Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): Movie Review

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Marilyn Monroe

In January 1953, President Truman announced that the United States had developed a hydrogen bomb. Later that same year, 20th Century Fox released its own double-barreled bombshell, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Christmas had obviously come early for men across America.

Based on the 1925 Anita Loos novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, and the 1949 stage musical starring Carol Channing (really!), this Howard Hawks-directed film is as raunchy as a musical could possibly be in 1953. Start with the risqué costumes, then gasp at the double-entendre laced dialogue, and finally delight in the outrageous song lyrics and choreography—it’s a cornucopia of hysterical crassness.

Long before actresses were expected to weigh no more than 95 pounds. women actually had curves in the movies. Voluptuous is the best word to describe Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe—they had curves in all the right places. Costume designer Travilla did a spectacular job of showcasing the assets of his leading ladies. From the very first scene, where the ladies sing “Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock” wearing red sequin gowns with slits up to the hinterlands and suicidal plunging necklines, you know this is a film about sex. Even when they aren’t wearing their showgirl outfits, their clothes are form-fitting and sexy. Of course, the most iconic outfit is the dress that Monroe wears when she performs “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Often imitated (think Madonna) but never surpassed, Monroe looks sensational—and like she’s eaten a few meals in her life. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I have often wondered if this dress was a metaphor for (please cover the children’s eyes) the vagina. O’Keefe had her orchids, maybe Travilla had his pink silk gown with a huge bow on Monroe’s derriere? Anyway, the first thing I think about whenever I see this movie is that all of the costumes are absolutely fabulous.

This was certainly Charles Lederer’s best musical comedy screenplay. It’s really a simple story about two showgirls looking for the right man. Lorelei Lee (Monroe) wants to marry a rich man (Tommy Noonan) to fulfill her lust for jewels—preferably diamonds—but she also wants love. Dorothy Shaw (Russell) is a straight-talking gal who just wants an honest man. When Lorelei’s man gets cold feet after his father threatens to cut him off, the ladies head off on a luxury liner to France. Along the way they meet the U.S. men’s Olympic team, a diamond mine owner (Charles Coburn), and a private detective (Elliott Reid). When Lorelei gets caught with her hand in the jewelry box the girls find themselves down and out in Paris, and they have to begin performing again as showgirls.

One of the best lines comes at the beginning of the film when one guys asks: “Say, suppose the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Which one of them do you save from drowning?” and another guys answers, “Those girls couldn’t drown.” Russell gets most of the best lines—she is playing opposite Monroe’s rather vapid character—but Monroe gets some zingers in too, such as when she responds to one of the Olympians who says he’s the only four-letter man on the team with, “You should be ashamed to admit it.” No one played stupid as well as Monroe, and Russell always shined as a straight-shooting woman.

So we have gorgeous costumes and witty dialogue, and then we pair those two with great musical numbers, and we have a really good film. Two songwriting teams (Leo Robin/Jule Styne and Hoagy Carmichael/Harold Adamson) were responsible for such memorable songs as: “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Fried”, “A Little Girl from Little Rock”, “When Love Goes Wrong”, and “Anyone Here for Love?”. Of course, my favorite Monroe number is “Diamonds”. The song itself is catchy:

“A kiss may be grand, but it won’t pay the rental on your humble flat.

Or help you at the automat.

Men grow cold as girls grow old, and we all lose our charm in the end.

But square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks won’t lost their shape.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”

When you combine the set design and the choreography with such memorable lyrics it becomes musical magic. While it is often overshadowed by Monroe’s “Diamonds” number, I find Russell’s “Anyone Here for Love?” production with the Olympic team highly entertaining. The song is bawdy and Russell’s strutting amongst the inattentive athletes is overtly sexual, with such lyrics as:

“I like big muscles

And red corpuscles

I like a beautiful hunk o’ man

But I’m no physical culture fan

Ain’t there anyone here for love, sweet love.”

Each song seems to be perfectly matched to the woman performing it. As an extra treat, of course, we get to see Russell parody Monroe’s “Diamonds” number when she takes her place in court.

Hollywood made some outstanding musicals in the 1950s (Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers being the finest), and I think Gentlemen Prefer Blondes falls into this group. Which is strange, because I also think that it is an often overlooked musical gem. People will always remember the “Diamonds” number, but I think that the overall film deserves more respect than it gets.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.

  • Wayne P.

    Great review, Kim, as per usual…btw, it reminds of a gentler time and a bygone age…whether we call it Studio or Golden!  Bob Hope always used to introduce Jane as ..’all two, or both of her’..and, of course, they did actually name twin peaks in Alaska for this vastly under-rated actress but she more than held her own with him in The Paleface and the follow-up Son of Paleface…thanks!

    • Kim Wilson

      Thanks, Wayne.  Hope and Mansfield were a riot in The Paleface, weren’t they?

      • KristiHyams

        Russell. Jane Russell. Not Mansfield. 

        • Kim Wilson

          Ha!  So true. Too much Law & Order SUV for me had Mansfield on my mind.

