1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a classic.
Starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, the film showcases both of these glamorous stars in their prime. Under the guidance of legendary director Howard Hawks, Jane is at her sassy, one-liner-best, and Marilyn shines in her first leading comedic role. And despite the predictions of the press, Jane and Marilyn became great friends during filming.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: A Personal Favorite
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of my very favorite movies, and it was the film that introduced me to Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Both of these stars have remained favorites of mine through the years, and to this day, I can still quote most of the dialogue from the film. I guess that attests to just how many times I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a kid.
Let’s start with the plot, then we’ll go behind the scenes of the film, and lives of Jane and Marilyn around the time of filming.
Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) and Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) are nightclub performers and best friends. The girls are basically exact opposites—Lorelei is crazy about diamonds, money, and finding a rich husband, while Dorothy seems to go out of her way to exclusively fall for guys that don’t have money.
But somehow, Dorothy and Lorelei complement each other perfectly, and always have each other’s backs.
Lorelei’s wealthy boyfriend, Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), is a bit of a square and completely nuts about her. Lorelei and Gus are engaged, but Gus’ dad, Mr. Esmond, Senior, is positive that Lorelei is only into his son for his money. So to get around his disapproving father, Lorelei and Gus concoct a plan to get married in Europe.
Well, the plan doesn’t work out: Esmond the Older prevents his son from sailing with Lorelei to Paris, but Lorelei decides to make the trip anyway. And she brings Dorothy along to chaperone.
Once on board the ship, Dorothy is beyond pleased to discover that the US Olympic team is sailing with them, while Lorelei is ecstatic when Gus presents her with a line of credit as they say goodbye.
Quick side note: Jane Russell, family girl that she was, secured a job for her brother Jamie in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as one of the Olympic team members. The handsome Jamie is featured quite prominently among the other “Olympians” and does a great job. I think it’s awesome that Jane made it happen.
On board the ship, Lorelei can’t help herself, and she begins an innocent flirtation with Sir Frances “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn), an old creeper she becomes extremely interested in after learning he owns a diamond mine.
Dorothy also finds a love interest on board in Ernie Malone (Elliot Reid), a young man pretending he’s a rich society boy, but who’s actually a private eye hired by Gus Esmond’s suspicious father. Esmond the Older is convinced that Malone will find evidence of Lorelei cheating on Gus during the trip, which Esmond plans to then show Gus to dissuade him from marring her.
The Girls' Genius Plan
But smart Dorothy catches Ernie taking pictures of Lorelei and Lord Beekman through the porthole window to their room.
The incriminating position he photographs them in was completely innocent on Lorelei’s part—I mean, who wouldn’t want to act like a sheep and let an old guy chant Swahili at you while he pretends to be a python?
But unfortunately for Lorelei, in photos, the position doesn’t look so innocent.
So Dorothy and Lorelei concoct a plan to get the film from Ernie before he discovers that they know what he’s up to!
Naturally, the most logical way to get the film from Ernie’s pants pocket is to invite him over for a private dinner party.
And drug him.
So that’s exactly what Dorothy and Lorelei do. Once Ernie is sufficiently uncomfortable and loopy, the girls remove his pants and get the film.
Obviously, by this point Ernie knows that the girls know what his true reason for being on board the ship is.
But Lorelei still makes the mistake of continuing her flirtation with Lord Beekman.
Lorelei invites Beekman over to tell him about her heroic deed in getting the photos back. When he asks Lorelei what she would like in return for her good act, she promptly asks Lord Beekman for his wife’s priceless diamond tiara.
Hey, why not?
Beekman says okay, and gives Lorelei the tiara just before they dock in Paris.
Ernie gets the whole transaction recorded on tape, and shows it to Esmond, Senior, who then makes Gus cut off Lorelei’s line of credit. This of course happens right after Dorothy and Lorelei spend all their money shopping in Paris…
Things Get Complicated
To further complicate matters, Lady Beekman presses charges against Lorelei for her missing tiara, which Piggy, that sly, back-stabbing dog, insists was stolen.
Lorelei will not back down on her claim to the tiara, and insists that Lord Beekman gave it to her. And besides, it’s not like Lorelei could return the tiara even if she wanted to, for she’s discovered that the tiara was stolen from her bag.
Just when it looks like Lorelei’s going to get in big trouble by the French authorities, Gus shows up at the Parisian nightclub she and Dorothy are performing at.
Dorothy is wise enough to see an opportunity here, and tells Lorelei to try and convince Gus to give her the money to buy a new tiara for Lady Beekman. Meanwhile, Dorothy will go risk charges for “impersonating a witness” by pretending to be Lorelei in court.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: A Classic Ending!
