Marilyn’s first screen role, in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! is featured in a list of movie stars who got their start as bit players and extras. Filmed in March 1947 – six months into Marilyn’s contract with Twentieth Century Fox – the film would not be released for another year. As ‘Betty’, Marilyn can be seen briefly in one scene. Leaving a church service, she says ‘Hi, Rad!’ to leading lady June Haver. Marilyn’s only other scene, where she and fellow starlet Colleen Townsend row a boat across a lake and chat with some local boys, was cut – although several stills from the production have survived.
Marilyn would play a slightly more substantial role in Dangerous Years before being dropped by Fox in July. Despite her minimal presence, Marilyn also posed for a series of ‘bathing beauty’ shots to promote the movie. More than half of her screen credits were made before she reached star status (not to mention a couple of other films which used her image without active participation), and while it has been rumored that she was also an anonymous ‘extra’ in several other movies, this remains unconfirmed.
Alongside A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950), Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! is the only one of her early films made in Technicolor, and a surprisingly enjoyable slice of rural Americana, with a young Natalie Wood, plus stellar character actors Walter Brennan and Anne Revere among the cast. Lon McCallister, who also appeared in Marilyn’s boating scene, later joined her during the Love Happy promotional tour.
The unusual title, referring to slang used by farm-workers to drive mules left and right, was later renamed Summer Lightning. But in the 1989 film, Driving Miss Daisy, the film’s original title can be seen on a cinema marquee.
“It is STUNNING! Honestly worth it for the packaging alone! I’ve had a sneak peek and it’s very well done, although the only down side is that the inclusion of the wonderful documentary The Mortal Goddess as a special feature is just the 45 min version, not the full 90 min version.”
“Filmed on three or four simple sets and clocking in at just 76 minutes, Don’t Bother to Knock is an unusual movie for Marilyn Monroe to have made just as she was on the brink of the Twentieth Century-Fox superstardom that was obviously on Darryl Zanuck’s mind (along with, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear, one of two other things). Though professionally speaking, Julie Kirgo notes in another of her well-researched Twilight Time essays, that he did make Monroe test for the part, a lesson that one wonders if he forgot when it came to Bella Darvi.
Knockwas one five movies that marked Monroe’s 1952 output — along with two Fox comedies, a cameo in the opening segment of the studio’s all-star anthology O. Henry’s Full House and a loan-out to RKO for Clash by Night. Though the last was a drama, she didn’t have to carry large chunks of it, but in Knock, she has to bring off a case of frightening bonker-dom brought on by her lover’s death — an emotional condition that ends up threatening a child’s life.
It’s a somnambulant performance somewhere between effective and one she gets away with — though some will tell you that I’m underrating it, and possibly so. Call Monroe’s approach a second cousin, say, to Kim Novak’s deadpanned dialogue deliveries in Vertigo, though the passage of time has pretty well rendered Novak’s turn a complete success, no matter how she and Alfred Hitchcock got there. Monroe, of course, just got better as she aged, which more people should have told her at the time.”
As part of an ongoing series for The Guardian, Wendy Ide names the 1950s as her favourite decade in film.
“Marilyn Monroe was the blond bombshell of choice – although for a while it looked as though Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) might be a contender – and became a global icon. Hers was a career that played out almost entirely during the 50s. A supporting role in All About Eve led to a studio contract and a star-making double whammy of Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Highlights of her decade, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, saw her teamed with director Billy Wilder …”
And over at Film School Rejects, Will DiGravio argues that the comedy classic, alongside other greats like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Hawks’ Rio Bravo, makes 1959 the best year in movies.
“Today, it seems as though many know Monroe only for her beauty, not as the greatest comedic actress of all time. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are hilarious in the film as two musicians pretending to be women in order to play with a female band in Florida and escape the Chicago mob after they witness a murder. Yet, their performances pale in comparison to Monroe’s, whose comedic timing and delivery is so effortless it is easy to under-appreciate her brilliance.”
Greg Ferrara cites Marilyn’s performance in The Misfits as a prime example of an actor expanding their range and exceeding expectations, in an article for Filmstruck.
“It’s obviously a tragedy in countless ways that we lost Monroe so soon but adding to that tragedy is the fact that her performance in THE MISFITS showed she was ready to move into middle age and take on roles outside of what studio executives thought of her. It was already clear that Monroe could play a wide range long before this, but THE MISFITS really put into perspective just how wide-ranging her future career would be. This one hurts more than most because it shows so much potential without leading to anything else.”
One of my favourite Monroe movies, Don’t Bother to Knock will be released on Blu-Ray by Twilight Time Video on March 20. It’s a limited release with a high-def transfer, and it’s Region 0 so should be compatible with most Blu-Ray players. Special features include the excellent documentary, Marilyn Monroe: The Mortal Goddess.
“Made early in her blazing movie career before the full range of her comedic and dramatic gifts were fully explored, it’s intriguing to note that many later reappraisals of the Marilyn Monroe thriller Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) cite the storyline of a mentally fragile woman whose personal insecurities and sad delusions trigger dangerous behavior seem to prefigure her later-in-life struggles. It does endure as a neatly executed noir exercise with a richer than usual bench of character portrayals from Monroe’s colleagues Richard Widmark, young Donna Corcoran, Jeanne Cagney, Lurene Tuttle, Elisha Cook Jr., Jim Backus and Verna Felton, and in that company, Monroe impressively delivers the goods … Monroe reportedly struggled with the role and caused some consternation with her director and castmates, but 66 years later, that very process of struggle seems to vindicate the promise of her undeniable talent on screen, while subsequent assessments of Don’t Bother to Knock, which got no critical love in its time but now seems all the more “on the cusp” of greater things henceforth, not only for Monroe (who would show further evidence of her dramatic chops as a scheming wife contemplating spousal murder in the following year’s Niagara), but for Baker and Bancroft too.”