  • Ron

    LOVED THE REVIEW.
    I always find myself watching Jane Russell way more than Marilyn in this film.
    It is Jane’s best work in films and she really walks off with the film even if it is rather
    slanted toward the Fox Contract Player.
    I just feel Monroe’s dumb blonde act wears a little thin.
    Jane was a vastly under-rated comic actress with a great flair for the caustic one liner.
    And when she smiled the screen lit up.

    • Kim Wilson

      Mansfield is my favorite here.

      • Wayne P.

        woopsie doodle…but looks like its russell, both of them-again ( not mansfield :)!

  • R.A. Kerr

    Good review. It’s been way too long since I’ve seen this film!

  • Maxdaddytj

    I realized I own this on DVD – time to get it ouot and watch it again – the scene where Msrilyn sings “Bye Bye, Baby” as the ship prepares to depart – oh, she’s so adorable!

  • Jim

    Another good musical from the period was Carousel in CinemaScope 65.

  • Gary Vidmar

    Howard Hawks did some of his best work on this musical.  The scene with the kid catching Monroe caught in the porthole is a comic gem, and exhibits the kind of wry wit Hawks had in abundance.  There’s no denying that the teaming of Russell and Monroe was brilliant.

  • Allbig58

    Just great ,  two actresses that were FAN   TAS   TIC    !!!!

  • Lorraine M.

    Kim doesn’t mention it here, so I’ll add that one of the best things about this film is the friendship between Dorothy and Lorelei. Love the moment when Russell lectures Reid: “Nobody gets to make fun of Lorelei but ME. She’s quite a girl–you just don’t know her.” In an era when women were being taught to view one another as competition, that bond and affection between the two showgirls was thrilling.

  • Normangillen

    George “Foghorn” Winslow – the kid actor — had some good moments too.

  • Jon DeCles

    Tragically under rated and under used as an actress, Monroe manages to make her dumb blond rather subtle in this film.  I remember reading some comments that compared her performance here with her performance in “Bus Stop,” noting that she was totally convincing as the no talent would be musical performer in the latter, and then citing ‘Diamonds’ as an example of how really astonishing she was in musicals.  It is worth hunting down her serious performances to see how great she was.  Ultimately, she was a victim of studio economics, and, like Judy Garland, was done in by the people who wanted to promote her as a one note performer.  Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see her mature as an actress the way Elizabeth Taylor was allowed to?  Of course, Taylor was confident and had a will of iron, and Monroe was fragile.

    It has been said that Monroe’s appeal lay in a sense of availability (in a good way).  That she projected a feeling that you could, if you were lucky, go out on a date with her.  Taylor never projected that.

    A late friend of mine got to dance with her once.  I do envy him.

    I remember the exact, in every detail, circumstances of discovering her death, in a way that very few passings impressed upon my memory.  Funny how important you discover someone you never met to be to your life.

  • Leslie

    This film and Some Like It Hot are probably Marilyn’s very best performances although Bus Stop and River of No Return have wonderful moments. I have always thought her real abilities as a  actress and singer were overwhelmed by her sex goddess persona. Shame to those who never looked past her lovely figure to give her the roles she craved and worked hard to deserve. Imagine what she might have done in a role like Scarlett O’Hara, a siren who had contempt for the men she controlled through their hormones. Think of her her locking minds, wills and bodies with Clark Gable. Atlanta is not the only city that would have burned!

    • Wayne P.

      Good points…had thought too that Niagara showed her to good advantage in a mystery/suspenser with Joseph Cotten and her performance was very well done…its also sad to note that her marriages had complications on her movie career as well…Joe D. didnt want her in pictures at all, but as a stay-at-home adoring celebrity wife, even though she was a bigger star and more famous than he was!  Finally her dabbling in politics and interest in the specifics of US Foreign Policy mayve cost her life at the hands of the Kennedys, who also used her…at least, Arthur Miller didnt treat her so badly that Ive heard.

  • Bernard

    YES. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was an overlooked musical gem, had it not for Marilyn and Jane
    Russell’s beauty and strong performance, nobody would even talk about this musical nowadays.
    There were some GREAT musicals from the 50′s, aside from “Singin in the Rain ” and “Seven
    Brides for Seven Brothers” which are Timeless and enjoyable to a lot of the younger movie fans
    today, I can think of two more CLASSIC 50′s MUSICALS that had withstand the test of time,
    that would be “FUNNY FACE” (1957), and a toss up between “LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME” (1955) 
    and “A STAR IS BORN”(1954) to make it as the FIVE GREATEST MOVIE MUSICALS of the50s.

  • Mike

    Whenever I think of the movie, I think of the song–Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.
    Whenever I think of the song, I think of the movie–Gentlemen prefer Blondes.
    Every single time.  One of the best musical comedies ever, ever. 
    Hollywood, or “any wood” just can’t make movies like that anymore.  Sure would like to know whoever passed the “law” that attractive women have to be built like a rail, and weigh under 95 pounds.
    This film has stood the “test of time.”    Filmmakers should reeducate themselves on what an attractive woman is, they can start with this movie.

  • Blair Kramer

    Gentlemen may well prefer blondes, but as James Bond once said, only as long as “…the collars and cuffs match…”