By Alan Hurst
When filming began on 20th Century Fox’s widescreen comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), the producers, studio brass and the press expected fireworks because of the pairing of Betty Grable, the queen of the lot, with the quickly ascending phenomenon known as Marilyn Monroe. Not to mention that Lauren Bacall was also in the mix. But the fireworks never happened. Just as Alice Faye was gracious in passing the torch to Grable in the forties, so was Grable clearing the way for the next 20th Century Fox blonde. Grable was nothing if not practical. She knew the writing was on the wall in terms of her career and told Monroe at their first meeting: “Honey, I’ve had mine. Go get yours, it’s your turn now.”
And Monroe did. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) was one of three major hits that Monroe had that year, firmly enshrining her as not only the biggest star at 20th Century Fox, but one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. What had been hinted at since her cameos in All About Eve (1950) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was official: Monroe was now Hollywood’s next big thing.
The story of Monroe’s life – the peaks and the many valleys – has been told so often but I’m constantly struck that her work as an actress always takes a back seat. We all know about her dysfunctional upbringing, her high profile but ultimately doomed marriages to ball player Joe DiMaggio and writer Arthur Miller, her self-destructive behaviour on set, and her struggles with alcohol and prescription drugs that led to her tragic demise. And, of course, there is entire industry of conspiracy theories surrounding her death. But for me it’s the films she made – some good, some bad – that are the more solid representation of her legacy as one of the major icons of the last century.
Monroe made a decent number of films – 31 between 1947 and 1961 – but many of those early films were uncredited or small supporting roles. She was the true lead in only 11 films, including the three from her breakout year in 1953. Such was her impact that she was able to indelibly imprint her personality and legacy on world culture with such a short resume. I know her untimely death helped ensure that, but even at the time of her passing her legacy was clear, despite some stumbles.
These are the five films that I think capture Monroe at her best. And if for some these don’t represent her best performances, they are definitely my favorite Monroe performances.
This is a pulpy, suspenseful and sometimes melodramatic film noir (filmed in gorgeous color) but it’s also tremendously entertaining. Monroe is front and centre (at least until her character is killed around the mid-point) as the carnal and conniving wife of mentally ill vet Joseph Cotten. Set on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it’s the story of a couple (Monroe and Cotten) who are vacationing in Niagara Falls. Cotten is insanely jealous of his wife, and not without reason. Also staying at the same spot are newlyweds (Jean Peters and Max Showlater) who, through the wife’s good intentions, get mixed up in Monroe and Cotten’s marital problems and, eventually, murder. Directed by Henry Hathaway, this was a superb showcase for Monroe. The costume designer and cinematographer were determined that she be presented at her most lush and unattainable – and they succeeded. Monroe delivers a solid performance – enticing, at times cynical, and funny. It’s only in some of the dramatic scenes that you see that she still has some things to learn as a screen actress, but no matter. If she’s not entirely believable when things turn bad for her character, Hathaway only has to film her walking along the street and all is forgiven. One of the treats of this film is seeing Niagara Falls in its heyday as a tourist destination where the splendour of the falls hadn’t yet been dimmed by casinos, high rise hotels, and strip mall franchises.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Another big one for Monroe, as well as co-star Jane Russell. I think this is when Betty Grable figured out that things were changing for her, as she had originally been slated to play Lorelei Lee in this film version of the Broadway musical that helped Carol Channing achieve Broadway stardom. But Monroe got the part and made it her own. It’s the story of two show girls, one of whom (Monroe) is fascinated by diamonds and wants to be sure she marries well. The other is a little more cynical but is holding out for love and a good-looking guy. There were some alterations from the Broadway show, but all to the better. We get a couple of changes in songs, some slight shifts in plot and the comedy is ramped up to the point that this becomes one of the funniest musicals of the decade. Director Howard Hawks, not known for musicals, filmed a splashy, colorful adaptation where each actress gets to show her stuff, although Monroe’s numbers emerge as the more iconic. Russell’s big number has her dancing with the men’s Olympic team. This nearly nude male chorus gives the laconic Russell some male eye candy to play with during the tuneful lament “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love”. Monroe’s big number is, of course, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and it’s the centre piece of the film. Not being a singer or dancer, Monroe does very well with the film’s musical demands. With Gentlemen Prefer Blondes we see Monroe perfect the dumb blonde personae that we had seen in some of her earlier smaller roles. What makes this work so well here is the fact that Lorelei – and consequently Marilyn – is never as dumb as she wants us to believe.
