Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Hawks fans have always been divided on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: some rate it high, others have trouble seeing much of Hawks' personality in it. It's difficult to find a similar film for purposes of comparison, which is the first hint that Hawks didn't simply fill out a genre form. The closest I can come is the Mansfield-Tashlin collaborations The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957): films in which a new-to-market sex symbol plays a sex symbol, presumably a studio strategy to enhance the value of a brand name. All three films share an awareness that they are not only deriving comedy from the subject of the women's extreme effect on those around them, but also presenting the women for the audience's delectation.

Tastefulness is hardly an option here, but Hawks manages to combine audacity with analytical intelligence. The film's amazing opening shot sets the bar high: with no opening credits, Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), in bright red sequined gowns, emerge from behind a blue curtain and begin their first song before a second of screen time has elapsed. Any story that follows must be subordinated to this startling abstract manifestation of hypertrophied femininity and clashing primary colors. As the women maneuver their way through a world of staring, wolf-whistling men, Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer (who apparently inherited little plot from the revue-like 1949 Fields/Loos Broadway play) take advantage of the project's parodistic tone to dodge or deflect the moral issue of gold digging, and preserve an amoral perspective right up to the outrageous ending, which scores Lorelei and Dorothy's double wedding with the gold-digging anthem "Two Girls from Little Rock."

The intrinsic exaggeration of Monroe's acting style makes it difficult to perceive that Hawks has engineered yet another of his comedies in which a powerful solipsist (Lorelei) is juxtaposed with an exasperated representative of the reality principle (Dorothy). This time the pair are allies instead of opponents (as opposed to, for instance, the teamings in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday), but Dorothy's function is primarily to establish a realistic baseline from which Lorelei's departures from normality can be measured. Not that nearly everyone else in the film doesn't help build this baseline by butting his or her head against Lorelei's serene obliviousness - but Hawks likes to keep a character around the set that he would enjoy hanging out with.

Monroe's girly persona, which we enjoy associating with stupidity, is here inflected to accommodate Lorelei's mastery of every situation. As splashlessly competent as a Hawks action hero, she is only the more effective for being ignorant of, or unconcerned with, society's moral codes. From the early scene in which she uses Sherlock Holmes-like logic to suss out the gift she is about to receive from her beau Gus (Tommy Noonan), Lorelei is on top of every situation, whether exploiting a maƮtre d's exploitation of her shipboard popularity, or planning a multi-pronged assault on the detective Malone (Elliott Reid) who is hired to get the goods on her. In the end she bests Gus's disapproving father (Taylor Holmes) in an old-fashioned intellectual debate on the gold-digging ethic, after laying out the case in admirably extreme terms: "I don't want to marry him for his money - I want to marry him for your money." Playing up the usual style gap between Monroe's acting and everyone else's, and playing down her often-cited vulnerability, Hawks oversees a remarkable comic performance, with terrific line readings like beat poetry ("Sometimes Mr. Esmond finds it very difficult to say no to me") and bits of business that hint at a bizarre inner life (confronted for the first time with a diamond tiara, Lorelei can barely restrain her hands from pouncing inappropriately; after the tiara's departure, she happily improvises a scenario of future possession, using a napkin ring encircled by a necklace as a stand-in).

Hawks claimed to have had no interest in directing the film's two big musical numbers, "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," and apparently was not even on the set when Jack Cole shot them. (Presumably he had something to do with conceiving the numbers; and "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" was written for the movie by Hawks' friend Hoagy Carmichael, along with Harold Adamson.) But all the smaller numbers - "Two Girls from Little Rock," "Bye Bye Baby," "When Love Goes Wrong," and the courtroom reprise of "Diamonds" - are executed on the pleasingly intimate scale that Hawks uses for any group recreation. All four of these songs feature spectators clapping to lay down a back beat for the performer; the players provide verbal cues and gesture to each other to signal musical transitions, creating a mood of real-time collaboration, much as in the "Drum Boogie" number from Ball of Fire or the Bacall-Carmichael piano rehearsals from To Have and Have Not. In "Bye Bye Baby," Hawks uses an economical fast pan to pass from the Olympic girlfriends' four-part harmony verse to Russell's solo verse; when Lorelei and Gus sneak away to another room and take the tempo down to romantic ballad, Dorothy and the athletes spot her from the doorway, signal each other to prepare an intervention, then pound out a beat on the door frame to swing the song again. The film's musical highlight, "When Love Goes Wrong" (another Carmichael/Adamson composition), is a digressive mini-story in itself, with the women's dejected mood dissipating gradually during the song and dance, and a circle of friendly Parisians bonding so effectively with Lorelei and Dorothy that the last verse slows and quiets down for a melancholy farewell as the women's taxi pulls away.

A few unexciting scenes crop up as the film marks time between the big "Diamonds" number and the finale. Still, Gentlemen is too good to be relegated to the margins of Hawks' career. Our difficulty in coming to terms with Monroe's distinctive comic talent (odd that we are tempted to regard such a stylized performer as an authentic sexpot struggling with the rudiments of craft) impedes us from regarding Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as we do other Hawks films, where genre material and performances are purified, pushed to extremes, and mixed liberally with the director's distinctive ideas about what should and shouldn't be called entertainment. Coming as early in her starring career as it does, Gentlemen is generally regarded as a defining film for Monroe; if it is less rarely recognized as her finest moment - well, that's more or less par for the course for Hawks-directed performances.


1 said...

I always thought that this was a trainwreck - a deeply misogynist film which attempts to present its female characters as liberated but in the end they come off as utterly shallow. Also, I am not a big fan of musicals in general, but most of these don't repeat the same song over and over.
His Girl Friday, Scarface, and The Big Sleep are just as inconsistent in tone, but I'm not ready to give up on Hawks just now, seeing how many of my favourite directors admire him. Maybe Only Angels Have Wings or Bringing Up Baby. My final back-up film is Ball of Fire - Stanwyck can make anything amazing (well, not quite anything - her Sirk collaborations are not amongst his best, but still).

Dan Sallitt said...

Maybe Hawks isn't doing the kind of characterization you're looking for. He doesn't specialize in standing back and making observations: the people in his films are often projections, a way of playing with our expectations of what the fiction is likely to deliver. At any rate, you've seen enough important Hawks films to form an opinion.

You like every Stanwyck film except All I Desire and There's Always Tomorrow? That's an unusual profile.

1 said...

That's an interesting point about projections, I'll try to bear it in mind when I watch my next Hawks film.
On Stanwyck, I like All I Desire and There's Always Tomorrow, just not as much as the other films with her in it that I've seen (about 10 in total).