Marilyn Through the Looking Glasses

In character as Pola from How to Marry a Millionaire, Marilyn is shown on the cover of Through the Looking Glasses, Travis Elborough’s new history of spectacles (alongside jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, and the ultimate short-sighted movie icon, Michael Caine.) Here’s a sneak peek at the synopsis…

“We learn how eyeglasses were the making of the silent movie star Harold Lloyd and the rock n roller Buddy Holly and helped liberate an exasperated John Lennon from Beatlemania. Get hip to horn-rims with Dizzy Gillespie and Michael Caine, and see girls in glasses through the lenses of the crime fiction by Dorothy L Sayers and Raymond Chandler and the full-screen figure of Marilyn Monroe.”

Over three pages, Elborough examines Marilyn’s role in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), in which Pola Debevoise and her model pals – played by Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall – are renting a high-end apartment they can scarcely afford, while scouting for rich men to keep them in luxury. That’s the plan, anyway…

“This feminine sanctuary, where the three women have retreated to fix their faces and compare notes on the financial status of potential prospective husbands, is among the few places Pola is comfortable in her cat’s eyeglasses. And indeed, like Miss Lonelyhearts, since she is ‘blind as a bat without them’ she needs to wear them to touch up her lipstick and also check her reflection in the four full-length mirrors that adorn the side of one wall. Having sashayed (and really no other word will do) in front of these mirrors, presenting the audience with the canyon-sized, screen-filling vista of a quartet of glasses-wearing Monroes in clingy fuchsia silk, she takes off her specs, sighs, and drops them in her purse. Striding purposefully towards the exit, she misses the door completely and bangs into a wall … The remainder of the movie is chock-full of similar short-sighted misunderstandings and visual gags for the actor to fall foul of.”

Elsborough then focuses on Marilyn’s airborne love scene with actor David Wayne.

“The idea of Marilyn in glasses is, in essence, treated as one long continuous joke. Pola’s eventual conquest Freddie Denmark is a myope whom she meets on a plane, having accidentally boarded (for poor-eyesight-related reasons) the wrong flight. They strike up a conversation after he notices her pretending to read a book she’s holding upside down. Denmark eventually convinces her that wearing glasses is fine, and dandy even … That supposedly only a fellow glasses wearer seems capable of truly loving her as she is seems more of a damning indictment of the mid-century American male mindset at this juncture than anything else.”

As the first film made in Cinemascope, How to Marry a Millionaire‘s ad campaign boasted that, unlike  other studio technologies requiring 3D specs, ‘You See It Without Glasses!’

“The eagle-eyed might also notice that Monroe is ‘without glasses’ on the Millionaire movie poster. There was equally no sign of the spectacles in the image of the star, arrayed in a series of reflections of herself in that hall of powder-room mirrors, used to promote the picture. A come-hither for Cinemascope, as a lobby card it suggested that boundless opportunities to ogle her (and her co-stars) in enhanced dimensions awaited those willing to fork out the admission fee. And they weren’t far wrong … She might not be able to see herself for much of the movie but the viewer is treated to a damn good look at her.”

As Elsborough notes elsewhere, Marilyn would write in her 1954 memoir, My Story, “I had always been attracted to men who wore glasses.” She fell for her first great love, musician Fred Karger, when she saw him put on glasses, and would marry a bespectacled intellectual, Arthur Miller, in 1956.

This points to another recurring trope in the Monroe screen persona: in Monkey Business (1952) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she is paired with glasses wearers. “Men who wear glasses are so much more gentle and sweet and helpless,” she says in Some Like It Hot (1959.) “Haven’t you ever noticed? They get those weak eyes from reading – you know, all those long columns of tiny figures in the Wall Street Journal …”