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.'”

Marilyn: Still Hollywood’s Favourite Blonde

'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' (1953)
‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953)

In an article for The Australian, Philippa Hawker charts the history of blondes in cinema -arguing that Marilyn continues to leave her mark on the evocation of blondeness.

“In cinema — not to mention fairytale, myth, art, literature, politics and the realm of popular culture in general — the image of the blonde or the fair-haired woman has carried a strong symbolic charge. It can be identified with innocence and purity but also with artifice and duplicity. It can suggest bounty, dazzle and allure, the implication that all that glisters is not necessarily gold. It can convey a heightened sense of spectacle. It is almost always associated with a notion of the feminine. The figure of the blonde is one of Hollywood’s most potent emblems and exports, and it has had an influence on other movie cultures over the years.

In cinema, the figure of the blonde often appears alongside the contrasting figure of the brunette; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, is probably the most engaging example…

And, of course, there is Monroe, defining Hollywood blondeness, and to some degree transcending it by sheer effort of will. Her body of studio work is surprisingly confined: only once, in Clash by Night (1952), in which she portrays a cannery worker, did she play a character with an ordinary job. In her major roles she was always a variation on a gold-digger or a stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’ — yet she managed to subvert the stereotyping or deepen its implications, no matter what the challenge was off-screen. In The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), on what was reportedly a chaotic and troubled set, she gives an effortlessly appealing performance in an unlikely period piece: it is her co-star, Laurence Olivier (also her director), who appears awkward and uncomfortable.

Monroe, one way or another, continues to leave her mark on the evocation of blondeness. In the 80s, Madonna did her best to own it, restaging Monroe’s ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number, rifling through the Hollywood cultural dress-up box for a variety of shades and identities. Her video clip for ‘Vogue’, directed by David Fincher, explicitly raids both classic Hollywood portraiture and the vogueing phenomenon of the gay club.”

Marilyn and Jane: Queens of Rom-Com

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Scottish TV and radio presenter Edith Bowman declares her undying love for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in an article about classic romantic comedies for The Sun today.

“From almost the moment people started making romantic comedies, it seems that the roles of female characters in cinema have been passive. One way or another, our heroines do little more than sit at home, like Bridget Jones in her pyjamas, waiting for Mr Right.

Or do they?

Perhaps not. In fact, perhaps it was never really like that at all. Because while conducting research and thinking in more detail about the hundreds of films I’ve watched over the years, I have to say that fewer leading ladies belong to this category than I originally thought.

The first female characters I remember being in awe of were Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Watching those two dominate the movie, completely in control of every situation, is still an eye-opener: here are two stunning women who may appear vulnerable and needy but are obviously very smart, blatantly using their beauty and sex appeal to manipulate every situation for their own benefit.

And that film was released in 1953. Amazing!

So have women in film evolved from blushing eye candy to strong, funny, independent leads in their own right? Sure they have… but perhaps only because of the work put in by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Diane Keaton and Julia Roberts back in the day – all stars of what appeared to be traditional romcoms, but who brought something else entirely to their films. Without Monroe, perhaps there would be no [Amy] Schumer.”