But Ernie Malone comes through, and saves the day when he shows up in court with Lord Beekman and the missing tiara: turns out Beekman stole the tiara from Lorelei after pretending to give it to her…! Missing tiara recovered, the case is dismissed, and Dorothy and Ernie get back together.
Gus and Lorelei do too, for Esmond, Senior followed his son to Paris, and after an enlightening and surprisingly coherent conversation with Lorelei—Esmond was under the impression Lorelei wasn’t very smart—he believes that she really does love his son, and gives his blessing to their marriage.
And so a double wedding ensues.
Lorelei marries Gus, Dorothy marries Ernie, and they all live happily ever after.
Jane Russell Becomes A Mom
In June of 1951, Jane Russell adopted her daughter, Tracy, and became a first-time mother. It was an incredibly lucky twist of fate, as Jane had been told by various adoption agencies that it would take at least two years for her to adopt any child in the US.
Jane viewed the miracle of Tracy’s speedy adoption as an answer to her heart-felt prayers, and loved every minute of being a new mother:
“Having a baby in the house was probably the most exciting thing that happened to me. It was something to wake up for and something to hurry home to after work.”
I just think that’s the sweetest thing.
Jane recognized just how lucky she’d been with the ease of Tracy’s adoption, and, remembering the projected two year wait she’d been told for all US adoptions, lost no time in starting the search for a little boy to adopt next.
But her leads in the US all quickly turned to dead ends.
Jane Russell Adopts Abroad
This, coupled with an invitation she received from King George and the royal family to attend a Command Performance in London, led Jane to consider the possibility of adopting a child abroad.
While in Europe for the Command Performance in the fall of 1951, Jane visited orphanages in England, France, Italy, and Germany in search of the son she longed for. But Jane’s visits proved disappointing as she discovered the insurmountable red tape that surrounded adopting a child abroad.
Jane seemed to momentary sidestep all this red tape when an Irish woman contacted her about adopting the fifteen month old son she could not provide for. And so Baby Thomas was happily welcomed into the Waterfield home.
The bureaucracy did catch up with Jane back in the US however, when Parliament informed her that by British law, only British subjects could adopt British children. She’d have to return Thomas to his parents.
Jane was flabbergasted at this development, especially since Thomas was Irish, with an Irish passport to prove it. But as Parliament pointed out, the child had been born in London, so as a dual citizen, the government could demand his return…
Everyone, including the attorneys at RKO, told Jane she should return Thomas, and avoid an international incident.
But Jane Russell stood her ground.
She spoke with the Immigration department, and hired a barrister to defend Thomas’ biological parents in England—who wished for Thomas to stay in America with his new family. A harrowing nine months later, the judge ruled that Jane could keep Thomas, and his adoption and US citizenship were at last finalized.
I so admire Jane for sticking to her guns, despite the advice of others. What’s even more admirable: Jane’s adoption experiences inspired her to found the World Adoption International Fund, or WAIF, to ease the process of intercountry adoptions for others. As Jane shares in her autobiography [aff. link]:
“I had my own children, yes, but I couldn’t forget the children I had seen in the orphanages. There were too many people waiting, longing for children here. It just wasn’t right; the laws were made to help people, not hinder justice.”
At the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt no less, Jane moved forward in organizing and funding WAIF without government assistance. As Eleanor advised Jane,
“If you can possibly do it on your own, you’ll get it done much better and quicker. Stay on your own and just plough ahead.”
Through the efforts of Jane and other similar minded individuals and organizations, the Orphan Adoption Amendment of the Special Immigration Act of 1953 was passed, which allowed for children to come into the US off the yearly quota if they were to be adopted. This legislation, coupled with Jane’s continued hard work over the next few years, led to the official founding of WAIF in 1955.
So when Jane was asked to star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she was one busy lady, juggling her career, new motherhood, and her efforts to get WAIF off the ground.
But Jane’s busy schedule didn’t keep her from delivering one of the best performances of her career in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Marilyn Monroe: The Should Be Star
20th Century Fox initially bought the screen rights to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with the intent to put Betty Grable in the lead role. But by 1952, the studio was bracing to replace the bubbly, box office gold Grable with a new blonde bombshell. And at the time, studio head Darryl Zanuck still wasn’t so sure that Grable’s successor would be Marilyn Monroe…
Marilyn presented her studio with an interesting problem in the early 1950s: there was great public interest in her—Marilyn photos, interviews, and general publicity always did very well for the studio. But her films were another story.
Marilyn Monroe was not big box office.
