The Films of Marilyn Monroe


The Classic Film Club podcast Episode 2

Welcome to this meeting of The Classic Film Club, the podcast dedicated to taking a fresh look at movie classics to see how well they stand up today, and to discovering hidden gems from the past 120 years of cinema. I’m Richard Kuipers, a critic with the international trade paper Variety, a film festival programmer and documentary producer. In this show I’ll take a look at three films starring the legendary Marilyn Monroe. One from her early days, another released in 1953, the year that Marilyn became a major star, and also her final film, upon which so much her legend rests.


Whenever lists of Hollywood’s greatest female stars are drawn up Marilyn Monroe is always at the top or very close to it. Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Great Garbo and Ingrid Begman are other great names that constantly appear, but Marilyn dominates, and not just for the body of work she left behind  - only 29 films, including bit parts, in a 14 year career. It’s her name and her aura that still loom large on the broader cultural landscape. Marilyn is the ultimate Hollywood sex symbol and a tragic figure who struggled with mental health issues and addiction before dying in circumstances that have inspired countless books and conspiracy theories. It’s almost 60 years since Marilyn died, aged just 36, yet her name recognition is still incredibly high and her image still surrounds us. When we think of the terms “blonde bombshell” and “sex symbol” Marilyn Monroe comes to mind more readily than anyone else. As a pop culture icon she’s everywhere, from Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen painting – that sold for 17 million in 1998, a record at the time for a Warhol original – to Sam Shaw’s photo of Marilyn and her flying skirt during the filming of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH in 1954. Art historian Gail Levin suggests, convincingly, that Marilyn was the most photographed person of the 20th Century. Perhaps only Elvis Presley can rival Marilyn as an icon of American popular culture. Marilyn’s life story has been told in numerous feature films and TV series, and her blonde bombshell look has been adopted by everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga. For me, one of the most extraordinary uses of Marilyn Monroe imagery is in TOMMY, Ken Russell’s 1975 adaptation of the rock opera by The Who. The film’s “Eyesight to the Blind” sequence takes place in what can best be described as a Marilyn Monroe Church. Followers wearing Marilyn facemasks and wigs are helping blind, deaf and other disabled people touch a massive statue of Marilyn in her flying skirt pose. They’re hoping and praying for miracles, while priest Eric Clapton sings and plays guitar, no less. I watched just that sequence from TOMMY, then of course I couldn’t stop and watched the whole thing. What an amazing film – Tina Turner as the Acid Queen and Jack Nicholson singing! But I digress, as so often happens when we talk about movies.  


Back to Marilyn, who was born in Los Angeles in 1926 as Norma Jean Mortensen, and whose troubled mother Gladys Pearl Baker worked as a negative cutter at the Consolidated Film Industries laboratory. Sent to foster homes and an orphanage, Marilyn married at 16 and was working at the Radioplane munitions factory during World War 2 when discovered by David Conover, a photographer from the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Armed forces. With a successful career as a model in print advertising and men’s magazines, Marilyn landed a 6-month contract with 20th Century Fox in August 1946. She didn’t appear in anything before her contract expired and was given a second contract, which only led to bit parts in DANGEROUS YEARS, an undistinguished youth drama, and SCUDDA-HOO SCUDDA-HAY, a forgettable romantic comedy.


When this second contract expired Fox dropped Marilyn. She was then picked up by the much less prestigious Columbia Pictures, who bleached her hair platinum blonde and gave her a starring role in LADIES OF THE CHORUS (1948) – which is where I want to stop for a while and look a little more closely at the very first film to have Marilyn Monroe’s name in large letters on the credits.


