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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the Marilyn Monroe Mystique

The “dumb blonde” trope is not one currently en vogue.  At the time of the musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, released in 1953, such feminist concerns did not yet shape characterization in film.  Marilyn Monroe is veritably the prototype “dumb blonde.”  As with any stereotype, there is a grain of truth.  Yet Monroe brings such charm and wit; one suspects she is in on the joke. Indeed, Monroe’s soft cooing voice represents a lost iteration of femininity.

Below is a review of the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and then an exploration of Monroe’s legacy . We would be remiss not to also comment on the Netflix Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde. Director Andrew Dominik asks the question: “Does anyone watch Marilyn Monroe movies?”

Characterization

The protagonists in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are a pair of brash women, Dorothy Shaw and the mellifluously named Lorelei Lee. Jane Russell’s Dorothy Shaw is a street-wise character.  Dorothy is worldly, yet not a gold-digger like her friend Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe).  With Dorothy’s steady stream of cynical, sarcastic remarks, she is more the prototype for the modern Western woman than Monroe’s brand of doe-like coyness.   Lorelei’s guile is somehow guileless, which is a testament to Monroe’s contradictorily sexy innocence.  

 Their contrasting attitudes about men serve as a kind of dialectic throughout the film. 

Lorelei is a princess, while Shaw is a no-nonsense, down-to-earth gal. For her part, Lorelei considers her friend a fool because she goes after guys who are “poor.”  To Lorelei, Dorothy is unfathomable because she doesn’t take a man’s wealth into account.  Instead, Dorothy is attracted to a “tall, dark, and handsome” man.  Their contrasting attitudes about men serve as a kind of dialectic throughout the film. 

But still, they’re best of friends. The two actresses have chemistry on screen, as they set out on their adventure.  Indeed, Monroe and Russell were friendly on set as well, despite scurrilous rumors of a rivalry in the press.

Plot

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a charming film with French hotel concierges named Pierre, blazers, and ample busts.  1950s Paris looks charming as it perhaps never would again.  Everyone is impeccably dressed, because again, it’s the ‘50s.  Lorelei and Dorothy are both show girls by trade, and don provocative outfits to prove it.  Here Monroe displays her hourglass figure and some creamy white skin; whereas Jane Russell’s “mammories” were a fixation for Howard Hughes when he first cast her in The Outlaw.  

On a luxury ship to Paris with Dorothy, the shenanigans begin.  Dorothy cavorts with the Olympic swim team, and soon enough they break into a musical number. Lorelei expects to be married in Paris, but this doesn’t stop her from looking for other men from whom to extract resources on the way.    

Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman Beekman (Charles Coburn), who looks to be at least in his 60s, just happens to own a diamond mine.  When Lorelei hears this, her eyes light up: “Did you say diamonds?”  We see Beekman’s head from the perspective of her gaze, his head transposed into a diamond (what he represents to her).

After we are afforded a view of Monroe’s profile in curves, her red lipstick thick and her hair platinum blond, she sits next to Beekman and calls him a “Sweet, intelligent, generous man.”  Beekman’s advanced age does not deter Lorelei.  It is quite irrelevant.  He, in turn, refers to her as a “little angel.”  They make for a nice, hypocritical couple.   

Lady Beekman (Norma Varden) joins them and is not particularly amused by the competition from the younger Lorelei.  Nevertheless, she shows Lorelei her diamond tiara, which she explains that she brings with her for fear of it being stolen in her room.  Lorelei, apparently unaware of what a tiara is, asks, “How do you put it around your neck?”  It’s a riff on the dumb blonde trope.  

As they continue their flirtations on the journey across the Atlantic, Beekman becomes smitten.  Lorelei takes the opportunity to sweetly ask him for his wife’s diamond tiara.  All the while, they’re being recorded by a private investigator, Ernie Malone (Elliot Reid), who was hired by Lorelei’s fiancé’s father.  The fiancé’s father, Mr. Esmond Sr., sniffed out Lorelei’s agenda fast enough.   

The juxtaposition of her soft, cooing voice and her calculated cunning is something to behold; qualities we might ascribe to Marilyn Monroe herself. 

The suave Malone, meanwhile, does not prefer blondes because he is keen on Jane Russell’s Dorothy Shaw.  He courts her, undeterred by the fact that he happens to be investigating her friend.  But then Dorothy witnesses Malone surreptitiously photographing Lorelei and Beekman, at which point Dorothy conjectures correctly that he was hired by the father of Lorelei’s fiancé.  While Malone refers to Lorelei as a “blonde bandit” and a “mercenary nitwit,” the private investigator still wants Dorothy to know that his feelings for her are genuine.  

After they arrive at a luxurious Paris hotel, Lorelei is accused by Beekman’s haughty wife Lady Beekman of stealing the tiara.  By this time Beekman has found it convenient to abscond away from Paris.  When Lorelei denies stealing the tiara, Lady Beekman asks, “Then perhaps you’ll explain how it happens to be in your possession.” 

When Larelei’s nerdy fiancé Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan) shows up to Paris, in an act of feminine gaslighting, Lorelei feigns to be upset with him rather than the other way around.  She tells Dorothy of her fiancé:

“There’s not another millionaire with a more gentle disposition.” 

At any rate, she can appreciate what a pushover he is.  