Bus Stop (1956)
This was made after her marriage to DiMaggio had fallen apart and after she had taken off to New York to study with the famed acting coach Lee Strasberg. 20th Century Fox wanted her back in front of the cameras, so they bought this hit Broadway play specifically for her and it gave Monroe the substantial role she had been craving. In Bus Stop I think Monroe gives the best performance of her career. She gets to be funny, sexy, angry, vulnerable and she digs deeper into the character of Cherie than she was ever able to do before. For a sense of how far she had come as an actress, compare this to the dramatic scenes she had in Niagara. Monroe didn’t get too many chances to stretch herself, but this is definitely one of them. Monroe plays a café singer and it’s here she meets two cowboys (Don Murray and Arthur O’Connell). Murray’s character – wild, ill-behaved, immature – falls hard for Cherie (Monroe) and insists she come back to Montana to become his wife. He basically forces her to go and a stop at a bus stop in the mountains drives the drama into high gear. Murray is sometimes hard to take as the cowboy and, when he gets what’s coming to him, it a pleasure to watch. But he and Monroe do very nice work as the damaged pair who clearly need each other. Monroe was never nominated for an Oscar, but this is one of the movies that should have secured her a nomination and possibly the win. It really is a beautiful performance.
Some Like it Hot (1959)
This is the big comedy of the decade and near the top of the list of everyone’s favorite comedy of all-time. Outside of All About Eve, it’s probably Monroe’s best film. And, despite the tales of how much she struggled during filming, Monroe’s work as Sugar Kane is one of her most fulsome creations. Some Like it Hot is still spectacularly funny with dialogue that pushes the envelope of sexual boundaries in a way that wasn’t seen before and quite ground breaking for the late fifties. Billy Wilder’s best film tells the story of two musicians who, upon witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, decide to dress as women and join an all girl band to get out of town. From there the layers of mistaken identity, sexual identity and just plain silliness bubble up to make the era’s best screwball comedy. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are both hysterical, with Lemmon taking the edge by allowing his character to enjoy the charade a little too much (the last line in the movie is perfection). It also has Marilyn Monroe playing the ultimate Monroe character – beautiful, a little dumb, a little wounded, but with just enough street smarts to ensure she doesn’t come across as helpless – one of her definitive performances. You really feel for Monroe’s Sugar and you want things to get better for her. Oscar nominations went to Wilder, the screenplay and Jack Lemmon as Best Actor, but oddly no Best Actor nomination for Tony Curtis, no Best Actress nomination for Marilyn Monroe, nor a Best Picture nomination.
The Misfits (1961)
This was Monroe’s last completed film, and it was also co-star Clark Gable’s last film. For these two reasons alone, its place in Hollywood history is safe. But it’s also a very good movie, much better than its reputation. It was not a big critical or box office hit when it was released in 1961, but when you watch it today it’s a haunting, sad and almost lyrical modern-day western that focuses on changing times, loneliness, and the male ego. Written by Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston it’s the story of new divorcee Roslyn (Monroe) who, with her friend played by Thelma Ritter, meets up with an aging cowboy (Clark Gable) and former aviator (Eli Wallach). Monroe and Gable hit it off, and they end up setting up house in a deserted home owned by Wallach. Montgomery Clift is also in the film as an ex-rodeo rider they hook up with to start capturing and selling wild horses. The cast is excellent, particularly Gable. Sadly, it’s one of the best performances of his long career but it was also his last. There is something very moving about watching Gable play a guy who has lost touch with his kids, who never really grew up, try to do the right thing with this new woman in his life. Roslyn is probably the most interesting character Monroe ever played and, because it was written by her husband as their marriage was falling apart, it feels very much like the real Marilyn. The character is at times enchanting, childlike, frustrating, shrewish and wholly unpredictable. Monroe does a good job capturing all of that. By all accounts this was a long and troubled shoot, rife with fighting, delays, booze, pills, and illness. But you don’t see that on the screen, yet somehow it adds to the general tone of melancholy.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.