It was the insightful Howard Hawks who finally pinpointed the trouble with Marilyn. As Hawks told 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck, who kept casting Marilyn in dramas:
“You’re making realism with a very unreal girl.”
Howard Hawks told Zanuck to stop putting Marilyn in dramas, and let her try her hand at a starring comedic role. And Hawks thought Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, under his direction, would be the perfect vehicle to finally turn Marilyn Monroe into the box office star she should be.
Jane's Name Sells Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
But Zanuck wasn’t about to spend a lavish budget on a film if it were to depend solely on the Monroe name and her shaky box office track record. Especially since, in his mind, Marilyn couldn’t sing or dance, both of which there’d be plenty of in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Enter Jane Russell.
Hawks assured Zanuck that he could get his old buddy Jane to play the other female lead in the film. This more than satisfied Zanuck, who knew Jane Russell would draw an audience to the film even if Marilyn bombed, which Zanuck expected would happen.
So it was full steam ahead! Marilyn Monroe finally had her big chance to show the world—and herself—just what she could do. And she wasn’t about to blow it.
Marilyn Monroe's Self-Destructive Streak
There was a self destructive Marilyn incident during filming that actually led to one huge improvement in the film, and the immortalization of a classic Marilyn Monroe production number. But at the time, Marilyn’s behavior seemed catastrophic to the success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The drama went down when Marilyn insisted on wearing a sheer, gold lame, low cut gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to the Photoplay Awards in February 1953, where Marilyn would be honored as Best Newcomer. The gown’s designer, Billy Travilla, begged Marilyn not to wear the fragile dress, which Travilla had designed to look good on film, not necessarily to look classy worn out and about to a fancy awards banquet. Joe DiMaggio was reportedly so embarrassed by the dress, he refused to attend the awards ceremony with Marilyn, whom he was dating at the time.
Marilyn did wear the dress, but the public outcry at her “indecency” was great. Joan Crawford—who never ever wore anything risqué in her whole life ever, was the first to point an accusatory finger at Marilyn, and told the press that:
“It was like a burlesque show. But those of us in the industry just shuddered. She [Marilyn] should be told that the public likes provocative feminine personalities; but it also likes to know that underneath it all, the actresses are ladies.”
Wow. Some choice words from Joan Crawford.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the Pink Gown
Darryl Zanuck was so worried that Marilyn’s wardrobe choice and Joan Crawford’s words would affect the success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—Crawford even planted the idea that women’s organizations should boycott Marilyn’s films in disgust at her attire—that he had Billy Travilla design a less revealing gown for Marilyn to wear during the classic “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” number in the film.
It was also around this time that Marilyn’s nude calendar photos surfaced…to say Darryl Zanuck was stressed about the impact all this would have on the performance of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at the box office would be an understatement.
If you’re curious, here’s what Billy Travilla originally designed for Marilyn to wear in the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number:
And how about from behind?
There’s no doubt that the pink dress was instrumental in ensuring the classic status of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” It’s hard to imagine Marilyn doing the number in anything else.
Marilyn Proves Herself in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
The nude calendar photos and the Photoplay Awards dress scandal aside, Marilyn Monroe never worked harder than she did on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Darryl Zanuck even did his part in allowing Marilyn to concentrate solely on the film by announcing that she would not be available for interviews or any sort of publicity for the duration of the production.
(This announcement was of course publicity in and of its self.)
Marilyn stayed up all hours of the night, running lines with her acting coach, Natasha Lytess (I’ll save in depth info about this controversial figure in Marilyn’s life for another time). Then it was back to the studio in the morning, with Marilyn looking, in Jane Russell’s words, “as if she’d just crawled out of bed,” for strenuous dance rehearsals with Jack Cole, the choreographer on the film.
Jane and Marilyn both considered themselves non-dancers, but working with Cole, known as one of the best choreographers in the business, the girls were certainly in good hands. As Jane shares in her autobiography [aff. link],
“Jack was every dancer’s idea of a genius and many people were terrified of him, but I adored him madly…Jack worked dancers to death, but with Marilyn and me he was patience itself. He knew we didn’t know our left foot from our right, but he stayed tirelessly with us. I worked until I got fuzzy headed…Marilyn would stay for an hour or two after I left.”
Those extra hours that Marilyn stayed and worked with Jack Cole certainly paid off. As much as I love Jane, it’s Marilyn who has that extra bit of style behind her dancing in the film. Both Marilyn and Jane are a joy to watch, but Marilyn just oozes confidence in the dance numbers: she struts, moves her hips fluidly, and is sharp with her movements when she needs to be. If Darryl Zanuck thought Marilyn was no dancer before Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film certainly showed him that dancing was one of her untapped talents.
