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.”
Writing for fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily, Leigh Nordstrom and Alex Badia have named Marilyn among the most stylish movie icons of the 1950s and 60s, citing Dorothy Jeakins’ Niagara designs, also worn offscreen by Marilyn in 1952, for special praise.
“The sex symbol who revolutionized the Fifties and Sixties had a very well-crafted fashion style. This look from the movie Niagara is a clear example. The wavy, short bleach blonde hair, the hoop earrings, and form-fitting dress with generous cleavage were some of her signatures. What was great about her style was that if you wear it today, it’s still amazing — it’s timeless.”
An archive of over 200 negatives taken during filming of Niagara by Canadian photographer Jock Carroll in 1952 has been sold with copyright for $61,866.25 at RR Auctions. Also in the Fine Autographs and Artifacts (Entertainment) sale, a December 1961 letter from Marilyn to Lee Strasberg was sold for $18,750 – more on the auction here.
An archive containing more than 200 negatives from the filming of Niagara, part of the late photographer Jock Carroll’s estate, are will go under the virtual hammer this Wednesday, March 4th, at RR Auctions (with copyright), TMZ reports. Bidding starts at $10,000, but the online auctioneers hope it will sell for much more.
Carroll’s stunning book about the shoot, Falling For Marilyn, was posthumously published in 1996 and includes his interviews with Marilyn. His novel, The Shy Photographer (1964), is also said to have been inspired by this memorable encounter. (You can view more of Carroll’s photos here.)
A number of other Monroe-related items will be auctioned, including her December 1961 letter to Lee Strasberg detailing her unrealised plans to expand the Actors Studio and Marilyn Monroe Productions.
“The pics — 227 total, 198 of which depict Marilyn — were snapped by Canadian journalist and photog Jock Carroll in 1952, while she was preparing for her first top billing as Rose Loomis in the noir thriller.
The set of photos is mostly comprised of black-and-white negatives but includes some color positive transparencies. And, along with shots of Monroe, there are several of the sets, scenery and of course … Niagara Falls.
The negatives could become much more than just a collector’s item too … because they include the copyright to the images. Carroll signed the rights over to his son [Angus Carroll] before he died, and the son will grant them to the buyer.
This means the highest bidder at the auction will have the right to print and even sell copies from the negatives, which could lead to big bucks. Commercial use requires permission from Monroe’s estate, however.”
UPDATE: The Josh Carroll archive has been sold for $61,866.25 – more details on the auction here.
The Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has referenced Marilyn before – in Broken Embraces (2009), Lena, an actress played by Penelope Cruz, impersonates both Monroe and Audrey Hepburn (see my review here.)
Ten years on, Almodovar has once again called on his cinematic muses in Pain and Glory, chosen by Time magazine as its film of the year in 2019. Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker plagued by ill-health and depression. In one scene, actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) visits him at home. After they smoke heroin together, Salvador falls asleep and Alberto reads a document on his computer, entitled ‘Addiction’. As Alberto sits at Salvador’s desk, you may notice Donald Spoto’s 1992 book, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, on the shelf behind him (to the left – open gallery below.)
Alberto then begins to read the text, and imagines performing it onstage. In it, Salvador remembered his first encounter with the magic of Hollywood, when he was a poor boy living in the Spanish village of Paterna.
“My idea of cinema was always linked to the breeze on summer nights. We only saw films in the summer. The films were projected on an enormous wall that had been whitewashed. I particularly remember the films where there was water: waterfalls, beaches, the bottom of the sea, rivers or springs. “
We then see a clip from Elia Kazan’s Splendour in the Grass (1961) projected onto an imaginary screen, with Natalie Wood swimming in a river. This image sparks an amusing memory…
“Just hearing the sound of water gave all the kids a tremendous desire to urinate and we did it right there, on both sides of the screen. In the cinemas of my childhood it always smells of piss, and of jasmine, and of the summer breeze.”
