Goodbye Norma Jeane, Hello Jack (and Marilyn)

Goodbye Norma Jeane, a new play opening in the Studio Theatre at Above the Stag in Vauxhall, South London tomorrow, is seemingly not about Marilyn per se (despite the title – well, at least her name’s spelt correctly), but a tribute to her favourite choreographer, Jack Cole – starring Tim English, with Rachel Stanley playing Monroe and other screen goddesses.

“Jack Cole taught Hollywood to dance.

Now he’s writing a weekly column for Dance Magazine. Or trying to. Young men splash and yell in his swimming pool outside, and as the afternoon wears on a parade of his former muses arrives at his front door – Betty Grable, Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth among them. And each is determined to have the last word.

Liam Burke’s fascinating and inventive play shines a spotlight on one of Hollywood and Broadway’s most influential gay heroes, and the actresses he helped transform into cinema’s brightest stars.”

Anita Loos: From Lorelei to Marilyn

‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ was first filmed in 1928

In an article for Silent London, Pamela Hutchinson traces the career of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes author Anita Loos.

“In 1925, Loos published her masterpiece, first as short stories in Harper’s Weekly and then as a full-length novel. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic tour de force, and no less than Edith Wharton called it ‘The great American novel’. This breathless and ungrammatical text is presented as the no-holds-barred diary of one Lorelei Lee, a beautiful blonde gold-digger from Little Rock, Arkansas, and her adventures in pursuit of a diamond tiara with her friend Dorothy, a brunette with a one-track mind.

As Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a hit novel and play, of course it had to be filmed. The film was a hit too, but sadly it is now lost. The 1928 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had impeccable comic credentials, being directed by Keystone alumnus Mal St Clair, and starring two more former employees of Mack Sennett: Ruth Taylor and Ford Sterling.

Anita Loos with Marilyn’s idol, Jean Harlow (1932)

When the talkies came in, Loos was hired by Irving Thalberg to work for MGM … Who better than Loos, for example to write a script for Jean Harlow, the 1930s ultimate Lorelei Lee type, breathless, blonde and babyishly naïve? Except she was adapting a book by Katharine Brush called Red-Headed Woman, which was a cue for plenty of promotional jollity.

Anita Loos with Carol Channing at a Broadway rehearsal (1949)

After this, Loos went back to New York, and wrote for the stage – not without success. She wrote the book for a musical adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was a little milder than the novel and starred Carol Channing and Yvonne Adair as Lorelei and Dorothy.

Then, of course, 20th Century-Fox and Howard Hawks came for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It remains a great joy to see two great comediennes, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, both of whom were exploited by Hollywood in their turn, enacting this superb comic revenge on stupid men. The 1953 film has some great moments, but it’s a little sluggish in between times. Never mind: the song Diamonds are Girl’s Best Friend is the best possible tribute to Loos’s satirical pen, and the staging of Isn’t There Anyone Here for Love? in which Russell cavorts among an entire male Olympic team, must surely have tickled her. But Loos had nothing to do with the production, having struggled with her writing partner on the stage version. She did, however, say that Monroe was sublime casting. And of course, she was 100% right.”

Earl R. Gilbert: Marilyn’s Lighting Man

Although he wouldn’t gain his first screen credit until 1965, Earl R. Gilbert began his career at Twentieth Century Fox in the same year as Marilyn (and at the same age.) In an article for Variety, James C. Udel looks back at Gilbert’s long career.

“Back in the age of directors calling ‘Lights, camera, action!’ lighting was an unsung craft. One crew member who raised the bar, employing natural-looking illumination like an artist uses his brush, is gaffer Earl Gilbert.

Gilbert was born in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1926. His father, Ray, an electrician at Twentieth Century Fox Studios, helped Earl obtain union status via ‘the sons of members’ provision. Joining in late 1946, Earl aced a grueling four-hour test pulling pound-a-foot cable 60 feet above the stage.

Serving as a rigger on pictures Forever Amber and Gentlemen’s Agreement (both in 1947) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Gilbert first demonstrated a talent for lighting on Elia Kazan’s 1952 Viva Zapata!

Continuing with Fox into the 1950s, Gilbert helped light classics such as The Robe, two Marilyn Monroe starrers — Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bus Stop … On Blondes, he recalls Monroe being shy but Jane Russell being gregarious: Russell’s cry of ‘Howdy, Earl!’ each time she greeted him on set, he says, made him feel like a million bucks.

