Marilyn Monroe's screen career was blossoming – despite her first screen role landing in 1947, by 1953 she had already shared billing in major movies alongside the likes of Bette Davis ('All About Eve'), Barbara Stanwyck ('Clash by Night'), Cary Grant ('Monkey Business'), Claudette Colbert ('Let's Make it Legal'), Ginger Rogers ('We're Not Married'), Anne Bancroft ('Don't Bother to Knock'), and the Marx Brothers ('Love Happy'). She had also worked with some of the world's most prolific filmmakers, including John Huston ('The Asphalt Jungle'), John Sturges ('Right Cross'), and Fritz Lang ('Clash by Night'). It was 1953, however, that Marilyn Monroe became a household name, thanks to starring roles in three hit motion pictures – Henry Hathaway's 'Niagara', Jean Negulesco's 'How to Marry a Millionaire' alongside Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable, and Howard Hawks' 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'.
It was the glitzy, Technicolour extravaganza of 'Blondes' that put Marilyn on the map – stepping out into the limelight in a shimmering red dress alongside the already-legendary Jane Russell, one of the great icons of the 1940s screen and song. The movie offered numerous legendary moments for Monroe, and one which would become a hallmark of her very short career – the seductive song and dance number 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend'.
Monroe and Russell were a match made in heaven – the pair complimented each other wonderfully on the screen, allowing one another to truly shine in their roles. 'Blondes' awards both actresses the chance to explore the entire breath of their craft – delivering dynamic performances that span a range of meaningful drama and clever, succinct comedy. Both actresses got along famously off-screen too, sharing a playful friendship behind the scenes. It's said that Russell even found the secret to getting (the already notoriously leisurely) Monroe onto set on time – shouting, "Come on, Blondie, it's time to go!" into her dressing room on the way to set. There was no bitterness, nor rivalry, here. Just two performers supporting each other in their craft.
In the movie, both characters – Dorothy (Russell) and Lorelei (Monroe) – are the greatest of friends; one of cinema's very first "girl power" friendships, in fact, making 'Blondes' one of Hollywood's first (if not the first) "girl power" movies. They lean on each other for support, they help each other in sticky situations, and take the fall for one another when things get complicated. It was a very rare depiction of women on screen, particularly for the time, and still remains one of the greatest of all time. It's the friendship, and dependency, that the pair shared off-screen that truly shines through in their performances – something which truly makes the film. On the surface, 'Blondes' depicts a pair of "dumb" women who care for nothing more than money and expensive jewels – seemingly prepared to do anything to get it. But underneath are two witty, sharp, cunning, and clever women who want nothing more than love and friendship (what's wrong with being looked after lavishly in the process?). In the film's finale, Monroe delivers (quite humorously) one of the screen's greatest lines – "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it." It's a particularly sharp commentary and impressive for 1953, and one that would be the ire of a certain sector of the audience if it were used in a movie... say, like 'Barbie'... in 2023. The movie may be glitzy and lavish, but it's an incredible bubbling social satire that whacks a huge punch – even 70 years later.
Monroe delivers (quite humorously) one of the screen's greatest lines – 'I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it.' It's a particularly sharp commentary and impressive for 1953...
'Blondes,' however, finds itself at a very odd inflection point in popular culture and screen history. Despite all its incredible efforts in representation of women on the screen, audiences still managed to take away the wrong idea. The movie today can still be seen as helping to forge the idea of the mid-20th century "sex symbol." It's a branding that Russell had already suffered for a decade, and one that put Monroe in the ranks with her. The movie helped gift the world one of its greatest screen icons, but it also helped proliferate an archetype that Hollywood still struggles to vanquish seven decades on.
Sadly, Monroe and Russell were never able to shake their "sex symbol" images. Monroe would, of course, experience a brief flurry of superstardom, lasting less than a decade before her untimely death – leaving an enormous impact on popular culture, but ultimately leaving herself unfulfilled and unsatisfied. Her greatest performances show an artist struggling to be taken seriously – showing an incredible breadth in films like 1957's 'The Prince and the Showgirl' (a self-produced film alongside actor/director Laurence Olivier), 1959's Billy Wilder comedy-caper 'Some Like It Hot' (alongside Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) and 1961's 'The Misfits' (based on the stage play by Monroe's soon-to-be-husband Arthur Miller). Despite these efforts, today she is, perhaps, best known by the general audience as a symbol and an icon – not as the profusely talented, intellectual, complex human she was.
Meanwhile, Russell's big-screen career was almost non-existent after 'Blondes' – she would star in only four more films in the '50s (including a self-produced spiritual sequel/semi-remake, 'Gentlemen Marry Brunettes' with her placed in the "Monroe" role), with a brief theatrical revival in a handful of Western features in the mid-to-late-1960s. Russell saw some success on television and a blossoming music career, but ultimately became a spokesperson for Playtex bras, spruiking garments "for us full-figured gals" on television in the 1970s – in large part due to the fact that her physical endowments were commonly the butt of many jokes of the era.
Despite the pratfalls, 'Blondes' is one of the screen greats – many, many years ahead of its time, and well worth revisiting for its 70th anniversary. It's shocking how relevant it remains today to culture, women in film, and films in general. 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' walked so 'Barbie' could run.