Writing for Vulture, film critic Christina Newland – who appeared in the recent CNN docuseries, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe – praises the ‘winking burlesque of femininity’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
“In Howard Hawks’s sparkling, joyously witty musical romantic comedy from 1953, Monroe distinguished herself as not merely a blonde bombshell with a lot of studio publicity buildup but as a dynamite comedienne about to be catapulted to superstardom. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was both a critical and commercial hit, with one reviewer commenting that Marilyn was so luminous that she could practically glow in the dark.
The Hawks film was an adaptation of Anita Loos’s sensational novel from 1925, where the character of Lorelei Lee is a savant who can’t spell to save her life — the stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’ showgirl — but her internal monologue, as written by Loos, sharply lampoons men’s desire to control women, censorship, and the sexual pieties of the powers that be. Loos was a part of a generation of Jazz Age writers with a more progressive attitude toward womanhood, and it’s telling how modern the forward-thinking material still manages to seem in the film.
Monroe and Russell’s performances — their comedic timing, their sexy knowingness, and their winking burlesque of femininity — are at the very core of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. There’s verve and wit to their bouncing walks, their sideways exchanged looks, their lipsticked mouths curling into satisfied little grins at the reactions they elicit from silly men. It is one of the few romantic comedies of its era more interested in female friendship than romance … And if the director, Howard Hawks — he of stone-cold, classic studio-era romantic comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday — had a wonderful ear for comic dialogue and rapid-fire wit, it was his choreographer, Jack Cole, who took on the mantle of directing the musical numbers … It was more than a magical selection of stars, writers, and directors that made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes such a delight. There was also the below-the-line creative talent of people like William Travilla, who gorgeously styled the costumes. They are a masterclass — think of Marilyn’s shimmering orange gown beside Jane Russell’s black sequinned number as the pair walk in and drop the jaws of the entire dining room. Perhaps the story speaks — and sings — so much today because it tells us that high femininity, frivolity, and the love of beautiful things aren’t mutually exclusive with intelligence.
In an era of TikTok reclamation of the word bimbo (applied to oneself), sex positivity, and sugar babies and gold diggers of all stripes, it’s curious how modern the film can seem — particularly to women. Right from the opening song, ‘Two Little Girls From Little Rock,’ the jokey exasperation — ‘Men are the same way everywhere’ — sets up the sparkling, good-natured fun of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a film for the girls. While any film stamped with Marilyn’s voluptuous image might have once been thought to be aimed at straight men, the entire film is geared to wink and nod to the women in the audience. I mean that in the literal sense as well: Dorothy and Lorelei wink at each other in the final moment of the film.
There’s such matter-of-fact self-awareness to Lorelei: She has the hard-earned knowledge that women are reputationally ruined or worse by sleeping with men who may very well leave them in the end. So why not get those jewels while getting your kicks? Sure, the film is a glamorous fantasy of the gold digger — particularly in its very ’50s Hollywood conclusion — but that fantasy emerges from an era in which womanhood, romance, and sex were stiflingly constricted onscreen. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes says that women get to use what they’ve always been told is most important about themselves (their looks) to have fun at the expense of men rather than vice versa. In the Eisenhower era, female one-upmanship was a potent form of power, and even today, it certainly has its perks. If men think women are stupid for it, then the joke’s on them.
Maybe what’s most appealing about the film is that it lets us have our cake and eat it too. Marilyn embodies a woman who flirts and shops and tries to wear tiaras as necklaces (‘I just love finding new ways to wear diamonds!’) and still makes her way in the world, capable and clever. What more do you need when you’ve got a best gal pal, a rich husband, and a happy ending? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the manifesto for women who know they deserve to be taken seriously — even at their most gloriously frivolous.”
Christina also ‘live-tweeted’ an at-home screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes via Twitter last night – you can read her thread in full here.