It is not the most famous number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the song "When Love Goes Wrong" captures what is most infectious about this garish, hilariously camp musical.
Dorothy (Jane Russell) and Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) mope at an outdoors Parisian café about the difficulty of sustaining romances with men. As a crowd gathers, the two women warm to the increasingly expansive rhythm of their lament, which soon has them out of their seats, striding and strutting with bystanders in the style of choreographer Jack Cole.
And then the commotion winds down: the music thins, the crowd disperses, and our heroines are gliding away in a cab – from banality to ecstasy and back again, beautifully.
Typical of the '50s, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an acerbic comedy about gold-digging, unafraid to mix sentimental dreams with brittle sarcasm, glamorous magic with a materialist sense of what a girl must do to get by – a set of merry contradictions immortalised in Monroe's oft-imitated "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend". As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, the film is "an impossible object – a CinemaScope of the mind, a capitalist Potemkin".
The film is (as theorists say) a palimpsest, picking up and discarding at whim bits of Anita Loos' novel, its Broadway adaptation, songs by the teams of Leo Robin/Jule Styne and Hoagy Carmichael/Harold Adamson, and, above all, the possibilities accruing to its two powerhouse stars.
Russell's persona brings together raunchiness and practicality; Monroe is a potent mixture of slinky eroticism and childlike guilelessness, laced with a hint of savvy manipulation. The comic highpoint comes when the roles swap for Dorothy's brash courtroom imitation of Lorelei.
Hawks is generally regarded as a very classical, restrained director, but here he veers towards the crazy, spectacularly vulgar comedies of Frank Tashlin – a connection clinched by the presence of that wonderfully grotesque child, George Winslow.
The excess and oddity of certain set-pieces (such as Russell's deathless serenade addressed to indifferent musclemen, "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?", reprised Godard-style in Aria ), and their frequently tangential relation to the nominal plot, are all part of what makes the film so enjoyable to a contemporary audience.
© Adrian Martin April 2003