Running a lean 61 minutes, LADIES OF THE CHORUS is a B-grade black-and-white backstage musical-romance directed by Phil Karlson, who’d made a few Charlie Chan films prior to this and went on to direct some terrific crime dramas like THE PHENIX CITY STORY and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL. His biggest success came in 1973 with WALKING TALL, a smash hit starring Joe Don Baker as incorruptible real-life Tennessee sheriff Bufor Pusser. In LADIES OF THE CHORUS Marilyn plays Peggy Martin, a burlesque performer who’s out there on the chorus line alongside her divorced mother Mae, played by Adele Jergens – despite the fact that Jurgens was only 9 years older than Marilyn. On first release in 1948 Jurgens was given top billing. When Columbia re-released it in 1952 Marilyn was given top spot and the opening credits were changed to read “Marilyn Monroe in LADIES OF THE CHORUS.”


As a film it’s OK if nothing special. The standard-issue plot finds Peggy stepping out of the chorus line and becoming a star when temperamental leading lady Bubbles refuses to go on stage. Peggy’s biggest fan is Randy (Rand Brooks) the son of a socially prominent family. In typical fashion for films of the day they fall in love on first date and decide to marry. But the big question is whether Randy will have the courage to tell his mother that he wants to take a burlesque queen for his wife and possibly scandalize the family in the process. It has a couple of peppy tunes including the opening number which includes lyrics like “Our flirty flirty eyes will wink in your direction / we will throw you all a kiss filled with sweet affection” and Every Baby Needs a Da Da Daddy, sung by Marilyn. It sounds very  politically incorrect today as it reinforces the notion that chorus girls are gold diggers hoping to hook a rich boyfriend – like the drooling men who come to watch Peggy perform.


Toward the end of LADIES OF THE CHORUS it squeezes in some social commentary about the unfair stigma attached to women in burlesque but for the most part it's a thoroughly average B-musical of its time. What of course makes it worth watching is Marilyn, a full 5 years before she would land her next leading role. Although it’s an unpolished performance you can see glimpses of what later made her such a star: the slightly breathy delivery, the combination of innocence and sensuality and a sense of hidden sorrow beneath that radiant exterior. But it is just glimpses. Neither the screenplay, Karlson’s direction or Marilyn’s confidence are strong enough to lift the film out of ordinariness. Other points of interest include a nifty tap dance routine by Adele Jergens, You can find LADIES OF THE CHORUS online and it’s still well worth a look. It’s certainly not a chore to watch and is a lot better than the first major films of many other movie stars.


Before she was let go by Columbia Marilyn did a screen test for BORN YESTERDAY but lost out to Judy Holliday, who went on to win an Oscar playing one of the most memorable “dumb blondes” of them all. Undaunted, Marilyn continued her acting classes under Swiss coach Natasha Lytess and became involved with Johnny Hyde, Vice President of the monolithic William Morris talent agency. Hyde paid for Marilyn to have plastic surgery on her jaw and wanted to marry her but she knocked him back. Now back on the books at Fox, she scored small but impressive roles in prestige films such as ALL ABOUT EVE and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE in 1950, and supporting roles in the comedies AS YOUNG AS YOU FEEL and LOVE NEST, followed by cracking crime dramas DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK and CLASH BY NIGHT in 1952.


1953 was Marilyn’s year. In January there was the steamy romantic potboiler NIAGARA, which the American women’s club movement called “immoral” – no doubt helping it to become a popular hit.  In November came the bubbly if somewhat overstuffed rom-com HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONARE. In the middle was one of Marilyn’s career highlights GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. It’s the second film I want to look at in a bit more depth and through 21st century eyes.  


Talk about starting with a bang! No sooner has the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare stopped than Marilyn and Jane Russell appear in gloriously spangly red red dresses and feathered hats singing “Two Little Girls From Littlerock,” which is just the first of the film’s many musical showstoppers. Marilyn is Lorelei Lee, Jane is Dorothy Shaw. They’re besties and showgirls – not burlesque dancers like Marilyn in LADIES OF THE CHORUS – they’ve got class and perform in upmarket venues. We know straight away that Lorelei likes men with the means to buy diamonds while Dorothy prefers bulky beefcakes to bulging bank balances.