Marilyn is listed among ‘6 Extreme Students of Method Acting’ by Blake Hayek in an article for Crixeo, citing her clash with Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl (though Bus Stop and The Misfits are arguably her most Method-y performances.)
“Many have rightly observed that method acting can tend to become a bit of a boys’ club and a self-validating reaction to the perceived trappings of being a ‘sissy in tights’ thespian. However, one performer certainly resets the balance somewhat. Marilyn Monroe famously played opposite theater heavyweight Laurence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl, and the two sparred on set over their respective — and diametrically opposed — acting techniques. A student of Lee Strasberg, Monroe no doubt would have seemed uncouth to the classically trained, old-school Olivier. Later Olivier famously quipped to Dustin Hoffman, who was exhausted after staying up three days to prepare for his role in Marathon Man(1976): ‘Try acting, dear boy. It’s much easier.'”
The role of free-spirited Holly Golightly in the 1961 movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was first offered to Marilyn before it became an unlikely star vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. But as Emily Temple writes in ‘20 Literary Adaptations Disavowed By Their Original Authors,’ an article for Literary Hub, novelist Truman Capote was unhappy with the casting.
Although Marilyn’s rejection of the part is usually attributed to (or blamed upon) Paula Strasberg, others also advised her against it – but on artistic grounds, and not, as reported, because Holly was a call girl (a detail sidelined in the movie.)
‘I can see Marilyn playing a part like Holly and even giving this present one all the elan it badly needs,’ Edward Parone wrote in a 1959 report, ‘but I don’t feel she should play it: it lacks insight and warmth and reality and importance.’ Parone was then working for Marilyn’s production company, and would be a script advisor on The Misfits – and despite Audrey’s success, it was a view with which many critics, including Capote himself, would have agreed.
“Famously, Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part of Holly Golightly in the film adaptation of his now-classic novella. As Capote explained: ‘I had seen her in a film and thought she would be perfect for the part. Holly had to have something touching about her . . . unfinished. Marilyn had that.’ But although in a lot of ways she was perfect for the role, and though Capote claimed ‘she wanted it so badly that she worked up two whole scenes all by herself to play for me,’ she was discouraged from accepting the part by her dramatic advisor and acting coach Paula Strasberg, who said ‘that she would not have her play a lady of the evening.’ The role ended up going to Audrey Hepburn. ‘Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey,’ Capote said. But it wasn’t just the casting that bothered him. ‘The book was really rather bitter,’ he told Playboyin 1968, ‘and Holly Golightly was real—a tough character, not an Audrey Hepburn type at all. The film became a mawkish valentine to New York City and Holly and, as a result, was thin and pretty, whereas it should have been rich and ugly. It bore as much resemblance to my work as the Rockettes do to Ulanova.'”
Anticipating this year’s Oscar ceremony, the current issue of Entertainment Weekly (dated February 23-March 2) features extensive coverage of the Academy Awards’ 90-year history. Of course, Marilyn never won an Oscar, nor was she even nominated. But her role in Some Like It Hot, which won her a Golden Globe, is mentioned in a list of legendary ‘Oscar disses.’
Although Some Like It Hot is her best-known film, Marilyn’s screen time was less than her co-stars. Were it not for her top billing, her performance would arguably be more suited to the Best Supporting Actress category. Marilyn’s bombshell image and flair for comedy both worked against her being taken seriously by the Hollywood establishment. But perhaps the most decisive factor was her rebellion against Twentieth Century Fox.
After winning her contractual battle with the studio, her acclaimed comeback in Bus Stop (1956) was overlooked by the Academy – a snub she never forgot. Her next performance, in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), won awards in Europe, while her last completed film, The Misfits (1961), was also her most mature dramatic role. But at the time, neither were particularly well-received in the US.
In 1964, columnist Sheilah Graham petitioned unsuccessfully for Marilyn to be given a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. However, this is not standard practice within the Academy and thus is highly unlikely to happen now. Nonetheless, Marilyn’s films remain hugely popular and for many, she is the most enduring symbol of movies and glamour – proof, if proof were needed, that you don’t need an Oscar to be a legend.
Australian actress Margot Robbie, currently starring in the Oscar-nominated I, Tonya, has revealed her thoughts on Marilyn and her era, The List reports. “I love old films,” Margot says, “but my heart breaks when I watch Marilyn Monroe’s, because the characters she plays are so misogynistic and degrading that it’s mind-boggling that that was the norm. The same with Bonnie and Clyde; parts of it make my blood boil.” (I mostly agree with this, although I would add that it’s a testament to Marilyn’s talent that she was able to rise above or at least subvert her ‘dumb blonde’ typecasting. And sadly, sexism in movies is far from being a thing of the past.)
Should Marilyn have won an Oscar for Some Like It Hot? For sheer comic pizzazz, she should have been a shoo-in,’ Ryan Gilbey writes in The Guardian, ‘although she wasn’t nominated – for that or anything else.’ (She did win a Golden Globe for her role, however.)