Marilyn Steps Out of the Chorus

Made on a shoestring budget during her brief tenure at Columbia, Ladies of the Chorus (1948) gave Marilyn her first lead role, and introduced her to people who would help to shape her future, as Gary Vitacco Robles writes in the latest installment of his series for Classic Movie Hub.

“‘It was really dreadful.’ This was Marilyn Monroe’s confession to French journalist Georges Belmont in 1960 of her first starring film … ‘It was a terrible story and terribly, badly photographed; everything was awful about it. So, [Columbia] dropped me. But you learn from everything.’

Monroe’s debut as a musical comedy performer in Ladies of the Chorus was arguably far from dreadful. In the succinct, B-movie with a ten-day production schedule, she portrayed Peggy Martin, a burlesque chorus dancer with an overprotective mother, May (Adele Jergens), another dancer in the troupe … Jergens instinctively felt protective toward Monroe but thought she was bright and capable of taking care of herself.

Having played Charles Hamilton, Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband in Gone With the Wind, Rand Brooks, in the role of Randy, had the distinction of giving Monroe her first screen kiss, undoubtedly thrilling for the former Norma Jeane Baker who had seen the celebrated film at age thirteen.

Columbia’s acting coach Natasha Lytess, soon to became Monroe’s on-set acting coach on subsequent films until production wrapped on The Seven Year Itch (1955), had recommended Monroe to casting director Harry Romm. Monroe auditioned by singing one of three songs designated to the second female lead. Romm found her irresistible and sent her to Columbia’s director of music and vocal instructor, Fred Karger, for refining.

Poised and graceful, Monroe glows with promise as a future musical comedy queen … She plays comedic and dramatic scenes with equal believability and speaks in her natural voice (albeit influenced by coaching in the industry’s preferred Transcontinental accent) not yet been replaced by a more breathy, artificial one. The backstory of Monroe’s affair with vocal coach Karger is coincidentally reflected by the class difference in the plot’s lovers.

When production ended, Monroe’s short-term contract neared its expiration. Unfortunately, Columbia chose not to renew it. Reportedly, mogul Harry Cohn summoned Monroe to his office shortly before the ending of the contract to ‘negotiate’ an extension, but she refused his advances … Columbia released Ladies of the Chorus on October 22, 1948, and Monroe received her first reviews. All were positive.

Accompanied by the Karger family, Marilyn discreetly attended a public viewing of the film at the Carmel Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood … Monroe’s relationship with vocal coach Fred Karger was outlived by her long connection to his mother and sister, Anne and Mary. Both women attended her funeral in 1962.”

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