Ontarians, set your diaries now: Niagara will be screened at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope on October 14, as part of this year’s Vintage Film Festival, sponsored by the Marie Dressler Foundation (the Canadian-born character actress was an idol to Marilyn.) Mark Baker reviews Niagarahere.
“The story starts relatively quickly and the tension keeps increasing. I was surprised at just how quickly the story unfolded. There are some nice plot twists along the way as well that kept me engaged.
Likewise, the acting was wonderful. I’m not that familiar with Marilyn Monroe as an actress (this is only the second film I’ve seen her in), but her performance here was strong. You could see her character’s mind working. The rest of the main cast is just as good, which is one reason why I got so lost in the story so easily.
While the movie was filmed partially on sound stages in California, it was also partially filmed on location. That gives the sinister story a gorgeous backdrop. The Technicolor picture adds to the beauty.
The bigger issue are a couple of plot holes. Yes, you can guess how the characters got to where they are, but it is truly never explained …”
Last December, it was reported (here) that Disney had bought Twentieth Century Fox’s assets from its most recent owner, Rupert Murdoch. And on July 27, as Variety reports, the Fox-Disney merger went ahead with a $71.3 billion buyout. Marilyn’s films for her home studio will be included in the purchase. As many commentators wonder what this will mean for the venerable Fox brand, the Hollywood Reporter looks back on its colourful past with a series of articles including the fraught relationship between longtime studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and the biggest star of all – Marilyn – during 1951-62, a period described as the ‘Monroe Years’ (preceded by ‘Eve’s Gold Rush’ in 1950, a reference to the Oscar-laden All About Eve in which Marilyn had a small part.) Firstly, film historian Leonard Maltin offers a eulogy for Fox, and the personalities who made it great.
“Zanuck always had someone waiting in reserve in case one of his stars became uncooperative. Betty Grable was hired as a threat to musical star Alice Faye and soon surpassed her as Fox’s premier attraction (and No. 1 pinup) of the 1940s. Faye grew tired of Zanuck’s belittling behavior and walked off the lot one day without saying goodbye. (Zanuck wouldn’t have survived in the #MeToo or Time’s Up era. He was notorious for taking advantage of starlets.)
Zanuck reigned until 1956, when he resigned from Fox and moved to France to become an independent producer. In the fractious years that followed, the studio wooed him back for projects more than once, even allowing him to cast his mistresses (Bella Darvi, Juliette Greco, et. al) in leading roles. But while movie attendance soared during the years following World War II, it sank nearly as quickly with the introduction of television. Fox’s response was to unveil a widescreen process called CinemaScope and its aural equivalent, stereophonic sound. Films like the biblical epic The Robe drew people back to theaters. So did Fox’s newest star, blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe.
It was believed the wildly expensive epic Cleopatra — which paid Elizabeth Taylor an eye-popping $1 million salary — nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, but president Spyros Skouras already was selling off the company’s valuable backlot (now known as Century City) before the movie’s budget ballooned to $44 million. Facts aside, Cleopatra became a scapegoat for all of the studio’s ills.
In a final coup, Darryl F. Zanuck returned to Fox in the early 1960s and named his son, Richard Zanuck, president … Then, in 1970, Zanuck Sr. fired his son and sparked an Oedipal family feud that sucked in Zanuck’s ex-wife — Richard’s mother, a major shareholder — and ended with the elder Zanuck being pushed out of the studio he co-founded. Repeated changes of regime and ownership in the ensuing years took their toll on the company that had once put its distinctive imprint on such classics as Laura, Miracle on 34th Street, Twelve O’Clock High and All About Eve.”
In another article, ‘Life in the Foxhole‘, Mitzi Gaynor describes the working atmosphere at Fox as ‘like a family’, while Don Murray recalls his movie debut at the studio, and his mercurial leading lady…
“Zanuck loathes Marilyn Monroe (‘He thought I was a freak,’ Monroe once said) and nearly tears up her first contract after her nude Playboy cover comes out. But by 1953, Monroe has three of the studio’s biggest hits — Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire — and renegotiates a new contract paying $100,000 a picture and giving her creative approval. Her first film under the new deal is 1956’s Bus Stop, co-starring Don Murray. ‘I’d never done a feature before,’ says the actor, now 88, ‘so I didn’t know what to expect. From what others on the set told me, Marilyn was on her best behavior. She’d just been to the Actors Studio, and she really wanted to concentrate on her acting. But even so, she was late every day. She’d get to the studio on time, but then she’d spend hours dawdling in her trailer, getting the nerve up to act. She was trying hard — she would sometimes do 30 takes in a scene — but she was very anxious about her acting. She would actually break out in a rash before the cameras would start filming. The cameras gave her a rash.'”
Finally, you can read Marilyn’s take on Fox, and Zanuck – as told to biographer Maurice Zolotow – here.
The Misfits was first released in the UK in June 1961. This rave review from The Guardian, published on July 10 of that year, hails it as a masterpiece. Interestingly though, the same newspaper had published a more ambivalent review just a month before, and was unduly harsh towards Marilyn (see here.) Perhaps the later article was an attempt to rectify an injustice? In that case, history has proved her admirer right. Neither author is named, but could the second take have been influenced by W.J. Weatherby, the Guardian reporter who befriended Marilyn on the set?
“Occasionally a film arrives which gives the cinema a new dimension … It is not going too far to say that The Misfits is in this class. [It] does not rely on a strong story for its effect but instead wins the audience’s attention through the development and interplay of the characters. The main danger was that the film, left to [Arthur] Miller, would have been too literary, but John Huston has grafted on Miller’s prose visual images which give it a deeper significance. When, for instance, Monroe screams her defiance at the corruption of a commercial civilisation, Huston makes her a black dot on a screen dominated by a Nevada desert.
The individual performances are so good that with a thrill of recognition one sees what acting in the cinema can achieve … Miller’s heroine is so obviously based on his former wife – one half expects the cast to blurt out Marilyn for Roslyn every so often – that her performance is difficult to judge. Yet if she is merely playing herself she does it remarkably well.”
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.'”