Lorelei’s engaged to Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan) a nice but clueless nerd whose rich and domineering father naturally suspects Lorelei of being a gold digger. Esmond Sr is right in a way but not completely, which is crucial to the film being such a crowd-pleasing winner. In plot twists that don’t need to be explained Lorelei and Dorothy end up on a cruise ship bound for Paris, where Gus will be waiting with a wedding ring. Meanwhile his moneybags dad has hired private detective Malone (Elliott Reed) to follow Lorelei and get incriminating evidence of her no-good, fortune-hunting ways with rich men on board the ship.  To that end Lorelei starts running rings around blustery old British billionaire Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman – Charles Coburn at his best, and for Dorothy there’s plenty of distraction with the US Men’s Olympic team also on board.


It’s simply marvellous watching Marilyn Monroe playing her dumb blonde character to the hilt. With that “almost-out-of-breath” vocal delivery she maintains an immaculate and hilarious seriousness as she reels off lines like “I won't let myself fall in love with a man who won't trust me, no matter what I might do.” Marilyn and Jane Russell are terrific together. While Marilyn does the slinky, kooky stuff Jane has a field day as the down-to-earth half of the duo with wisecracks like “you're the only girl in the world who can stand on a stage with a spotlight in her eye and still see a diamond inside a man's pocket.” It’s a very funny and racy script for its day, with lots off clever innuendo and double entrendres that I’ll let you discover - or re-discover for yourselves. Especially that scene involving Malone and a pair of trousers – how did the censors ever let that through!! Then of course there’s the musical numbers: Jane doing “Anyone Here For Love” with the Olympic team, and Marilyn being nothing short of sensational with “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” The magic starts even before the song properly begins: Lorelei runs away from dozens of men holding pink hearts up to her. She beats them away with a fan and an ever-more high-pitched series of “no-no-no’s.”   


GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES is a bright and breezy outing that’s not to be taken seriously, but if we do want to look at it through very modern eyes we could say that it views Lorelei as a classic scheming female who believes that landing a rich husband is her only chance to attain the life she wants. Maybe like Madonna sang in the music video that paid tribute to “Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend” – Lorelei is a “material girl” but in the 1950s without equal pay, equal career opportunities and so many other forms of sex discrimination Lorelei’s outlook on life and possible paths to happiness and security have an undeniable truth to them. Context is everything and its through this understanding of the times in which the film was made that we can understand and appreciate what Lorelei and Dorothy were facing in the conservative 1950s. Even while she seems to be very much a “material girl” there’s also a strong feeling that there’s more to Lorelei than meets the eye. It’s worth remembering that the source material of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES is the 1925 best-seller “GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES: THE INTIMATE DIARY OF A PROFESSIONAL LADY” by Anita Loos, the pioneering playwright and author who became the first female staff scriptwriter in Hollywood when hired by D.W. Griffith in 1912. Her novel was first filmed in 1928 with Ruth Taylor and Alice White (sadly this is now a lost film), and it was turned into a stage musical in 1949. The spirit of Loos’ novel, with its wise and witty observations of male and female attraction, remain intact and make the difference when Dorothy and especially Lorelei make momentous decisions about the men in their lives. As Lorelei says “I can be smart when its important, but most men don’t like it.” It also helps to explain why, beneath all the gloss and fluff, the film rang emotionally true with audiences while entertaining them so wonderfully that it became the world’s seventh-highest grossing film in 1953.  



Complete with stunning costumes that Jane and Marilyn wear and wear very well indeed, great musical direction from the ever-reliable Lionel Newman and Marni Nixon providing the high vocal notes Marilyn couldn’t quite reach, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES is a bright and breezy treat that’s stood the test of time and will delight audiences forever. Highly recommended viewing, Four and a half out of five from me.


