Friday, August 04, 2006

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) or: My Long-Awaited Application For Membership in the Howard Hawks Fan Club

Amongst my cinema-literate friends, I have always been the guy who refused to get on board the Howard Hawks bandwagon. Hawks, the common knowledge says, was the second best director of the Hollywood studio system (after Alfred Hitchcock). And though I've liked many of Hawks' movies — His Girl Friday (1940), Rio Bravo (1959), Scarface (1932) — I only really loved one: Red River (1948). There's even a few famous Hawks films I downright dislike (Twentieth Century (1934), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), To Have and Have Not (1944)).

But after I Was a Male War Bride and now Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the pro-Hawks faction within my brain is making major strides. As I'm sure someone with much more knowledge of Hawks has already realized and written extensively about, Hawks was a bit of a feminist before feminism was a word ("Feminism? Meaning what? You want to be a chick?") War Bride was a cross-dressing comedy that cast all the men as boobs and the women as canny spies. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes goes further: the main characters are two independent women: Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy (Jane Russell). The pair are hot and they know it; they use their their feminine charms to take advantage of men, not the other way around.

Most of the action takes place aboard a cruise ship from New York to Paris: Lorelei is engaged to the son of a wealthy industrialist (Tommy Noonan), Dorothy is delighted to find the entire Olympic team aboard their ship. Lorelei is to be married in Paris, but must make the Transatlantic voyage without incident; if Noonan's stodgy father hears even whiff of controversy, he will refuse to permit the union. Mean old pops even hires a private detective named Malone (Elliott Reid) to shadow the pair of sexy ladies on the boat.

Hitchcock was notorious for casting appealing actors as villains and boring stiffs as the heroes in his movies in order to force the audience to identify with the bad guys, and I suspect Hawks had much the same idea in mind when he cast Russell and Monroe, two of the loveliest and funniest actresses of any generation opposite the unappealing Noonan and Reid. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is not set in a world of sexual equality — women have all the power and they are having the time of their lives using it to their advantage. When it's Monroe and Russell taking the advantage, it's difficult not to root for them.

Certainly this isn't the sort of movie that would make Susan B. Anthony stand up and cheer, but it's still forward thinking. A decade before the sexual revolution, Hawks lets Lorelei and Dorothy spark one of their own. Every scene has moments of rebellion: the way Marilyn coos the word "lover" as she talks to Noonan, the nude colored bathing suits on the hard-bodied dancers that surround Russell during her ode to lust, the way Lorelei's sexuality and her intelligence go hand and hand.

Both Russell and Monroe get their own musical number where they are the sole female surrounded by an army of attentive men. Russell sings "Anyone Here For Love" which is as subtle as a Barry White slow jam, and Monroe performs the classic "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Though Monroe was the primary lust object of the decade, this movie is no man's fantasy (at least no straight man's fantasy; a dude of different persuasions would probably enjoy that Olympic team's workout as much as Russell does). Hawks lets it be known: sisters are doing it for themselves.


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