Gilbert developed the art of using available location lighting. He ‘borrowed’ electricity by scaling telephone poles and tapping into overhead power lines — a gambit that risked electrocution.

Now retired and interviewed by Variety in his comfortable home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Gilbert reminisces … ‘I never used a light meter,’ he allows. ‘If it looks good, it is good, and if it’s not, fix it!'”

‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ at 65

Screen capture by Classic Film (via Flickr)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was first released in the US on July 15, 1953 – exactly 65 years ago today. In many ways it’s the definitive Marilyn Monroe movie  – although Some Like It Hot is better-known, she truly dominates the screen as Lorelei Lee. Her unforgettable performance of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ inspired Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’, and her comedic partnership with co-star Jane Russell is peerless. For all those reasons (and many more), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  still feels timely and relevant today.

Over at Marilyn Remembered,  Lorraine Nicol celebrates this happy anniversary; and you can read my review of the 2010 big-screen reissue here.

Alicia Malone Gets ‘Filmstruck’ With Marilyn

Alicia Malone is the  Australian-born author of Backwards in Heels:  The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film. She is also a host at Filmstruck, a US-only streaming service run by the Criterion Collection (who released a special edition of The Asphalt Jungle in 2016.) In an interview with Broadway World, Alicia talks about her favourite classic movies – and Marilyn.

“When you were watching these films as a child, which quotable lines did you try reciting?

I am the worst at doing impressions and accents, but it doesn’t stop me from trying! Because of my love of Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a favorite film of mine. I used to try both Marilyn, ‘Thank you ever so!’ and Jane Russell. For Jane, I’d convince my sister to say, ‘You’ll find that I mean business!’ just so I could retort in my best Jane Russell voice, ‘Oh, really? Then why are you wearing that hat!’ I’m sure it was quite annoying to everyone involved.

If you were a grown-up and a working host when you saw some of your classic films as a child, who would you have wanted to interview and what would your lead question have been?

This is a great question! I know I’ve mentioned Marilyn Monroe a lot, but she really did fascinate me, so I’ll pick her. As I said, I loved her glam persona, but when I started reading books about her, I was shocked at how tough her life was, and how at odds that was with who she seemed on screen. It breaks my heart that she just wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, but was constantly placed as the ditzy blonde. So I would have loved to interview Marilyn, get a sense of what she was really like under that whispered voice and platinum blonde hair… and I would have asked her which role she really wanted to play.”

Mariah Joins Marilyn With Hollywood Tribute

Singer Mariah Carey is one of Marilyn’s most famous fans – she bought the star’s white piano at Christie’s in 1999, and recently revealed to Vogue that she also owns a compact belonging to Marilyn, containing handwritten notes for her Golden Globes speech. And today, Variety reports, Mariah will  follow her idol’s path as she dips her hands and feet in cement outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre.

“Even with a long list of accolades behind her and a number of upcoming projects ahead of her, being immortalized alongside legends such as Marilyn Monroe, one of her own idols, is not an event Carey takes lightly. ‘I have this picture of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell when they were doing their imprint ceremony. It’s an iconic photograph, and I have it hanging in my living room,’ Carey says. ‘It’s something that feels humbling, and I feel honored by it.'”

When Jane Met Marilyn…

In Scotland’s Sunday Post this weekend, Craig Campbell looks back at the life of Marilyn’s most congenial co-star, Jane Russell, who would have turned 96 this week. The article was first published in the June 17 issue of Weekly News – and you can read my own tribute to Jane at Immortal Marilyn.

“This most-unusual woman, by Hollywood standards, also started a weekly Bible study group, something she would invite a most-unexpected guest to in years to come.

Jane was an established star by the time that she made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953 with the most-famous blonde of them all — but her opposite number certainly hadn’t yet attained iconic status.

Already an ‘old, established broad who’d been around’, Jane felt Marilyn Monroe might like to come to some faith discussions, but the idea didn’t quite click.

‘At that time, Marilyn didn’t even have her own dressing-room, which sounds insane now!’ Jane laughed. ‘She only got one for that movie.’

‘She was super-sensitive, had her feelings hurt a lot, and the guys around the studio weren’t exactly tactful.’

‘We had a group called The Hollywood Christian Group, and I asked Marilyn along.’

