Posted by Susan Doll on May 14, 2012
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, which has motivated me to re-view many of her movies and reread some of the bios about her. Additionally, the anniversary has pushed MM back into the pop-culture spotlight. The television show Smash with its show-within-a-show structure uses Monroe’s life as the basis for the musical play being produced by the central characters. The show’s references to Monroe’s life and career, plus the writers’ understanding of Hollywood history, are impressive in their accuracy and insight. This past week, the enormous statue of Monroe based on the skirt-blowing scene from The Seven Year Itch that has graced downtown Chicago for several months was dismantled and sent on to its next home, Palm Springs. Smash reminds us of MM’s tortured existence as a woman at the mercy of the Hollywood dream factory; the statue incarnates her status as an icon of sexuality; her films reveal her strengths as an actress and charisma as a star.
In revisiting Monroe’s life and career over the past months, some of her films have tumbled down my list of favorites, making way for new ones at the top. Tomorrow afternoon, May 15, TCM will air one of my new favorite MM movies, Niagara. Directed by studio stalwart Henry Hathaway, Niagara does not get the attention of other Monroe films, particularly those by auteurs such as Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, or John Huston. But, I admire Niagara’s taut direction, visual style, and strong performances by Monroe and costar Joseph Cotten.
Also this time around, my view of Niagara has been affected by recent experiences that gave me more to think about. Though often classified as a film noir, this Technicolor tale of marital melodrama is more of a domestic noir. Unlike conventional film noir, which exposes widespread malaise and corruption in our social institutions, domestic noir focuses on duplicity and treachery within marriage or the family. The setting is the family room or bedroom, not the mean streets of the urban jungle. Viewing melodramas through a noir lens is something I learned in a terrific class I took last summer, “Home Noir: Domestic Melodramas of the 1940s,” in which instructor Therese Grisham showed a series of films with female protagonists who struggled with issues of identity, entrapment, and marriage. The class provided context for a lot of films that have the visual style of film noir but lack the narrative conventions because of the focus on the home.
Niagara is the story of sultry Rose Loomis, who is unhappily married to a neurotic husband. Rose and her young lover, played by Richard Allan, plot to murder George, though things don’t go as planned. Marilyn Monroe plays the sexy, calculating Rose, an unsympathetic character compared to her usual ditzy and sweetly innocent blondes. Rose’s overt sexuality is illustrated by a famous scene in which Marilyn was photographed from behind briskly walking in her undulating, hip-swaying fashion. Actually, the film includes three walking sequences; the one that received the most attention was dubbed “the longest walk in cinema history” in publicity at the time. It consisted of 116 feet of film of MM in a black skirt and red sweater walking away from the camera into the distance, with her swaying posterior in center frame.
Joseph Cotten costars as George, a weak man who has lost his identity and his sense of morality through his war experiences and his marriage to Rose. George is a Korean War vet only recently discharged from an army mental hospital where he was treated for battle fatigue. He is a disappointment as a husband and a provider. His instability and weaknesses suggest impotency in all areas of his life, including his marriage. Rose is as potent sexually as George is enervated, which is illustrated in the scene in which Rose croons her favorite song “Kiss.” Bored and lonely, Rose saunters outside their room to hang out with the other residents as they play their favorite records. Rose puts “Kiss” on the record player and begins to sing provocatively, prompting George to stop out of their cabin and break the record. Rose is ripe and ready for “kissing,” but George is incapable of handling her, so to speak.