We reach the climax of the musical comedy as Lorelei is on trial for allegedly stealing the diamond tiara, which her friend Dorothy estimates is valued at 15,000 dollars.  Her suitor, Sir Beekman, gave it to her, but then disappeared “to the interior of Africa” when things got dicey with Lady Beekman. In a statement, he denied any knowledge about the tiara.  

When Lorelei no longer needs her fiancé because the diamond tiara has been recovered, she seems to lose interest.  But ultimately, she’ll go through with the marriage, because after all, he is still rich.   

Her fiancé’s father, Mr. Esmond Sr. (Taylor Holmes), tells her, “Young lady, you don’t fool me one bit.”  Lorelei responds cynically:

“I’m not trying to, but I bet I could though.”  

The juxtaposition of her soft, cooing voice and her calculated cunning is something to behold; qualities we might ascribe to Marilyn Monroe herself. 

“Say, they told me you were stupid.  You don’t sound stupid to me!”  Mr. Esmond, Sr exclaims.  Lorelei’s fiancé, whom she calls “daddy,” is pleased as Lee has shown his father that she has brains as well as beauty.  

At last, some equilibrium is reached in their relationship, as well as Lorelei’s tenuous relationship with her future father-in-law.  The story ends with a double marriage, Lorelei to Esmond and Dorothy to Malone. 

Monroe’s Legacy and Conclusions 

As to the theme of transactional relationships, even today it should not be too controversial to contend that some women indeed still have a mercenary attitude towards men, just as men sometimes have less than noble intentions with women.  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is maybe just a little more honest about it. 

The film shows that Marilyn Monroe knew what she was doing in cultivating her image as an actress, as a persona, and ultimately, as an icon.  The critically acclaimed film helped cement that image.  The iconic musical number “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” has been imitated by Madonna, Beyoncé, and Christina Aguilera.  All the elements create that special moment:  The purple dress and gloves, the diamonds, the men in tuxedos as her supplicants, whom Monroe banishes with a coy “No!” 

 

Madonna in “Material Girl,” 1984

With all the homages to “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” what is it these pop stars continue to see in Monroe?  It is dubious that they themselves even know.  In fact, it is merely the idea of female beauty, wrapped somehow in the persona of Monroe; who was after all pretty, but one wouldn’t assume she would be the eternal standard of beauty for decades to follow.  

With all the homages to “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” what is it these pop stars continue to see in Monroe?

The continuing idolization of Monroe is simply this: Monroe is the ultimate sex symbol.  Women have an abiding desire to be sexy, and so they associate themselves with this icon of sexiness, regardless of the current generation’s actual knowledge of Monroe’s life and career.  This isn’t the worst thing in the world; it’s only a little ridiculous. 

Andrew Dominik, director of the Netflix Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde asks the question: “Does anyone watch Marilyn Monroe movies?”  Monroe’s face is printed on the t-shirts worn by adolescents, but it is doubtful that they would sit through Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (after all, it’s an “old movie”).  Dominik referred to the message of the film as “romanticized whoredom,” which is a crass turn of phrase.  If the quaint Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is whoredom, what shall we say about today’s entertainment?  

At any rate, Dominik does deeply contemplate Monroe’s mysterious status as an icon, and refers to his own film as about “the meaning of Marilyn Monroe.”  This in itself is a worthy endeavor, and Blonde is a perfectly valid attempt to explore that meaning. 

Blonde, released on Netflix this year (2022),  is a dark view of Monroe, with the aim of explaining her suicide as the result of her childhood trauma, a trauma which is perpetuated by an abortion and a miscarriage.  The pain was brewing beneath the surface, as Monroe projected a carefree, blithe demeanor in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  To watch both films is to see how vastly different the facade and the reality are.  Ultimately, we must conclude that Blonde is closer to portraying “the real” Marilyn Monroe than the persona she projected in film; because after all she did kill herself.  

As Dominik said in regards to Blonde,

“There is a sense that we want to reinvent her according to today’s political concerns.”  

This is true both for his film, and for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where Marilyn’s Lorelei Lee has a very different agenda than what we are supposed to expect of women today.  The idea of depending on a man is anathema.  The idea of a woman making herself attractive to men in order to manipulate them is likewise no longer a familiar script, at least not one which is glamorized in film.  Yet Lorelei uses her feminine wiles without shame…

Monroe played up the perception of her as a pretty face and a heavenly body.  But there is also a self-awareness, which is the essence of her surprisingly sharp wit and sense of irony.  Maybe she’s a dumb blonde, or maybe it served her interest to let people think that.  As a woman who defined what it is to be a beautiful woman, she knew that flattery would get you everywhere.  If that meant letting men think they know better, so be it. As soft-spoken and demure as she might come off on screen, she was a wisened and cynical player.  

As the song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the film goes: 

Men grow cold as women grow old 
And we all lose our charm in the end 

Male attention is fleeting, just as youth is fleeting.  After all, Lorelei explains, don’t men commodify women based on their looks?  A man wouldn’t necessarily marry a woman just because she’s pretty; but all things being equal it doesn’t hurt.  So why the hypocrisy?  

In her forthrightness about her own agenda, she is less hypocritical perhaps than the rest of us who might have scoffed at the character’s avariciousness.  Better, therefore, to put your faith in something solid that doesn’t change…like diamonds.

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