly the bulk of her intellect was used to make the public think she was very dumb. I don’t think she needs us to run to her aid convince everyone she was a secret genius, undoing all that hard work.
River of No Return
A released convict tries to find the man taking care of his son in a mining boomtown. He finds the man has left and his son is being cared for by a saloon singer. Together they venture into the wild, the man and his boy to their farm and the singer and her husband to a potential gold mine.
Unless you like old melodrama there are tw0 notable things here: Monroe as a lounge singer, and great scenery. Never a particularly great singer, Marilyn’s musical draw works by taking every moment as an opportunity to put some heart (or sex) into it. They filmed it pretty well too, showing how she works the crowd in the saloon and how much they love it. Once they get in the open country the scenery is pretty cool, including some huge rapids they go down.
No part of the movie is really that good but the first third of River of No Return at least might help you understand what people were so into as far as her singing is concerned. She was an exceptionally erotic and animated lounge singer, but no part of that description requires having a good voice.
There’s No Business Like Show Business
Family musical act The Five Donehues starts to fall apart when one of the sons falls for sensual singer Vicky.
This is a showcase for mostly good vaudevillian musical numbers, with probably too much filler in between. Ethel Merman as the mom is funny in her numbers, Donald O’Connor and Mitzi Gaynor as siblings Tim and Katy are electric performers, and Marilyn Monroe is definitely also in the movie. To her credit she does make Tim’s potentially family-destroying lust believable. I assume they wanted to showcase all these talented people and wrote her in to get funding for it. There’s one number called “Lazy” where Vicky lays on a couch singing about how she doesn’t want to go out while Gaynor and O’Connor add joke commentary and dance around her. Afterwards their director says the siblings made Vicky look good and it’s what her act needed. Marilyn as a boring performer is literally written into the plot of the movie.
I hate to only be contrasting Monroe with other women but Mitzi Gaynor stole all my attention as an unbelievable dance machine. I have no idea how she does what she does in heels and still adds that much personality in every movement. All that dancing gave her a dancer’s figure, which leads me to a weirder frequent path of Marilyn discussion – that she represents an era of more realistic beauty standards. A Google image search could tell you more about her size than I could reveal from these movies. I’ve seen enough old movies to be able to say trends come and go but generally beauty standards haven’t changed that much. Even the super-thin 90s brought us Anna Nicole, so I think it’s safe to say Marilyn would would be given a fair shot anytime. If anything Hollywood seems more open to different types of people now, which is great.
The Seven Year Itch
When his wife and son leave on a summer vacation, Richard has their home all to himself. When a very beautiful and naive girl moves into the upstairs apartment, Richard fantasizes about her while trying not to sleep with her for real.
Once again the premise of this one is insane. The 50s were a really weird time. The whole movie is seriously just this guy trying not to have sex with his ditsy and erotic neighbor. If you like 50s madcap comedy then you’ll enjoy the writing and Tom Ewell as Richard. This is basically the perfect version of the character Monroe so frequently plays. She’s more extremely naive than dumb, and her naivete about how sexually she comes across drives this poor guy nuts. She does fine but she’s just not that funny. She delivers all the lines as obviously as possible, like a little kid would do.
It might be a totally unfair script with all the funny lines given to Ewell, so it’s tough to say. Ultimately though, we don’t celebrate actors who could have been great if they had a better shot. She never really did anything that funny, so I have no reason to say she’s funny. Maybe she was always typecast into roles with unfunny lines and it’s not fair. Yeah, sorry.
Some Like It Hot
After accidentally witnessing a mafia shooting, Chicago musicians Joe and Jerry must go into hiding. They dress up as women and join an all-woman jazz band on its way to Florida. When Joe falls in love with a fellow musician, he pretends to be a wealthy man to seduce her. To complete the scheme Jerry must distract the owner of a yacht.
At the end of this decade we come to probably its best comedy. It was pretty groundbreaking in its references to cross dressing and homosexuality, and it’s crazy to me how well written they are even today. Gay jokes from even 10 years ago are usually insulting, but the tone here is more poking fun of how seriously we all take these ideas. The script and performances of the two leads (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) are great, and I think this is an excellent choice for someone looking into comedies of the 50s and early 60s. If you don’t like this one, it’s probably not going to happen.
This is Marilyn at her best too because she finally behaves like a normal person. I don’t know if she stopped acting so hard or her acting improved, but she’s more relaxed and natural from her talking to her movements to even her singing. Her sadness and desire and sense of fun replace the pure empty-headed lust and it makes her much more lovable. Who knew that being a living, feeling person would be more attractive than a mindless sexpot?
I think better than anything this explains her enduring popularity. Above the hot body and cheesy jokes and musical numbers, people just want to understand her as a person. And in her movies at least, she didn’t let us. Later in her career she might have told us herself. You need to look elsewhere, to the on-set gossip and anecdotes from ex-husbands and maybe even quotes on Facebook.