The Blooper That Stayed in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Though Marilyn’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” is the best remembered number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jane Russell also had a big dance number in the film, “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love,” in which she sings and dances around the gym and indoor pool while the US Olympic works out.
At the end of the dance in the film, Jane falls into the pool.
But as Jane shares in her autobiography [aff. link], this was a complete accident that ended up in the final cut of the film:
“At the end of the number the guys were supposed to dive over me as I sat down by the pool. One poor cluck didn’t clear me, and I went head first into the pool and came up like a drowned rat. The scene had to be reshot…but in the final cut, the first take was used, including my impersonation of a drowned rat. It was better. When the movie is shown on television, many times the whole number is cut. Thanks alot.”
She’s so awesome and hilarious. Love it!
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes & the Surprising Friendship
With two of Hollywood’s most gorgeous women working side by side everyday, the press was chomping at the bit to write about all the nasty cat fights that would inevitably break out. But to everyone’s surprise, Jane and Marilyn became fast friends. As Jane shares in her book [aff. link],
“We got along great together. Marilyn was very shy and very sweet and far more intelligent than people gave her credit for….
The press tried their best to work up a feud between us, but they were sniffing up the wrong tree.”
Jane and Marilyn got close enough during filming that Jane convinced Marilyn to attend one of her weekly bible study groups. Marilyn and Jane also bonded over the special men in their lives: Jane was married to Robert Waterfield, an NFL star, and Marilyn was dating and seriously considering marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.
Jane Russell Saves the Day
Our girls got along together so well in fact, that when Marilyn’s nerves got the better of her and she’d refuse to leave her dressing room, it was Jane alone who could coax her out, and onto the set.
“Marilyn started coming to the set late and that didn’t go over too well, so I talked to Whitey [her makeup man]. He told me she came in long before I did and was really ready, but she’d stay in her dressing room and putter. ‘I think she’s afraid to go out,’ he said. So from then on I’d stand in her doorway and say, ‘Come on Blondl, let’s go,’’ and she’d say “Oh, okay,’ in her whispery voice, and we’d go on together. She was never late again.”
Ok, doesn’t that just make you love Jane Russell?
If you’re familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s life, or if you’ve read my article on Some Like It Hot (1959), you know about Marilyn’s reputation for staying in her dressing room for hours, sometimes even refusing to come on set all day.
A True Friend
Marilyn’s lifelong crisis of confidence and fears of mental illness (again, we’ll save that for another post), undoubtedly contributed to these times when she just couldn’t bring herself to leave her dressing room.
But can’t we all relate to the difference an understanding friend makes on a hard day?
I just think the world of Jane Russell for the patience, friendship, and confidence she gave sweet Marilyn. These were things that very few people in Marilyn’s inner circle would ever give her.
It’s clear that Marilyn recognized and greatly appreciated Jane’s friendship, for in one of Marilyn’s last interviews before her tragic death, she was sure to mention Jane while discussing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:
“She by the way, was quite wonderful to me.”
"I Am The Blonde!"
It really speaks to the great friendship between Jane and Marilyn that the inequities in the way Darryl Zanuck treated the two stars didn’t affect how they felt about each other: according to some sources, Jane was paid $400,000 for the film, while Marilyn earned $750 a week, barely enough to cover her living expenses. (Which included the care of her mother in a private mental institution.)
As Marilyn recounted in a 1962 interview,
“I couldn’t even get a dressing room. I said, finally—I really got to this kind of level—I said, ‘Look after all, I am the blonde and its Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Because still they always kept saying, ‘Remember you are not a star.’ I said, ‘Well, whatever I am, I am the blonde!”
That she was. And there was no way that Darryl Zanuck could deny Marilyn’s star power, and finally, box office value, with the one-two-three punch of her 1953 film releases—Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and How To Marry a Millionaire—which brought the studio a combined total of $25 million at the box office. No other star made more for their studio that year than Marilyn Monroe.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes alone made $12 million at the box office after its July 15, 1953 premiere, and its financial success influenced the course of both Jane’s and Marilyn’s careers.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Repeating the Formula
Howard Hughes attempted to capitalize on the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes formula by putting Jane in The French Line (1954) and Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955). Neither film co-starred Marilyn, but at least Hughes had half of the dynamic duo.
As for Marilyn, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes catapulted her to stardom with a new screen persona, the quintessential, glamorous “dumb blonde,” that Darryl Zanuck would try to have her play on repeat.
That's it for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes!
And that’s it for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Be sure to join me next week for all about Jane Russell and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).