When nude photos of Marilyn taken in 1949 appeared in the fist issue of Playboy in December 1953 it could easily have destroyed her career. But the opposite happened. Marilyn became an even bigger star, such was her popularity with both male and female audiences – and such was the sheer, almost other-worldly sensuality and sexuality she projected. Her studio, 20th Century Fox, wanted Marilyn to keep playing dumb and ditzy blondes but Marilyn had other, higher ambitions. Declaring she was “tired of the same old sex roles” Marilyn had a long legal battle with Fox about pay rates and choice of films and set up her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. During this time she was studying acting with British coach Constance Collier and attended classes at Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Many in the press mocked her serious ambitions and the 1955 film WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER was a thinly veiled satire on Marilyn’s desire to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe types began popping up on screens. 20TH Century Fox hit the jackpot with Jayne Mansfield in WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER and THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. Universal had less success with bombshell Mamie Van Doren in RUNNING WILD and STAR IN THE DUST before she shone briefly at Warner Bros in UNTAMED YOUTH and at MGM in HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and BEAT GENERATION.


But it was Marilyn who eventually succeeded and endured by refusing to accept her fate as just a sex symbol. She branched  out into serious acting and won acclaim for roles such as Cherie, a singer dreaming of stardom in Joshua Logan’s BUS STOP, and Elsie, the music hall star who captures the heart of royalty in the 1957 romantic comedy THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, directed by and co-starring the legendary Laurence Olivier, who famously clashed with Marilyn. That didn’t mean Marilyn turned her back on being sexy, sensuous and ditzy – she continued to set the standard for these female types in films like THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, LET’S MAKE LOVE and the all-time great comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT. Then of course there was her final film THE MISFITS in 1961, also the swansong of Hollywood legend Clark Gable – and the unfinished feature SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE, which was shut down after Fox fired Marilyn and was eventually reworked as MOVE OVER DARLING in 1963 with Doris Day and James Garner.  


Our third stop on this Marilyn Monroe meeting of the Classic Film Club is THE MISFITS – which I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager – a long, long time ago. I’m so glad I looked at it again recently, it made me realise how I really hadn’t appreciated it properly before. I was immediately struck by the opening title sequence in which animated jigsaw puzzle pieces drift across the screen – a portent of the story it tells about characters searching for their place in the world and a reflection of how troubled Marilyn’s life had become by July 1960 filming began.  Though SOME LIKE IT HOT had been a major hit and earned Marilyn a Golden Globe her next film LET’S MAKE LOVE was only a modest success and had mixed reviews. Gossip queen Hedda Hopper said it was the most vulgar film Marilyn had done. Her marriage to the great American playwright and author Arthur Miller was on the rocks. It was Miller, with almost no screenwriting experience, who wrote THE MISFITS as a love letter and vehicle for Marilyn to show her dramatic range.


It did just that – Marilyn is outstanding as Roslyn Taber, a newly-divorced 30-year-old living in Reno who goes out for a celebratory drink with her landlady and best friend Isabelle – the wonderful Thelma Ritter – and tells her “I always end up back where I started.” There’s so much pain in Roslyn’s observation, and it sets up the film’s central theme of people going around in circles, unable to break free from the past and find a place they can emotionally call home. The black-and-white photography by Russell Metty – who’d just won the Oscar for SPARTACUS – is stark and gritty, almost like a newsreel as it brings Roslyn into the company of three damaged men. The first is Gay Langland (Clark Gable), an ageing ex-cowboy living off memories of his younger days as he drifts from town to town and woman to woman. Within hours of meeting Roslyn, Gay wants to marry her. So too does Gay’s buddy, Guido (Eli Wallach) a tow truck driver and pilot who flew in the war and is clearly suffering PTSD, a condition that wouldn’t be categorized as such until 1980. Back then everything was simply called shell-shock. The third man is Perc Howland (Montgomery Clift  in his third-last film), a penniless rodeo rider who’s been cheated out of inheriting the family ranch and spends a large part of the film in a concussed daze after suffering yet another fall in the ring.


