The Rise and Fall of Marilyn Monroe Productions

Marilyn and Milton Greene face the press in 1955

Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Maureen Lee Lenker looks back at the history of Marilyn Monroe Productions. First of all, the bad news: Lenker begins by stating that Marilyn was “one of the first women to found her own production company since silent star Mary Pickford.” As April Chambers noted here, Marilyn was preceded by more than fifty women in the silent era alone.

Secondly, Marilyn did indeed reject her next script after River of No Return – and was promptly suspended by Twentieth Century-Fox – but the suspension was lifted and The Girl in Pink Tights was scrapped. She went on to make two more films before walking out on Fox in November 1954.

And finally, Marilyn did not produce Bus Stop (1956). However, it was the first movie she made as part of her renegotiated contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, which allowed her a higher salary, and greater creative freedoms including choice of script and director approval. The only film produced by MMP was The Prince and the Showgirl (1957.) Thereafter, the company was mainly used to protect her financial interests. (Marilyn’s acrimonious split from business partner Milton Greene is somewhat glossed over in the article.)

With these caveats, it’s a good piece on an important aspect of Marilyn’s later career. We begin in December 1954, when Marilyn abandoned her contract and flew to New York, where Greene was waiting…

“Once away from the strictures of her Fox contract in Hollywood, they put into motion plans for founding Marilyn Monroe Productions.

On Jan. 7, 1955, she announced the formation of her production company to the world. As journalists and friends gathered at the home of her lawyer, Frank Delaney, a public statement signifying the existence of Marilyn Monroe Productions was read aloud. Monroe was company president, with Greene as vice president (she took 51 percent of the company and Greene 49 percent).

‘That was her way of achieving creative freedom,’ says Elizabeth Winder, author of Marilyn in Manhattan, about Monroe’s year in New York City. ‘The studio owned her, and she knew that she couldn’t remain in that system, but she also didn’t want to give up acting. This was her way to be able to be the type of actress she knew she could be, and always wanted to be. There wasn’t really a way for her to do it in a smaller way.’

As Monroe told journalist Edward R. Murrow at the time, ‘It’s not that I object to doing musicals and comedies — in fact, I rather enjoy them — but I’d like to do dramatic parts, too.’

The studio wasn’t about to let one of their most lucrative stars go without a fight, immediately suing Monroe for breach of contract. Over an entire year of negotiations, they eventually struck a deal between Fox and her production company. The non-exclusive deal won Monroe a check for past earnings, a new salary of $100,000 for four movies over a seven-year period, and approval over all major aspects of her productions, including script, director and cinematographer.

‘She was basically powerless before,’ adds Winder. ‘They’d say “Take this role,” and she’d be stuck. Being to be able to do all that was a complete switch. She loved acting, she loved her work and she wanted to be able to take on roles and work in a way that wasn’t demeaning and degrading. She just wanted to live her life.’

The papers heralded Monroe’s new contract and victory in her legal battle as a historic moment. Time called her a ‘shrewd businesswoman,’ while the Los Angeles Mirror championed it as ‘one of the greatest single triumphs ever won by an actress.’ The Morning Telegraph played it up and, of course, leaned into her appearance, writing, ‘The bitter battle is over — Marilyn Monroe, a five-foot-five-and-a-half-inch blonde weighing 118 alluringly distributed pounds, has brought Twentieth Century Fox to its knees.’

But in spite of their casually sexist language, journalists weren’t exaggerating the impact of Monroe’s victory. The Hollywood studio system that had an ironclad hold over its stars since the 1930s was already in a period of decline … And Monroe’s founding of her own production company was considered a major blow to the studio system as it once was.

It gave her a nearly unmatched power, allowing a star of her stature to control her own career rather than being at the mercy of a capricious studio and its mogul. Already weakened, the studio system could not withstand losing its hold on its most valuable assets, its stars. Within the next several years, the studios would continue to decline, clearing the path for the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1960s.

‘The culture that we live in reduces women to these caricatures,’ adds Winder. ‘With Marilyn, that’s so easy to do because of her damage and the roles that she played, allowing people to make money off of a bimbo image. It’s so much easier to just go along with that cliche than it is to do the work of understanding who she really was. It’s easier for people to take a look at the cartoon version, and say, “Okay, I understand what that is,” than it is for them to open themselves up to the possibility of nuance. Marilyn was always trying so hard to be seen for who she really was, someone who loved to read and who loved to create and who had incredible ideas.’

Today, she’s remembered far more as a girl standing over a subway grate with her skirt billowing than she is as a trailblazer. ‘She’s been frozen in time,’ Winder says. ‘People are so resistant to taking another look at her. That’s because even today, men and women have such a difficult time reconciling all of the different sides of what a woman can be. Especially one like Marilyn, who had extreme vulnerability. For some reason, it’s hard for people to then say, “Oh, but she also did this and this and this, which was incredible.” They’re mutually exclusive.'”