Posted by David Kalat on August 10, 2013
It takes many people to make a movie. There are hairdressers and set dressers, designers and gaffers, caterers and stand-ins. But never mind—in the public imagination it all comes down to the director and the star.
And there was a moment, in 1953, when one of the greatest directors who ever graced Hollywood came to work with inarguably the most iconic movie star of all time. What they made was a bright Technicolor musical comedy, produced on the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, that was as raunchy as anything made in the pre-Porky’s era. And for all its glorious brilliance, it probably shouldn’t have worked at all—because you can’t just put any director with any star. Sometimes they don’t match.
There’s a phrase—oil and water. It’s meant to suggest that two people are of such disparate temperaments that they can’t mix, like oil and water. But that metaphor is a limited—oil and water may not mix, but they are such inert things. But try mixing potassium and water and see what happens—they don’t mix either, but stuff explodes. And that’s our metaphor for today—because putting Howard Hawks in the same room as Marilyn Monroe and expecting anything other than stuff exploding was madness.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks exploring Howard Hawks so if you’ve been tuning in, you should have a pretty good sense by now of the main problem here: Hawks was a proponent of an unself-conscious, almost improvisational approach to acting. He wanted unstudied, unrehearsed naturalism. And he was prepared to resort to dirty tricks to get it.
Meanwhile, Marilyn Monroe was an insecure little rabbit who relied almost pathologically on her acting coach, Natasha Lytess. And one of Lytess’ tools to keep Monroe’s paranoia in check was to insist on endless retakes.
Hawks had no problem with remakes, but retakes weren’t his bag, baby. If the first take wasn’t usable, he figured it made no sense to ask the actors to do it again, he’d just write a new scene and have them go do that one instead.
So, how do you think Hawks responded to Lytess’ repeated calls for retakes? Did he respond calmly and reasonably, accommodating his nervous star’s insecurity? (Let me remind you here that we are talking about a man with a mangled hand, a souvenir left over from punching Ernest Hemingway for no reason other than that it seemed like a good idea at the time).
Nope. Hawks banned Lytess from the set.
This had the predictable effect: Marilyn figured if her drama coach wasn’t welcome on set anymore, then they didn’t really want her to act, so why bother showing up for work at all?
Studio chief Darryl Zanuck wanted to know why the production seemed to have ground to a halt. Hawks offered three suggestions for solving the logjam: fire Marilyn Monroe, fire Howard Hawks, or not shoot the whole movie.
In the end, they settled on a fourth option: Hawks recanted, and allowed Lytess to return. And if she wanted to have Marilyn run through dozens of takes, why not? Of course, there was no law that said they actually had to have film in the camera for those retakes.
The thing is, this wasn’t the first time Hawks and Monroe had worked together. He had to have known what he was getting into. But that raises the question of why Howard Hawks was making this movie at all.
This was in no way Hawks’ comfort zone—he was working in color for the first time, and wasn’t otherwise inclined towards musical comedies—in fact, he was so out of his element in the musical numbers he delegated them to choreographer Jack Cole.
And for that matter, let’s pause a moment and consider these musical numbers. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had been a 1925 book by the fabulous Anita Loos, which spawned a long-running Broadway adaptation. Hawks was ostensibly making a film version of the play, but the play didn’t have much of a workable plot, so he was rewriting it extensively with Charles Lederer, and the rewrite entailed discarding a fair number of the famous songs from the stage version—a decision which somewhat calls into question the logic of making a movie version of the show in the first place.
And if the whole point of the thing seemed to be a justification for 90 minutes worth of breast jokes, Hawks seemed blithely unaware of the sex appeal of his two stars. In one of the strangest things anyone has ever said, Hawks said of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell “I never thought of either of them as having any sex.” They just weren’t his type. (Want to know Hawks’ type? Click here)
It’s not like anyone was forcing Hawks to make this—and in fact he spent the whole time during production laughing about what an outstanding blockbuster hit he knew he was making. But Hawks was not simply motivated by money.
So… what was Howard Hawks doing making this?
Marilyn was cast as Lorelei Lee, the gold-digging heroine of Anita Loos’ invention. But despite Marilyn’s rising star, the studio was jittery about letting her carry a film alone, so Jane Russell was cast (and given top-billing) as Lorelei’s pal Dorothy Shaw—transforming Loos’ story into something of a sexed-up female Laurel & Hardy gig. It was a savvy move—Russell’s professionalism and experience provided a needed crutch for Monroe to lean on, and more than once she served as a “translator” between Hawks and Monroe.
Russell’s presence also gave the censors palpitations, as they wondered how in the world they could possibly keep the increasingly salacious content of this comedy under control (or keep the two leads appropriately dressed). The script was racy enough to start with, and once Marilyn Monroe was added to the mix most of the double entendres started to turn into single entenderes—putting Jane Russell alongside Marilyn just added a bunch of exclamation points after all the Playboy-style jokes in the script. The only thing Hawks could have done to make it worse would have been to shoot it in 3D.
This is the story of a gold-digger. She says it in her very first scene. Every Three Stooges-worthy complication she produces is the direct result of her value system, and her determination to trade sex for money. She measures money not in dollar counts, but in the amount of her time she would need with a man to extract the needed sum. In any other movie—certainly in any movie made in under the Production Code—this sort of behavior should lead to her comeuppance.
Spoiler alert: there is no comeuppance. No moment where she is brought low, and made to repent. No final reel redemption. No justification for her behavior is offered—it’s not like she has a heart of gold, or some mitigating reason for what she’s doing.
But if you are waiting to see Lorelei’s comeuppance, you’re watching the wrong movie. Your expectations have probably been set by movies in general, or perhaps the works of Jane Austen or Edith Wharton, whose novels were the predecessors to Anita Loos’ but who never imagined that a creature like Lorelei would conquer the world and get everything she wanted.
But if you’ve been watching Howard Hawks (like we have been for the last several weeks) you’ve realized he creates cartoon characters—larger than life figures engineered primarily for entertainment value. Hawks has no interest in whether these characters are realistic, only whether they are interesting—and so he has no interest in what would happen to a real-life Lorelei, nor any interest in what should happen. He only cares about what the audience wants to happen.
And so what do we want? Well, we’ve come to this presumably because we’d like to see Marilyn Monroe (and Jane Russell). And throughout the film we’ve enjoyed watching her comic travails—but the jokes have never been on her. She’s not the butt of the joke—we’re not here to laugh at her misfortune. And so, why in the world would we want to see her fail or suffer at the end?
Thus comes this—Marilyn Monroe’s fist-pumpingly triumphant climax. You thought she was gonna get her comeuppance? Well, sucker, just watch:
And that’s Howard Hawks. It’s what we find in his films, over and over. Whether it’s an alcoholic gunslinger, a fast-talking unscrupulous reporter, a petty teenager criminal, a gangland mastermind—Lorelei Lee joins the ranks of Scarface, Hildy Johnson, and Philip Marlowe as one of Hawks’ roster of complicated, interesting, flawed people, and then he has loved them. He loves all of them, and wants them to be happy.
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