Much of the film takes place in the dusty Nevada desert. Gay and Guido – and a much less enthusiastic Howland - plan to make money by rounding up wild mustangs. But when Roslyn discovers exactly what fate awaits the animals it triggers a dramatic series of events that forces each man to finally look in the mirror and see themselves in a harsher new light. In the midst of all this damaged machismo is Roslyn, an innocent and fragile beauty who at various times plays the roles of mother, sister, daughter, nurse and nun to these broken men.


THE MISFITS was made under such difficult circumstances it’s a wonder it was even completed, let alone as powerful as it is. The temperature was often around 40 degrees or 100 Farenheit, Marilyn habitually turned up late and had trouble with her lines. Production was halted at one point while she went to detox to tackle her addiction to prescription drugs. Director John Huston, the American great who made THE MALTESE FALCON, THE AFRICAN QUEEN and forgotten classic, WISE BLOOD in 1979, was frequently drunk and even fell asleep on set. And yet for all of these problems THE MISFITS stands up very well. Despite some clunky dialogue and choppy story-telling the tale of a woman caught up in this harsh, rough male environment resonates strongly today. Arthur Miller’s screenplay questions the very essence of American virility – the romantic figure of the cowboy – and pictures him as lost, outdated and out of touch. His only hope of survival and renewal is through the love and caring of a woman such as Roslyn, who sometimes screams and sometimes soothes to help him find a way forward.


THE MISFITS barely broke even at the box office, and like so many films that weren’t hits on first release its stature has risen steadily over the years. Part of that is related to the legacy of the film. When we watch THE MISFITS we can’t help but be reminded that this was Marilyn’s last completed film and also the final screen appearance of Clark Gable – the undisputed king of Hollywood in the 1930s, star of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, GONE WITH THE WIND and six films with Jean Harlow, another blonde movie goddess whose life ended far too soon. Gable died aged 59 only 10 days after filming finished. His fatal heart attack was probably brought on by performing more of his own stunts than he should’ve. And then there’s tortured and troubled Montgomery Clift, who would only appear in two more films before he passed away in 1966 at the age of  45. The last time Clift was seen alive was on the same night THE MISFITS was on TV. All of this adds to the experience of watching THE MISFITS, almost 60 years after it was released. I don’t think it’s quite the American classic some have called it but it’s a very fine film and well worth watching.


That concludes our Marilyn Monroe meeting today, I hope this inspires you to look at one or more films featuring this most extraordinary icon of cinema. It has often been said that Marilyn made love to the camera … and no truer words have been spoken.  


Now, let’s move along to our spotlight on lesser-known films that deserve to be more widely seen. This week’s title came to me while I was watching LADIES OF THE CHORUS, maybe  because it’s also in black and white, low-budget and includes a couple of musical interludes …. but there the similarities end. Made in 1945, filmed in just 6 days on a budget of next-to-nothing is DETOUR, an all-time film noir classic and one of the greatest examples of American poverty row cinema. Poverty row was the name given to super-low budget companies with offices on or near Gower St in Los Angeles – outfits such as Monogram Pictures, Republic Pictures,  Producers Releasing Corporation, Grand National Films and CBC Productions – which evolved into Columbia Pictures, producer of LADIES OF THE CHORUS and still one of Hollywood’s major studios.  


DETOUR is a gritty, grimy, fatalistic film noir about Al Roberts, a hitch-hiker whose journey from New York to LA becomes a nightmare brought about by the worst run of bad luck you’ll ever see. When we first meet Al he’s in a roadside diner, despondently drinking coffee and arguing with another customer who’s put a song on the jukebox. The song reminds Al of happier times, when he played piano in a New York club and had a steady girlfriend, Jane – the club’s singer. But Jane left the Big Apple to try and further her career in LA. Al’s in this diner now because he became restless and unhappy after Jane left and decided to hitchhike to LA. The plan was to show up on Jane’s door unannounced, then live happily ever after.  


