PFA Revives “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”

by Steed Dropout
April 30, 2012


Fresh from New York’s Film Forum, which recently revived 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, Pacific Film Archive has procured a film-can of celebrity cans, if you know what I mean about Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, the two hootest broads from the 40s-50s Hollywood dream factory. (on DVD)

Wanting to compare my reception to a ’53 film that had bored me, at 14, I vowed to see duo sultresses do their Betty and Veronica act as I had seen them sixty years ago.

After seeing the film anew Tuesday night from the eyes of a film bluff who has been a film history student for two decades, I could not fully recall my 14 year-old’s reaction.

So after the film, I interviewed a 13 year-old who was in attendance with his mothers. The kid, as I will call him, was years ahead of me. My 14 years old was closer to the kid’s eight-year-old brother who played with his cell-phone during the film, and called the film way boring.

I would have eagerly played with a ’53 cell phone during my 1953 viewing.

But the 13 year-old at PFA saw Monroe as funny, and sexy, and greatly enjoyed the film. We all agreed that Jane Russell, who died at 89 last year was manly-big. She married a famous football player, and is seen flirting with athletes in this Howard Hawk’s film.

She says, in character, that she has never worked out in a gym, but we wonder.

And oh yes, the kid found both stars hot — as I had not. I was a Doris Day man, a thinking boy’s sexist-voyeur — “Once, I had a secret love….”

As I explained to my new after-film friends, I wouldn’t/couldn’t physically kick Russell out of bed. She could have crushed me like a cigarette butt.

Russell gets most of co-screenwriter Anita Loos’s best gags, as funny here as she was opposite Bob Hope (1948) in “Paleface” flicks (and 1952).

Athlete to Russell: “I’m a four-letterman.” Russell: “I wonder which letters.”

But the Monroe legend was on the move. When leaving for a cruise, she calls down to her rich, homely boyfriend — “bye lover.” The look of sincere regret on Monroe’s face, might be her epitaph. “Bye lover” — to all us adolescents.

It’s uncanny how well Gentlemen supports the Monroe legend — dumb blonde “willing to learn.” When Marilyn says “happiness is not fun,” Russell responds, “that baffles me,” as “My Friend Irma,” (1948) baffled her girlmance partner, another Jane.

After yet another blatant Monroe flirtation, Russell, wearily snaps, “aw honey lay off.” Russell is the glue that holds an often frenzied production together, with her earthy preference for love over money, and sense over nonsense. Loos has supplied killer lines. Russell on Monroe: “half-sweet and half acid.”

At fourteen and at the peak of sophomoric, I wasn’t entertained by anyone in Gentlemen, except for Charles Coburn, everyone’s beloved grandfather figure.

in ’53, the film’s obvious parodic aspects just seemed dumb. Monroe parodies Monroe; Russell, in a blonde wig, parodies Monroe; Hawks, who reportedly considered Monroe a dumb-blonde, parodies Monroe, and Russell parody’s the Russell sex-image — the whole production was early camp, lost on my teenage earnestness.

In a sense, Genetlemen is a parody of musical films, as is “Singing in the Rain,” ’52.

George Foghorn (for his foghorn voice) Winslow, seven-years-old, did a cameo as a wealthy pick-up artist, drawing a Monroe mock-shocked take on the kid’s come-on.

Sex titillation, the early sex-revolution after-the-pill hyper-sexuality, and post World War II feminism — forced back into American kitchens — all parallel, and inform Gentlemen.

Gentlemen coincided with Marilyn’s notorious Playboy nude pics, while Russell had posed for 40’s shots in a Howard Hughe’s engineered (cantilevered) bra, a notorious press-agented scheme, for the 1943, “the Outlaw.”

Although there’s a good deal of hide-and-seek the boobies going on in Gentlemen, there are a few revealing shots. Roger Ebert just writes “tits” these days. Gentlemen is always on the verge of its own sappy sexual revolution.

PFA is concluding a long series on Hawks, and Marilyn Fabe, is conducting a Hawks course in Cal’s Film Studies program.


By 1953, Russell had filled out from stacked to bazoomed. There is a rear-shot of Monroe’s butt in a shrink-wrap gown protruding from a porthole. Shots like these were the whistle-evoking shots of the hubba-hubba decades.

There were male beefcake scenes, which Roger Ebert mentions in his on-going column “Out of the Celluloid Closet,” to appeal to gals or gays. I would have missed all that, as did the kid. He just admired the gymnastics. Gentlemen is a real soft-core sex romp.

This may be our last chance for awhile to view this film on what PFA calls the big screen, barely big, and dwarfed by memories of the U.C., now dark, a missed repertory theater. We are fortunate to have PFA, which is an art-house cinema programmed by film scholars.

We won’t be seeing Gentlemen until it is programmed into some academic niche, for instance, a look-at costuming on American Graffiti, which I stumbled into by accident Sunday.

Graffiti is one of those films the U.C. brought back regularly, but often in worn prints. PFA gets only the best film prints. Gentlemen, even better, had the unlined looks of a restored or newly struck film from original negatives.

Because I had heard a talk by the costumer of Graffitti, I kept tabs on Jane and Marilyn’s dresses, which they seemed stuffed into. Russell seemed greatly girdled, Monroe seemed glued to her dresses. Monroe’s gowns rose to a crescendo of flaming-red silk taughtness — lurid in flaming technicolor, which loves red.

Monroe’s red gown, loose at the bodice, from her diamonds are a girl’s best friend number, sold at auction for 4.6 million in 2011.

Fifties Technicolor was meant to draw TV viewers away from Dragnet, and Charlie Chan re-runs. Now they use 3-D, and relentless pre-film hype.

Russell was costumed sometimes in darker colors to disguise her twenty-five pounds weight-gain since her decade-old “Outlaw” (’43) days.

Was I bothered in ’53 by the marry-money, diamonds are a girl’s best friend sub-plot, a mind-set dispiriting to the male ego, and a harbinger of post-coital tristesse? Just bored, and besides, I was learning what was needed to get on with women.


Bring on the women, I thought, I’ll provide the diamonds.

I asked a female film student seated next me at PFA to watch for the gold-digging angle. Afterwards she said she was not offended, and rated the film highly. An eighty-year old woman who was seeing the film for the first time was thrilled by it.

Co-writer Loos, an early female screenwriter in a male dominated field, gives a tightly reasoned account of the gold-digging ethos. In essence, money just makes anyone look better, a good case for diamonds and friendship.

As I told anyone who would listen, I got the Blonde but not the diamonds, and lost the blonde. The PFA kid might as well get the money message now.

Ripe Tomatoes could become a regular feature, if Berkeley Reporter wants it to continue. The term Ripe Tomatoes™ is inspired by the film-rating site, Rotten Tomatoes, but not the rating system.

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