Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Novel, stage play, and, most notably, popular 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes began as a series of satiric sketches written by Anita Loos and published by Harper's Bazaar in 1925. The series featured two pretty and bright but unschooled flappers, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw, who joyfully infiltrated the bastions of the ruling class. "The strength behind Loos's heroines lies not in their sexuality per se," as Regina Barreca notes, "but on the fact that they remain on the periphery of social and cultural structures." Their profound hunger to be fully accepted into society is at odds with their outsider's recognition of society's entrenched moral hypocrisy. The series struck a chord with readers, and by the third installment, Harper's Bazaar had tripled its newsstand sales.

Loos developed the premise into a novel, which was translated into thirteen languages and adapted into a stage play the following year. The narrative took the form of a diary written by Lorelei, whose attempts to sound cultured resulted in malapropisms ("A girl like I") and whose childlike observations satirized the surrounding society ("He really does not mind what a girl has been through as long as she does not enjoy herself at the finish"). The first film version premiered in 1928 to rave reviews. "Those two energetic and resourceful diamond diggers, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy, have come to the Rivoli Theatre in a splendid pictorial translation of Anita Loos's book," wrote Mordaunt Hall for the New York Times; "This film is an infectious treat." The story was transformed into a Broadway musical that made Carol Channing a star in 1949. It was produced as an elaborate technicolor film by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1953, revived as a musical entitled Lorelei in 1974, and enacted as a stage play by the National Actors Theatre in 1995. But the most influential vehicle for the story is undoubtedly the 1953 film.

Directed by Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starred Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei and Jane Russell as Dorothy. The film rose to number one in the nation in August 1953 and generated more than $5 million for Fox by the end of the year. Monroe got second billing, earning less than one-tenth of Russell's $200,000 for her work on the film. She was even refused her own dressing room, since she wasn't considered a star. By the end of the year, however, Monroe had starred in three hit films, appeared on the cover of Look magazine, and was voted top female box-office star by American film distributors. Playboy magazine took advantage of Monroe's sudden celebrity by putting her on the cover of its first issue in December and printing five-year-old nude photographs of her as its first centerfold. The embodiment of the Playboy philosophy—combining desirability with vulnerability and exuding sexuality as something natural and innocent—Monroe was perfect for the role of Lorelei, who, as one critic remarked, sometimes "employs an imploring expression, one which seems to imply that she is totally ignorant of her physical attraction." Monroe's star persona coalesced with the film, and thereafter roles such as Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), "The Girl" in The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Sugar in Some Like It Hot (1959) were written with her specifically in mind.

In the early 1970s, film critics such as Molly Haskell criticized Monroe for "catering so shamelessly to a false, regressive, childish, and detached idea of sexuality." It might seem surprising, then, that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was revived as "a feminist text" by film scholars in the early 1980s. Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca, for example, pointed out that "Given the mammary madness of the fifties, it is striking that Hawks chose to dress Monroe and Russell in high-necked sweaters and dresses." Actually, the costumes—including skin-tight, red-sequined dresses with thigh-high slits—are far from modest. And the high necklines were not Hawks's choice, but the result of the Motion Picture Association of America going "on breast alert," insisting on seeing costume stills for each of the outfits the two stars would wear in advance. The MPAA red-lined suggestive phrases such as "bosom companions" but allowed lines like the famous "Those girls couldn't drown" to remain in the finished film.

Feminist scholars made a stronger case for the film's progressive depiction of female friendship: "the absence of competitiveness, envy or pettiness" between Dorothy and Lorelei. By many accounts, this reflects a genuine affinity between Russell and Monroe, belying rumors that Monroe couldn't get along with other women. The popular press predicted a giant feud between the two stars during filming, a "Battle of the Bulges" as one male columnist inevitably called it. In fact, according to Todd McCarthy, Russell "welcomed Monroe at once and gained her confidence professionally and personally." In Monroe's last interview with Life magazine, conducted just two days before her death in August 1962, she recalled that Russell "was quite wonderful to me."

Perhaps most strikingly for contemporary feminists, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes can be said to draw a moral parallel between the motivations of women who pursue men for their money and men who pursue women for their beauty. Hollywood, of course, has traditionally vilified the former as gold digging and celebrated the latter as love at first sight. But songs like "Diamonds Are a Girls' Best Friend" suggest that men are fickle and women have but one commodity to exchange under patriarchal capitalism: their youthful beauty. "Men grow cold as girls grow old / And we all lose our charms in the end / But square-cut or pear-shaped / These rocks won't lose their shape / Diamonds are a girl's best friend." Proving herself not to be as dumb as her future father-in-law thinks, Lorelei proclaims that "A man being rich is like a girl being pretty. You might not marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"

"The line which separates celebration from satire in American culture is perniciously thin," as Maureen Turim writes, and "no place is that lack of differentiation more evident than in Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. " It is not surprising, then, that Madonna, whose work is characterized by a similar ambiguity, chose to restage Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" performance in her 1985 hit music video "Material Girl."

—Jeanne Hall

Further Reading:

Arbuthnot, Lucie, and Gail Seneca. "Pretext and Text in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. " Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Edited by Patricia Erens. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990.

Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. New York, Penguin Books, 1974.

Loos, Anita. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. New York, Penguin Books, 1998.

McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York, Grove Press, 1997.

Rollyson, Carl E. Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress. Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1986.

Turim, Maureen. "Gentlemen Consume Blondes." Wide Angle. Vol. 1, No.1, 1979, 52-59.