Marilyn, Howard Hawks, and the Making of a Comedy Queen

Marilyn with Howard Hawks during filming of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Writing for Screen Rant, Shae Sennett focuses on the two films Marilyn made with Howard Hawks. (She also recently wrote a recent article on All About Eve.) While Marilyn was already on the road to stardom when she met Howard Hawks, their work together ensured her future success in mostly comedic roles, which proved more popular with the public than her melodramas. The downside to all this, of course, is that she became increasingly typecast as a ‘dumb blonde,’ a sexist trope which permeated even the few dramatic parts she subsequently played.

It’s also worth noting that their first collaboration, Monkey Business, wasn’t a huge hit at the time, though it’s now considered a screwball classic by a growing number of critics. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a box office smash, bringing Marilyn’s musical talents to a wider audience – but its direction was effectively a partnership between Hawks and choreographer Jack Cole. Nonetheless, Marilyn’s films with Hawks undoubtedly paved the way for her later comedies with Billy Wilder.

Howard Hawks (seated) directs Marilyn and Cary Grant in Monkey Business

“Hawks first caught a glimpse of Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle and was immediately impressed — so impressed that he gave her a major supporting role in his 1952 rom-com, Monkey Business. This was Monroe’s first time as a major player in a comedy … The director told Darryl F. Zanuck, chief producer at Twentieth Century-Fox, to re-think the roles that he cast Monroe in, but his warning fell on deaf ears — at first.

The same year that Monkey Business was released, Monroe also had a starring role in the gritty mystery Don’t Bother to Knock. Sadly, the film was not met with very much interest from fans or critics. Monroe’s star was growing rapidly, but the attendance of her movies didn’t yet reflect her popularity.

Hawks had a very simple solution for Zanuck’s problem — the same one he had offered in 1952. ‘You’re making realism with a very unreal girl,’ she explained to the producer. ‘She’s a completely storybook character. And you’re trying to make real movies.’ Hawks knew that Monroe’s persona was larger than life, and Zanuck was finally ready to listen to his advice. ‘What should she do?’ he asked Hawks.

After Don’t Bother to Knock, Monroe was set to play a femme fatale in the high-budget noir, Niagara. Zanuck was concerned that the film would fall flat after the failure of Knock. He finally decided to revisit his conversation with Hawks, who had previously warned the producer against casting Monroe in dramatic roles. ‘Howard, we ought to have a great big star here and we’re losing money,’ Zanuck confided in the director (via Barbara Leaming’s Marilyn Monroe.)

Hawks with Marilyn, Jane Russell, and child actor George Winslow on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

It was Hawks himself who suggested casting Monroe as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Zanuck was resistant to the idea at first. The film was intended to star Betty Grable, for one thing. For another, the producer had doubts about Monroe’s musical capabilities. ‘She couldn’t do that,’ Zanuck insisted. Thankfully, Hawks had more faith in the actress. ‘The hell she can’t,’ he replied.

The director had to go one step further to convince Zanuck that casting Monroe would be a good idea. He assured the producer that he could secure Jane Russell, a personal friend of his, for the other leading role … With the producer satiated, Hawks began working on one of the most popular films that he or Monroe ever made.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes proved Monroe’s talents as a comedic actress once and for all. From there, she was cast in her most iconic rom-coms like The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot. It was Hawks who first truly discovered Monroe’s niche and, for that, cinematic history is forever in his debt.”