'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' a luxe example of '50s cinema

  • Pin It
Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." (September 27, 2012)

The teaming of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was a combination so potent it can only be described with an inappropriately long wolf whistle, so much so that even a fussbudget such as New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther couldn't resist devoting a few lines in his 1953 review to the pair's physical attributes. He actually backdoors his way into the observation, couching it in a line of dialogue from the film ("Those girls couldn't drown!") before arriving at the conclusion that "there is not much class in this picture." It seems you can't have your cheesecake and eat it too.

The film has aged a bit better than Crowther might have predicted, buffed to a nostalgic sheen thanks to Monroe's strangely beguiling legacy and a performance of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" — in a spray of pink satin and knowing winks — that is one of her most enduring moments on celluloid.

A couple of ex-showgirls board a luxury steamer headed for "Europe, France" (to quote Monroe's bubblehead in the film) in the hopes of snagging a man. It's a piffle, really — it might as well be called "Bombshells Ahoy!" — but it is a movie quintessentially of its moment and a fine selection by film scholar Fred Camper for his weekly discussion series this fall (6 p.m. Tuesdays at the Siskel Film Center) focusing on American cinema of the 1950s.

"It's my feeling that the '50s are the richest and best period for Hollywood filmmaking," Camper told me. "The studios were trying to compete with television. They had to offer something different, and while I'm not going to defend 3-D, I think CinemaScope and other widescreen formats actually did open up new possibilities for composition. Color did as well." Even with the rise of color, it was still possible to make a commercially successful black-and-white film in the 1950s. It would be the only decade in which both color and black-and-white movies had equal standing in the mainstream.

But there are other, more subtle reasons why the '50s were so important in terms of how the films looked: A decade later the studios would realize just how much money could be made selling the TV rights of their films.

"Cinematographers, directors and Eastman Kodak started to calculate for how the films would look on TV," Camper said. "That produced any number of compromises, including the fact that they had to frame whatever widescreen format they were working in and adapt it for television. Plus, TV's contrast and rendering of the image was so different that they had to develop a whole different look."

The 1950s would produce the last generation of movies designed specifically for how they looked projected on a movie screen.

Also, per Camper: "You had two kinds of directors working during this time: The great visual masters that started in the silent period, like John Ford, ("Blondes" director) Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, and then there were a group of newer directors who came to cinema via television like Robert Aldrich and Samuel Fuller, and their view of the world was much less stable than the classical directors' view."

It was a period of rich cultural contradictions that seeped into the movies themselves. "On the one hand, the U.S. was the most powerful country in the world by far. And on the other hand, people were afraid — afraid of another Depression, afraid of the bomb — and both fears were quite reasonable," he said.

A blatant critique of materialism wrapped up in an iridescent bow, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" indulges in Hollywood musical glitz while also offering some not-so-subtle commentary.

"The seeds of feminism were slowly taking root," Camper said. "Women's roles were very traditional in films, but often critiqued within those films. 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' is a good example of that because it's a parody of those cliched, stereotypical views of women." On its face, the film wasn't typically Hawks' style (so much so that Crowther deemed the director "oddly assigned" to the picture).

The so-called Hawksian woman was your savvy tough-talker who could hold her own with the guys. That's not exactly the setup in "Blondes," but there's no mistaking Russell's nod to the Hawks archetype. She delivers her lines with a sharp self-possessed wit that stands in stark contrast to Monroe's winningly dumb, cream puff of a performance. We all lose our charms in the end, to quote from Monroe's big number, but even a movie as garish as this one has a funny way of escaping the same fate.

"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" screens 6 p.m. Tuesday followed by a discussion about the film led by scholar Fred Camper. (The film also screens at 6 p.m. Friday.)

Monty Python, times two

Digitally remastered versions of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and "Life of Brian" screen at the Wilmette Theatre this week. "Brian's" release in 1979 did meet with some push-back among those who boycotted the film (about a guy named Brian who's taken for the messiah in the time of Jesus) and called it blasphemous, but by today's standards that response seems downright civilized. That said, it was banned in Ireland for eight years. Go to wilmettetheatre.com.

Strange science

Chicago Filmmakers teams up with the Adler Planetarium to screen "Stardust: Films of the Hidden Universe," featuring cinematic views of the solar system that cannot be seen with the naked eye. 7:30 p.m. at the Adler Planetarium. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org and click on "screenings."

Dissident for the digital age

One of China's most outspoken critics is also the nation's most famous artist. "He's a Beijing Andy Warhol," someone remarks in the new documentary about the playful and outspoken artist Ai Weiwei. Perhaps best known for helping to design the famous Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics, his work is a puckish beacon for controversy in a country known for its censorship. "If we don't push, there's nothing happening," he says in the film. "I act brave because I know the danger is really there." "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" screens at 7:30 p.m. Sunday (free) at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. Go to tickets@victorygardens.org.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter: @NinaMetzNews

  • Pin It

Local & National Video