The couple is not only incompatible sexually, but in every way. Rose’s open sexuality and lust for life contrasts with George’s worrisome, neurotic behavior: Rose is associated with wide open outdoor spaces while George hides himself in dark, cramped quarters. George is a failed sheep farmer, and I can’t think of anyone less suited to sheep farming than Marilyn Monroe. Rose wants the good life, but more importantly, she does not want the life that her husband does. Because Rose is having an affair and resorts to a murder scheme to be rid of George, descriptions of her character in reviews from both past and present peg her as the blonde “with the roving eye” who is “tormenting him by flaunting her sexuality” like a “slut.” But, if she betrays George in his time of need, he failed to understand who she was when they married. Attracted to Rose’s sexuality and vitality, he married her for the very reasons for which he now condemns her. And she married him to get out of that beer hall in Duluth where she was a waitress. I would not describe Rose as having a roving eye; that is a male perspective on her motivations. She is as confined in the marriage as George is trapped by his jealousy and obsession for her. Rose’s young lover fits hers needs sexually and practically: He is her means to get out of a sexless marriage and barren future. That doesn’t make her sympathetic, but it doesn’t make her a blonde with a roving eye either.
Jean Peters and Casey Adams (aka Max Showalter) round out the cast as Polly and Ray Cutler, a honeymooning couple staying at the same tourist camp as the Loomises. The audience identifies with the Cutlers and sees George and Rose through their perspective. George and Rose serve as a warning to the newlyweds—and to the audience—about the dangers of marrying the wrong person or marrying for the wrong reason. Polly is the sort of wife that George should have selected—ordinary but also nurturing and supportive. He tries to correct his mistake by forcing Polly to go away with him, but it is too late for George. Conversely, Ray Cutler is not oblivious to Rose Loomis’s charms: When he spies her in a tight-fitting magenta dress, he blurts out, “Get out the firehose.” Each man wants what the other man has—at least temporarily. However, Ray counts himself lucky at the end when he sees the tragic outcome for the Loomises, who married in haste and for the wrong reasons.
Much has been written about the depiction of women in post-WWII movies, particularly in film noir. Historians, critics, and scholars relate the rise of the femme fatale to the changing role of women after WWII. Whereas women were welcomed in the workforce to perform jobs traditionally associated with men during the war, afterwards, they were expected and encouraged to give up these high-paying jobs to returning soldiers. The femme fatales of noir—who operated in the male arena of power and money—represented postwar cultural and social issues about women in a man’s world. In other words, they didn’t belong. However, home or domestic noir differs from traditional film noir because the wayward leading ladies aren’t concerned too much with power or money. Instead, they are trapped in some way by marriage or family obligations, or they trap the males in a bad marriage with dire consequences. During WWII, soldiers sometimes married in the heat of passion under the pressures of war. They met and wed girls without experiencing long courtships or engagements because they were about to be shipped out, and who knew if they were coming back? Intense wartime romances became fodder for movies, magazines, and novels during the war just as the consequences of those romances were reflected in pop culture after the war. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek deals with this phenomenon in a comic way, while The Best Years of Our Lives offers a dramatic view of the down side of hasty marriages. Postwar home noir and melodramas such as Niagara also reflect the negative consequences of poorly planned marriages but in an indirect way.
While researching reviews of Niagara, I was surprised at the number of contemporary writers who compared it to Vertigo, and their observations were interesting to ponder. Like Niagara, Vertigo features a beautiful, full-figured blonde who is the object of obsession for the neurotic male lead. Part of the plot includes an extended stalking scene in which the male lead follows the blonde from location to location. Likewise, plans are afoot to murder a spouse, but the outcome does not go as planned. And, an eerie bell tower depicted in odd angles and expressionist lighting figures prominently in the murder. In many of these reviews, Niagara is compared unfavorably to Vertigo, with director Henry Hathaway deemed inferior to Hitchcock. Other writers thought the psychology of James Stewart’s character more deeply drawn than that of George Loomis, making Vertigo the more meaningful film. Though something interesting could be made of the Freudian symbolism in each film in which emasculated male characters are drawn to phallic bell towers by potent femme fatales, I find the comparison to Vertigo to be too superficial. Vertigo reflects Hitchcock’s life-long personal themes and obsessions involving guilt, morality, and the futility of male-female relationships, while Niagara is a product of postwar anxieties regarding traditional gender roles and marriage.
Taut and suspenseful, Niagara has become one of my favorite MM films not only because Monroe’s star image is used well in a dramatic context but also because it provides much food for thought.
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