To say things didn’t quite work out that way is an understatement. It’s HOW things go wrong for Al that makes DETOUR so compelling. His voice-over narration is packed with great lines such as “that’s life, whichever way you turn fate sticks out a foot to trip you up.” He describes money as “a piece of paper crawling with germs.” The people he meets along the way are as damaged and desperate as he is. First there’s Haskell, a rich man who gives Al a ride. He seems nice enough, but what are those scratch marks on his hands all about? Then there’s Vera, a young woman tangled up in the kind of trouble that could make Al’s dreams come true or just as easily ruin his life. You have never seen a femme fatale quite like Vera. She is in a class of her own, and I don’t say that lightly. In Al’s words: “Man, she looked like she had been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world. Yet in spite of that, I got the impression of beauty.” Played with mesmerising intensity by the aptly-named Anne Savage, Vera barks, snaps and torments Al with pungent dialogue like “If you act wise, well, mister, you'll pop into jail so fast it'll give you the bends.” The tragic irony is that many years later actor Tom Neal, who plays Al, did in fact end up in jail for the involuntary manslaughter of his wife …


The hurried production and miniscule budget work in the film’s favour. There’s a sense of urgency, a propulsion to the story that’s remarkable. You can almost see cast and crew working frantically to make this film in about  one-quarter of the time it usually would have taken to shoot a story such as this in 1945. With barely a dime for set design the nightclub where Al and Jane work is little more than a couple of chairs and great lighting design by cameraman Benjamin Kline. The filming of Jane’s signature song “I Can’t Believe You’re Falling in Love With Me” is a real highlight. Based on the 1939 novel DETOUR: AN EXTRAORDINARY TALE by Martin M. Goldsmith this surreal, existential film noir was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a migrant from what is now the Czech republic who made many great low-budget films. We'll be here forever if I start to go on about Ulmer, he’s that great, so I’ll encourage you to check out DETOUR just for now – you can see the glorious restored and uncut print on Prime Video and then seek out some of his more easily accessible films like THE BLACK CAT (1934), the only film Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff appeared in together. Other Ulmer classics include the Freudian crime noir STRANGE ILLUSION (1945), puppet-related horror BLUEBEARD (1944) and THE NAKED DAWN a rare Technicolor crime drama he made in 1955. I did go on a bit about Edgar G Ulmer, but he deserves it.


And finally, a quick trip to the Classic Film Club trash and treasure bazaar. We’ve featured quite a few monochrome movies this week and I’m keeping things black and white with a recommendation to check out a miraculous American independent feature from 1962. CARNIVAL OF SOULS was the only feature film by Herk Harvey, a maker of industrial and training films based in Laurence, Kansas. One day while out driving Hervey spotted Saltair Pavilion, an abandoned resort on the shores of lake Utah, and decided he wanted to use it as the central location for a horror film. His colleague and friend John Clifford came up with the story that begins with Mary Henry, a young woman from a small town, going for a joyride with her friends. When two boys in another car challenge them to a race Mary’s vehicle winds up careening off a bridge and sinking into the river below. That’s all I’m going to say – the rest is for you to discover. But I will say that this is no ordinary horror film. It’s a dreamy, surreal and sublime journey to strange and captivating places. CARNIVAL OF SOULS drifted into obscurity almost as soon as it was released. In 1989 it was rediscovered, re-evaluated, restored and re-released in cinemas to great success. I have great memories of watching a brand new print of CARNIVAL OF SOULS at the Mandolin Cinema in Sydney with an audience that frequently gasped at its beauty and mystery. There is a generation of film buffs that knows about CARNIVAL OF SOULS but 1989 is a long time ago now and I’m really pleased to keep its name alive here and encourage you to seek it out. It’s currently available on Prime Video. And on that note its time to say The Classic Film Club Carnival is over for this week. Thank you very much for listening and I look forward to our next meeting. Bye for now