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 the Newman Brothers

Marilyn with Lionel Newman on the set of ‘Niagara’, 1952

The Newman brothers – Alfred and Lionel – were part of a Hollywood musical dynasty that continues to this day. They worked as composers and musical directors on Marilyn’s major films at Twentieth Century Fox, and as Lee Cowan reports for CBS News, Marilyn said she wouldn’t do a musical without Lionel. He would later write the sleeve notes to a 1973 compilation album, Remember Marilyn, which you can read here,

When Marilyn Sings

MM fan Tiina Lindholm found an older vinyl compilation in a Finnish thrift store. Remember Marilyn includes a 12pp photo book with a lovely tribute from Lionel Newman, Marilyn’s musical arranger on all her major films for Twentieth Century-Fox, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, River of No ReturnThere’s No Business Like Show Business, and Let’s Make Love.

“Marilyn Monroe was my friend – a very dear and special friend. She was an exceptionally warm, compassionate, surprisingly self-conscious girl. I found her to be fiercely loyal – sometimes to a fault.

An example of her self-consciousness happened while we were making the picture River Of No Return. In it Marilyn was to sing a very simple lullaby to a little boy with just a guitar accompaniment. Somehow or other she couldn’t believe she would be accepted doing something as gentle as this, due to her so-called ‘sexy’ image. It took many hours of reassurance to finally get her to believe in herself with regard to this sequence in the picture. The final result was most rewarding, especially to her.

Contrary to her glamorous ‘sexy image’, Marilyn would come to the recording stage wearing a plain pair of old slacks and a sweater, no makeup, and her hair looking like a tossed salad. But even in such casual dress she retrained that very warm, unaffected, detached appearance, yet still exuded sex.

Very often after a full and tiring day of recording, Marilyn, my wife Beverly, and I would take a long drive, grab a hamburger, eat in the car, and then just talk about anything except the motion picture business. She loved to laugh, and I had the fortunate ability to make her laugh.

The rumors about Marilyn being late for work never applied to her recording dates. She was always punctual if not ahead of time, and worked just as conscientiously and diligently as anyone else. A very odd thing happened when Marilyn would record her playbacks for whatever picture we were doing. I was happy to have the musicians show up – but with Marilyn the recording stage was always loaded with outside people. It literally appeared as though the studio had shut down. Secretaries, Sound Department employees, kids from the mail room, the Publicity Department, Construction, Art Department – you name it, they’d all be there. She was electrifying in that excitement always followed her. The men in the orchestra adored her. She was always congenial, courteous, not temperamental, and never forgot to thank everyone who worked with her on the stage. This included the orchestra, sound recording crew, etc. I must say, however, that she was damned sure of what she wanted without the sometimes big scene that other ‘super stars’ made. She would be up-tight at times when visitors got out of hand and made it necessary to have them clear the stage. Ten minutes later she would feel awful for having had to do such thing.

Many people didn’t believe – and still don’t believe she did her own singing. Well, that’s all a lot of nonsense. Marilyn did all her own singing – every single word. There was never any question about ‘dubbing’ her voice. She wouldn’t have allowed it since it was unnecessary, and to her, it would have been a cop out.

Another example of how hard she worked was when we were making Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. One of the big numbers was ‘Diamond’s Are A Girl’s Best Friend’. We made eleven takes on a very long and difficult number. (We recorded voice and orchestra simultaneously – Marilyn wouldn’t have it any other way. She felt that the performance would suffer if we recorded orchestra and voice separately on different days – ‘over dubbing’). I okayed the first take, but Marilyn felt she wanted to go on. In the end she went back to the first take, but she jumped up on the podium, apologized to the orchestra for having worked them so hard, and said ‘Lionel was right’. My association with her was just that straight and direct.

Marilyn used to call me her ‘personal music director’ and consequently I was assigned to do all her pictures at 20th Century-Fox. She was everything to all men, but to me she was really something very special. I miss her – I shall always miss her. She was literally one of a kind. I was fortunate to know her, to love her, let alone have the privilege of working with her.”

October 26, 1972

Lionel Newman