He then projects a seemingly rain-spattered clip of Marilyn in Niagara (1953), singing along to her favourite song, ‘Kiss’ (“Take me, take me in your arms…”)
Unlike the Natalie clip, however, in this one Marilyn goes full-screen, and the raindrops disappear. Salvador awakes, and asks what Alberto is doing. ‘Reading you,’ he replies. Salvador allows him to perform ‘Addiction’, so long as he remains anonymous. We then watch Alberto continue the story in a theatre, a blank screen behind him. A handsome man (played by Leonardo Sbaraglia) goes inside, and is moved to tears as Alberto re-enacts the story of Marcelo, Salvador’s lost lover from many years before.
“Under the whitewashed wall where the films of my childhood were projected. I prayed that nothing would happen to the leading ladies, but I didn’t succeed, neither with Natalie Wood or Marilyn. Then I tried to save Marcelo and myself. If Marcelo was saved, it was far away from me. As for me, I stayed in Madrid and the cinema saved me.”
It’s interesting that he gives Natalie Wood’s full name, but not Marilyn’s – perhaps because one need only say her first name for the audience to know who he means. In Splendour in the Grass, Natalie played a sensitive young woman who breaks down when forbidden to marry the boy she loves (Warren Beatty.) In Niagara, for the only time in her career, Marilyn played a woman who is murdered for her adulterous desires.
Both women seem out of their element. Splendour in the Grass (a line from a poem by W.B. Yeats) conjures the beauty of the land, but here we see our heroine in the water. Natalie, who was terrified of water, found the scene traumatic; and in 1981 (the same year in which Salvador and Marcelo’s affair began), Natalie died by drowning when she apparently fell from the deck of her husband Robert Wagner’s boat (named Splendour in her honour.)
Niagara is named after the famous waterfall, but Marilyn’s character Rose – with her hot pink dress and signature red lipstick, singing of lust – seems more akin to fire. Marilyn also died before her time, and like Marcelo, she had battled addiction. In her first film – Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay, in which a nine-year-old Natalie starred – Marilyn’s tiny role was mostly cut, but the two women would meet again, just days before Marilyn died in 1962, when Natalie attended a party with her Splendour co-star, Warren Beatty (see here.)
Earlier that year, Natalie had spoken to Redbook‘s Alan Levy about Marilyn, and her words echo Salvador’s wish to protect them both.
“When you look at Marilyn on the screen, you don’t want anything bad to happen to her. You really care that she should be all right … happy.”
Among the many luminaries featured in James Bawden and Ron Miller’s book, Conversations WithClassic 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!”
“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.”
“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.”
Niagara will be the second film screened in a double bill at the Redford Theatre in Detroit on September 21, starting with Trapped (1949) at 2 pm. It’s part of a weekend-long festival, ‘Noir in the 50s‘, hosted by Noir City magazine.
Blogger Robert Horvat has listed his top 10 Marilyn movies on the Rearview Mirror site. With Some Like It Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire heading the list, it’s a great selection – and Robert has also reviewed Niagara, Blondes and Bus Stop separately. (Personally, though, I would choose Clash By Night, Don’t Bother to Knock and The Prince and the Showgirl over The Asphalt Jungle, River Of No Return and There’s No Business Like Show Business.)
Canadian crime writer Howard Engel, who has died aged 88, had a little-known connection to Marilyn, and a film noir classic. As Brian Kelly reports for the Sault Star, Engel played a bit part in Niagara – uncredited at the time, but now noted on IMDB – as ‘Man at Bus Stop’. It’s possible that he may be the man seated on a bench and holding a cigarette at the bus station, who briefly looks up as Marilyn hurries by, hoping to catch a bus to Chicago. However, this man looks older than his early twenties, as Engel would have been at the time.
A second possibility is that Engel was the man leaning on the pillar, who observes the commotion as the bus is cancelled. You can see his face more clearly at the left of this still photo, which shows the other players in this tense scene – including a disgruntled husband and wife, and two sailors involved in the police search for Rose Loomis (Marilyn.) Engel became a high school teacher and community theatre director, before launching his series of mystery novels featuring detective Benny Cooperman with The Suicide Murders (1980.)