Of all the films in the Siskel Film Center’s series on the American 1950s that I had previously seen, I must admit that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the selection I was least excited about revisiting. That’s not because I think it’s a bad film, though it is perhaps the least challenging. Though fun to look at and listen to, it’s much more a surface film than the previous four. It doesn’t outwardly ask for you to dig into it and explore any particular theme under the surface — something that a semi-scholarly look at a decade of film sort of needs you to manage. Given the genre of musical comedy, and the tone which comes with it, this film has more of an emphasis on pure entertainment value, with a “sit back and enjoy the show” mentality. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to talk about. I mean, what are they paying me for around here? (No, they don’t actually pay me.)
On second look, in a peculiar sort of way, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes might actually be the most divisive film of the series. At least, I find myself struggling a bit in trying to decipher the film’s ultimate attitudes of gender and sexuality, a favorite topic of this series. You could make clear arguments that this is among the most misogynistic films of the time or that it is actually a pretty strong feminist text, each holding as much as the other. There are moments that are undefendable for either viewpoint. Is it possible that opposite ends of a thematic spectrum could be equally present, even at the same time? If so, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes might be a prime example. Strange for such a laid back, simple comedy that is in most ways pretty unspectacular.
The film’s narrative is quick and simple: Besties Lorelei and Dorothy are setting off on a ship to Europe, where Lorelai is going to be married. On their journey, they do as I suppose women do, endlessly talk about men while looking to get cozy with one. Their respective philosophies on love and men are quite different, though. Whereas Lorelei mostly seeks a man of great wealth who can supply her with security and precious stones, Dorothy is simply looking to have fun with a good looking guy. Neither can understand the other’s perspective, but they seem to get along alright. Throughout the film, they have casual interactions with men and low-stakes troubles which provide a necessary amount of antics and hijinks.
In my last post I introduced the concept of the “male gaze,” which is applicable here, though through the filter of the genre. As a musical comedy, none of Vertigo’s employed suspense, giving a dangerous edge to the act of looking at female bodies, remains. Instead, the bodies of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are on full display for sexual titillation. The two actresses are almost constantly defined by their bodies, showcasing their breasts, curves and legs to co-starring statuses. Costuming is always an important ingredient of American musicals, and the ladies’ wardrobes certainly emphasize their most appealing features and show as much skin as could be possible during the era. Monroe’s character often wears these interesting scarfs that have the effect of separating her head from the rest of her body, especially emphasizing her torso. On the surface, though not particularly offensive to my tastes, I can see why this display doesn’t belong on the Mount Rushmore of feminist texts.
To be fair, though, our leading women aren’t the only objects of desire, at least in the case of one particular scene. Making the cross-Atlantic trip with Lorelei and Dorothy is the American Olympic team, the most nondescript Olympic team, at that. In the film’s most unusual musical setpieces, Russell takes the role of ogler with full force as the team “performs” something that vaguely resembles athletic activity. Practically, we get a number of well-built men stripped down to nude-toned undergarments thrusting in unison while Russell asks via song “Ain’t there anyone here for love?” To be blunt, this is maybe the most homoerotic scene in Hollywood’s history. Though the men around Russell seem to actively ignore her and instead wrestle with each other, there isn’t any real indication that they are gay representatives — in previous scenes we see them pawing over and whistling at Dorothy and her friend. Still, the scene sticks out and couldn’t possibly be read any other way today. The 1950s was an interesting time for gay culture, as there were certainly gay people, but it would be a few more decades before gay culture would become actively present in society. I’m not sure if the term “the closet” came out of the 1950s, but the cultural representation of happily married, seemingly straight men stepping out for gay trysts seems to suggest this. It would have been wild to see an audience’s reaction to this particular scene in 1953 — I honestly couldn’t imagine how it would have played to the mainstream moviegoer.
The other male characters in the film leads to one of the strongest arguments for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a feminist text. Outside of the Olympic team, we meet Lorelei’s fiance, a few rich playboys on the ship, and Dorothy’s eventual love interest. These men are mostly rubes, either completely grotesque or completely bland, sometimes both. One character is incredibly old, another is incredibly young, neither are proper sexual matches for the leading ladies, but are nonetheless connected in romantic ways. Lorelei’s fiance is a spineless, powerless man who tries his hardest to control his fiance (as a man of the time would) but is completely controlled by her sexuality. Given that Lorelei’s main interest is money, he seems to be just the dimwitted fool for the job. On the other hand, Dorothy’s potential love interest is a private eye hired by Lorelei’s fiance’s father trying to find any bit of dirt that would give him grounds of rejecting their marriage. Thusly, their relationship is built on deceit, a typical trap of romantic comedies. This is not a particularly good introduction to liking the character, and he is otherwise uninteresting. Sure, he’s relatively handsome, but in a Hollywood bland sort of way. These men are unlikeable, to various degrees, giving Lorelei and Dorothy the allegiances of the viewer. I’m not totally sure if a “the men are all awful, thus this is a positive portrayal of women” argument is super strong, but that is indicative of the strange nature of the film.
As the film is basically a character piece, a deeper look at the two ladies is important. Though they seem to be interested in shallow things (money for one, attractiveness for the other), they are both particularly fierce in knowing what they want. This allows them to be manipulative, using their sexuality to control the dumb men around them. Dorothy is a much more archetypal strong, independent woman — she is smart and idealistic, also a good friend willing to do whatever she can to bail her friends out in times of most need. Lorelei is a prototype of the “dumb blonde” caricature, with her high voice and spacey attitude, talking ever-so-slowly. Monroe’s performance displays an inordinate amount of face acting, as she seems to be constantly moving her eyebrows and mouth, her lips in particular get a ton of attention. By the end of the film, though, you are left wondering if she is as dumb blonde as she appears. She is able to flawlessly and instantly convince anyone to fall for her, even her biggest opposition. This begs the hypothetical question: is having a strong character (also called “animal magnetism” during the course of the film) enough to overcome the ultimately shallow goals? Also, should being manipulative be equated with a positive reading of a character?
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the film that launched Marilyn Monroe as a Hollywood star. It’s really impossible to think about the 1950s without invoking her, one of the most iconic stars of the era. Her personal life and cultural status are equally interesting and obviously play off of each other — she is simultaneously a product of the long-gone studio star system and a perfect representative of the future star era defined by paparazzi and tabloids. In this way, she is the type of personality and performer that could exist in any time, a transformative type of star. Her story isn’t a happy one, though, and it is definitely a reflection of the 1950’s misogynistic, male-driven society. She is also sadly remembered more as being a star and sex symbol than as a good actress, which is a bit unfair. I’ve only seen a few of her films, though she certainly has a screen presence that is difficult to forget — her attractiveness plays a part in this, but only so much. As she displays in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she had great comedic sensibilities and knew exactly how to spark her performance to be memorable.
As I mentioned earlier, Lorelei and Dorothy are potential targets of the male gaze, but they aren’t the usually passive women trapped in the frame by masculinity. They control every bit of the screen with their presence just as they control every other character in the film. Sexuality is often described as a weapon, but its Monroe and Russell’s fun-loving, innocent spirits that infect us, nothing dangerous at all. But, is the fact that the sexualized women use their own sexuality knowingly a good enough excuse? Especially considering that the film was directed by a man, produced by men, in a very male-driven industry. Or, is the act of showcasing female bodies incapable of subverting the misogynist norm of our society, given that the audience is provoked through sexualized images, which elicits a particular response that may feed right back into this misogynist society? This is an incredibly dense and complicated issue that continues to be debated today. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which may be intended as pure entertainment filmmaking, displays this conflict wonderfully.