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« Doc Corner: Fyre Festival, Jean-Luc Godard and Eureka in First-Quarter Round-Up | Main | Nathaniel's (Belated) Top Ten List of 2018 »
Wednesday
Mar132019

Soundtracking: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

by Chris Feil

If you want to look to reinforcement of traditional gender roles in the movies, sadly you can look to the history of movie musicals for consistent examples. It’s a genre that consistently returns to tropes and archetypes for its structure, but that just makes it all the more rewarding when there are examples to the contrary. Take Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for example - no seriously, take it and watch it on a loop because it is perfect cinema.

The film gives us two unique musical heroines in Jane Russell’s Dorothy Shaw and Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee, a team on the stage and in dealing with men. They are two ingenues that subvert genre tropes and traditional images of women looking for love on screen, and you can see how they do so in their solo songs...

Mind you Russell’s showcase number “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?” is already one hallowed in gay history. The actress struts through a horde of muscle men, moving in unison in their nude illusion shorts and paying her no mind. They quite possibly could be there for love, but it ain’t for Jane.

Russell meanwhile gets to play both coyly thirsty and delectably butch. The song’s central question is tongue-in-cheek in her delivery, with her aloofness and dismissal of the lovelorn role she is supposed to play is her own sly flirtation with the audience. Those distinctly phallic earrings she wears aren’t just a cleverly positioned dick joke, but  a symbol of her horniness and her characteristic assertiveness that traditional gender roles would say are reserved for a man.

She gets to play empowered, horny, and more than a little queer in a single definitive number, showing that femininity need not be defined by the rules of the era. Her subversion is powerful, funny, and very sexy.

Monroe’s diva moment however is more subtle in upending expected ingenue femininity. And of course it is its own cultural landmark, one that has been chased by later icons like Madonna and Nicole Kidman. But while “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend” is iconic for cinema history, we might forget that it is done with a wink.

On its surface, you can see how foolish men could interpret the number as an ode to the kind of superficiality that female characters were long painted with. But that was a trope that Monroe adeptly undermined throughout her career. She played breathy “dumb blonde”s with an intelligence so smooth, fawning men never realized she was intellectually sideswiping their expectations. Here the song jokes she walks off with their money, winning a power play they didn’t even realize they were having.

And yet she is able to do so without betraying the hyperfeminine persona that is demanded of her. There’s a reason this number has been mimicked and repeated for decades: it’s peak glam perfection. The men surrounding Monroe here may be more rapt than the crowd that met Russell in her moment, but they are as unmatched to Monroe’s respective power. Instead, they are moths to a flame. Where Russell was more of a glitterbomb to the traditional gender role, Monroe dismantles it from the inside.

But together, they are smart heroines we can get behind.

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (11)

GOD I love this movie. Even though it strangely forgets that it's a musical for a LOOOOOONG stretch in the middle. The slyness in Jane and Marilyn's performances is brilliant, and the COLOR. Good Lord but this is maybe the MOST Technicolor film ever made.

And, of course, the French & Saunders parody of it is just TO DIE.

March 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

It truly is "perfect" cinema, and those 2 numbers merit their iconic status. Also, people really don't seem to talk about Howard Hawks enough when there's discussion of the all-time greats.

March 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Howard Hawks always had killer roles for women. Bacall in To Have and Have Not, Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Russell in His Girl Friday, even Ginger Rogers in Monkey Business and Ann Sheridan in I was a Male War Bride, and, oh god, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth in hus ultimate masterpiece Only Angels Have Wings.

The best of all these women is Stanwyck, but all of them gave A+ performances under Hawks direction, including Monroe and Russell.

March 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I rewatched Ball of Fire one of these days, and it was such a perfect movie and Stanwyck gave such a flawless star turn and performance that the whole thing made me think Stanwyck was the best actress of Hollywood ever. I mean, ever.

March 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I've probably watched this movie more than any other in my life. I absolutely love it. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell have such a refreshing and unique onscreen relationship. I don't know what it is exactly but their friendship just feels different than any anything else I've seen on film between two women. I love the way they're so protective of each other. Dorothy can tease Lorelei but she's ready to attack if any one else gives her a hard time.

It's also interesting to note that despite her mega sex symbol status Marilyn Monroe had the best on screen chemistry with other women. Also see her with Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in How to Marry a Millionaire and her dynamic with Thelma Ritter in The Misfits.

"Excuse me, but what is the way to Europe, France?"

March 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

Love this film! It's colorful and splashy for sure with fantastic supporting performances (Charles Coburn and Norma Varden as the Beekmans are flawless and Tommy Noonan is priceless as the lovable doofus Gus Esmond-so different from his work the next year as Judy Garland's best friend Danny in A Star is Born) and those two numbers are deservedly iconic.

But what always stood out for me was the true friendship between the two women. When they find themselves in a spot (usually thanks to Lorelei) it's never "What are you going to do?" but "Sister, we are in a jam now." Jane and Marilyn have a lightning in a bottle chemistry that can't be manufactured nor anticipated. A shame they were never paired again.

March 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Everyone thought there was going to be a war of egos and vanity between them, but they actually became friends and Jane - who soon realized her co-star's insecuritied, gave het support during filming and even introduced Marilyn her second husband, Joe DiMaggio. That's the kind of movie that never loses its subversive taste. And the gorgeous costumes and hairstyles need to be mentioned. And I think Jane Russell is officially the first MM impersonator on big screen before Jayne Mansfield even appeared.

March 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFeline Justice

securitied=securities
het=her

March 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFeline Justice

Ten Movies to Watch When You're Down

01) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes/1953
02) The More The Merrier/1943
03) The Lady Eve/1941
04) My Man Godfrey/1936
05) Kiss Me Kate/1953
06) I Married a Witch/1942
07) The Devil and Miss Jones/1941
08) The Major and The Minor/1942
09) Ball of Fire/1941
10) Some Like it Hot/1959

Runner ups:
11) My Favorite Wife/1940
12) Pillow Talk/1959
13) Bringing UP Baby/1938
14) Calamity Jane/1953
15) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers/1954

March 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoodie

It's amazing how the image and figure of MM are constantly renewed and modernized. Having made quality movies that are also fun help.
(Even her weaker films like Let's Make Love and River of No Return are worth a peek; others like Bus Stop improve over time and even short appearances in such films as Love Happy, which she made before fame and even before have become platinum blonde, and where she drives Groucho Marx crazy, are interesting.) Having developed a persona of easy assimilation must also have been important. Being gorgeous contributes a lot, especially with all the glamour of the 1950s, which for some is the decade that never goes out of style.

March 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel

The world will never get rid of these incredible women of the 1950s (Marilyn, Grace, Audrey, Kim, Doris, Jean, Deborah, Elizabeth, Dorothy ...), or perhaps the world will never allow them to rest. They left an unparalleled legacy of image and sound and impressions. They benefited from having the best professionals of the studios working in their favor and the improved Technicolor process that gave them the magic of color that some stars that came before them could not benefit, while having the best black & white to shoot them (and some of them look better in black & white).

March 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMelchiades

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