Marilyn: Behind the Icon of ‘Niagara’

Marilyn with Joseph Cotten in Niagara (1953)

In the first of a series for the Classic Movie Hub website, Gary Vittaco Robles looks at Marilyn’s star-making performance in Niagara. Gary is (of course) the author of the two-volume biography, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, upon which his new podcast, Marilyn: Behind the Icon, is also based.

Niagara was Marilyn’s only opportunity to portray a villainous, narcissistic woman with virtually no redeeming qualities who conspires with her lover to murder her husband … Interestingly, studio memos suggest original casting consideration of Monroe in for the role of Polly, and Anne Baxter as Rose. However, studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck’s image of Monroe likely cemented her fate as—in the words of the film’s marketing—the ‘tantalizing temptress whose kisses fired men’s souls.’

[Director] Henry Hathaway’s reputation was that of a tyrant who belittled and cursed his actors. However, he took an immediate liking to Monroe, or perhaps she melted his icy exterior. Hathaway considered Monroe’s opinion when editing the daily rushes and allowed her input to the selection of takes chosen for the finished film.

For the first time, Monroe was hailed for precision in her acting in a leading role. ‘The dress is red; the actress has very nice knees,’ wrote Otis Guernsey of New York Herald Tribune, ‘and under Hathaway’s direction she gives the kind of serpentine performance that makes the audience hate her while admiring her, which is proper for the story.’ Time hailed its full-bodied assertion, ‘What lifts the film above the commonplace is its star, Marilyn Monroe.’

In the final analysis, Monroe served Fox well. Niagara cost $1,250,000 and returned $6,000,000 in its first release. She had achieved global stardom. Nearly seventy years after its release, Niagara retains its nail-biting suspense, showcases Monroe’s dramatic talents, and illustrates its leading lady’s transcending appeal and charisma. She had personified the culture’s standard for beauty and sensuality.”

Conversations With Marilyn’s Leading Men

Marilyn with Joseph Cotten during filming of Niagara

Among the many luminaries featured in James Bawden and Ron Miller’s book, Conversations With Classic Film Stars, are Joseph Cotten, who played Marilyn’s murderous spouse in Niagara; and Rory Calhoun, her roguish husband in River Of No Return; and Cary Grant, the unwitting object of her desire in Monkey Business.

Thanks to Gia at Immortal Marilyn

“I never met a girl as introverted as Marilyn. The whole fame explosion had just set in and whenever we filmed on location at Niagara Falls, great crowds gathered to see her. She couldn’t cope, retreated into her shell.

Director Henry Hathaway was a tough taskmaster at the best of times. He got so exasperated with Marilyn and her Russian acting coach [Natasha Lytess], he finally banned the woman from the set. I tried to keep her distracted. At night there’d always a party in my hotel suite, but she’d look in, say hi, and then go off with her instructress. We’d wait hours for her to show up. Hathaway started shooting rehearsals as backup and found she was less mannered there and actually used some of the footage.

I asked her about the nude photograph and she said, dead serious, ‘But I had the radio on.’ I’m glad I knew her before the troubles enveloped and destroyed her. I want to remember that superb girlish laughter when I told her an off-colour joke. One day Hathaway shouts at her and she yelled back, ‘After paying for my own wardrobe, my coach, my assistant, and God knows who else I barely have enough left over to pay my shrink!’ And the crowd watching applauded her!”

Joseph Cotten

“She was a phenomenon that I doubt like hell this town will see the likes of ever again. There have been a lot of people trying to copy her one way or another – and to me, they’re third-stringers.”

Rory Calhoun

“Howard Hawks says it’s wonderful we knew and worked with Marilyn before she got difficult. Because she was so winning and adorable in Monkey Business. When I drink that youth serum and am acting like a teenager, Marilyn really got into it. I’m diving off the high board and she’s giggling and waving me on. Years later she asked me to co-star in something called The Billionaire. It was a comedy and she said her husband Arthur Miller was reworking it. Arthur Miller a comedy writer? I ran away and so did Greg Peck, and the completed film, Let’s Make Love, showed she’d become all blurry and distant. It was sad.”

Cary Grant

66 Years Ago: Marilyn Wows Hollywood in ‘Niagara’

Niagara was released in the U.S. 66 years ago, on January 21, 1953. Despite its success at the box-office, Marilyn would never play such a villainous role again. But while Niagara is now considered an important film noir – in the genre’s latter phase, and one of the few made in Technicolor – the Hollywood Reporter‘s original review, reposted here, was one of the first to recognise Marilyn’s dramatic achievement.

Thanks to A Passion for Marilyn

“Around the scenic splendor of Niagara Falls, Charles Brackett has produced and co-scripted a gripping murder melodrama that is loaded with sex and suspense. With Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters turning in superb performances that help maintain a mood of dynamic tension, Niagara should pile up huge grosses for 20th-Fox.

Henry Hathaway makes wonderful use of the falls to heighten the suspense and to add pictorial beauty to the production which gains additional exploitation value by its locale, never before used as the focus for a motion picture plot. Those who have never been to Niagara will be fascinated by the exciting shots of the falls, the awesome grandeur of which has been thrillingly captured by Joe MacDonald’s fine photography.