‘She did say the next day: It’s not for me!’

What both leading ladies did have in common, however, was movie success … Jane’s razor-sharp wit was the perfect foil for Marilyn’s portrayal of gold-digger Lorelei Lei, and the song ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ became a classic.

Russell would also star in the follow-up, Gentlemen Prefer Brunettes, which was lacking the Monroe effect and didn’t fare so well.”

Marilyn in ‘Blondes’: A Diamond Rom-Com

Blogger Caroline Colvin takes a closer look at Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in her RomCom of the Week series, arguing that its portrayal of female sexuality is far more progressive than early critics realised.

“When the film first came out, critics berated Lorelei and Dorothy (and by extension, Monroe and Russell) for their sexual confidence. Their forwardness, by modern standards, however, is considered praiseworthy. It’s two sides of the same coin: either the women’s sexiness makes them solely objects for male consumption or their fearless sex appeal is a mark of empowerment, making them subjects, autonomous, active players in their own adult lives.

Are Dorothy and Lorelei villains of female sexuality, preying on and victimizing men? Or are they modern-day heroes for finessing the patriarchal, capitalist framework they’re living in?
Often, the process of unpacking gendered implications in film is like looking for a diamond in the rough. And as seen with with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, sometimes, it takes a little extra sifting.”

Marilyn’s Finest Comedy Hour

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Marilyn’s hilarious performance as the wide-eyed trickster Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is lauded today in ‘100 More Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy’, a virtual timeline for the Vulture website.

“Dumb-blonde jokes can be traced back as far as the 18th century, but it was Marilyn Monroe’s portrayal of Lorelei Lee that cemented them in modern pop culture. During this big dance number, Monroe’s iconic look, bleached-blonde and adorned in a thick diamond choker with a tight bright-pink dress, creates the prototype for a dumb blonde. She needs to be flamboyantly feminine, and speak softly and vapidly. As she says in the movie, ‘I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.’ Monroe’s quick quips of feigned ignorance are supported by the groundedness of Dorothy Shaw, played by Jane Russell, in a rare-for-the-time female comedy duo. Helmed by Howard Hawks, a director famous for his ‘Hawksian’ tough-talking woman, the movie demonstrates comedy through the actress’s use of sexual agency. Monroe’s femininity is not an object but a tool to get what she wants — famously, diamonds. The sheer size of Monroe’s performance defined this fundamentally American archetype. Without her, there would be no Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Cher in Clueless, or Elle Woods of Legally Blonde.”

Fan Petition Saves Marilyn’s Hollywood Hallmark

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The former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre – renamed TCL Chinese Theatre by new owners in 2013 – was at the centre of an online controversy this weekend, after photos emerged of merchandising carts placed outside, where the handprints of Marilyn, Jane Russell and other movie greats are immortalised in cement. In an article for the Hollywood Reporter, Chris Gardner explains how a fan-led social media campaign led to the carts being swiftly removed – let’s hope the decision is permanent.

“The removal comes after a dust-up on social media kick-started by notable Hollywood documentarian Alison Martino and her Vintage Los Angeles Facebook page, which posted a photo on Sept. 30 taken by Brian Donnelly. The image showed a retail structure selling inexpensive hats and T-shirts while covering iconic cement blocks lining Hollywood Boulevard in front of the theater.

The post generated more than 750 comments and 530 shares and was enough to launch a Change.org petition requesting the removal of the vendor carts from the forecourt, as well as a news story on Curbed Los Angeles. The petition, signed by more than 2,600 supporters as of Monday afternoon, called for the removal of the carts out of respect for Hollywood history and the millions of tourists who flock to the block each year.

While it can be assumed that TCL opted to move the retail structures following the controversy, it’s not confirmed because a rep for TCL Chinese Theatres declined comment. It remains unclear where the vendor carts will go, though a source indicated they may be relocated to the nearby Hollywood & Highland mall.

Martino offered to talk, telling The Hollywood Reporter that she drove to the block on Monday once she heard that the carts were no longer in place. ‘It’s unbelievable — power to the people,’ she said, crediting Donnelly with the original image and Elena Parker for launching the petition. ‘I’ve been operating the Vintage Los Angeles page for five years and I’ve never seen a reaction like this. The outcry and outrage grew really fast. My VLA community really took it to heart. It was their passion and perseverance that drove this. Social media is an incredible force.'”