Hathaway draws splendid performances from his cast and maintains a taut, spicy tempo that grips the attention consistently. Miss Monroe turns in her finest acting performance yet, adding to her acting laurels by playing a sexy tart with a provocative abandon that has a powerful impact … Sol Kaplan’s music, directed by Lionel Newman, helps heighten the mood of suspense, with other technical functions on the high-quality level one expects from 20th-Fox productions.”

Marilyn and Henry Hathaway

Director Henry Hathaway, who guided Marilyn through her star-making performance in Niagara, was a movie veteran, perhaps best-known for his action pictures. Although seen as gruff and domineering by some, he proved to be one of Marilyn’s most supportive directors.

Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director, published later this month, is a new biography by Harold N. Pomainville, and promises to be of interest to MM fans (although rather expensive, in my opinion.) He describes how Hathaway dealt with Marilyn’s interfering coach, Natasha Lytess; and how he persuaded Marilyn to sing along to the record in the ‘Kiss’ scene.

Pomeraine also reveals that Zanuck thwarted Hathaway’s plan to cast Marilyn in Of Human Bondage, and that Hathaway advised her to hire Charles Feldman as her new agent as a defence against the hostile studio head. And it was Hathaway who offered Marilyn the chance to star in a Jean Harlow biopic. She rejected it, partly because she was then in dispute with screenwriter Ben Hecht over a shelved autobiography (published after her death as My Story); but perhaps also because the pressures of Harlow’s life mirrored her own.

“Though Hathaway worked with Marilyn only once,” Pomeraine writes, “he became one of her prime defenders. At a time when the Fox hierarchy, including [Darryl] Zanuck, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, and director Howard Hawks, regarded Monroe as little more than a passing novelty, Hathaway saw her as a rare and sensitive talent: ‘Marilyn was witty and bright, but timid. She was afraid of people.'”

Marilyn and James Dean: The Love That Never Was

Marilyn at the East of Eden premiere, 1955

Actor James Dean is the latest subject – or victim – of celebrity biographer Darwin Porter, whose 2012 book, Marilyn at Rainbow’s End, was slated by fans. Co-written with Danforth Prince and due for publication in April, James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes makes the eye-popping assertion that Dean was embroiled in a sado-masochistic relationship with Marlon Brando. And according to the Daily Mail, ‘Dean supposedly also had a fling with Marilyn Monroe when they spent two weekends a beach house on Fire Island, an idyllic getaway East of New York.’

The Daily Express has more detail, rendered in Porter’s trademark purple prose:

“Amazingly Dean dreamed of marrying Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Dean met Monroe in 1955 and the pair quickly adjourned to a romantic weekend at a beachfront cottage.

‘He was very loving, very romantic,’ Monroe told actress Shelley Winters. ‘I’ve agreed to marry him one day.’ But after several weeks they recognised that marriage would be disastrous.

‘Let’s admit the truth: both of us need babysitters,’ said Dean. Monroe agreed: ‘It wouldn’t work. We’d end up destroying each other.’ However even after they split Monroe remained possessive, berating him about his fling with Taylor.”

Marilyn did, in fact, visit Fire Island on several occasions during 1955, as the Strasbergs owned a holiday home there. Dean was friendly with the Strasbergs due to his association with the Actors Studio. However, no such tryst has ever been mentioned until now. As with the Brando story, it seems unlikely that an encounter between such iconic stars would take so long to be revealed.  (Porter has also claimed that Marilyn had affairs with Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald Reagan in his previous biographies, but once again, there is no solid evidence for this.)

In her 1989 memoir, Shelley Winters recalled seeing a Los Angeles preview of Brando’s film On the Waterfront with Marilyn and James Dean in early 1954. As Marilyn had just married Joe DiMaggio and was spending most of her time in San Francisco while in dispute with Twentieth Century-Fox, this seems questionable. However, Winters did know both Marilyn and Dean quite well, and some fans have suggested that the preview may actually have been Brando’s 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire.

In any case, Winters’ memories did not suggest any intimacy between Marilyn and Dean. She recalled that after the movie, she and Marilyn drove to film director Nick Ray’s bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, and that Dean rode ahead on his motorcycle, ‘playing chicken’ with them – which angered and upset Marilyn.

Needless to say, the quotations attributed to Winters in Porter’s book do not appear in her own memoirs – which make no mention of an affair between Marilyn and Dean. And the quotations attributed to Marilyn do not appear in any other source.

Before his untimely death in September 1955, Dean was said to have been one of several actors considered as a possible co-star for Marilyn in Bus Stop (the part eventually went to newcomer Don Murray.) And director Henry Hathaway had hoped to pair Marilyn and Dean in a remake of Of Human Bondage. The film was later made with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey.

Although they may have been united in countless tacky Photoshops, the only time Marilyn and Dean were connected publicly was at the 1955 premiere of his film, East of Eden. The event was a benefit for the Actors Studio, and Marilyn served as an ‘usherette’. She was accompanied by Milton Greene, and was later photographed with comedian Milton Berle – but not with James Dean, because he wasn’t there!