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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
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by Jay Seaver

"Everybody prefers great comedy."
5 stars

On the one hand, it's hard for those of us who didn't live through the period to take references to the straight-laced, conservative 1950s seriously when it was the decade that gave us Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and delightful sex comedies like "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"; on the other, one does wonder if these movies would be nearly as much fun if the implication wasn't that these characters indulging themselves was a bit defiant. If the second case were entirely the reality, this movie would likely feel more quaint than it does; instead, it holds up for being sweet and funny more than just kind of cute.

Monroe and Russell play a pair of nightclub entertainers, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw, who are not exactly inhibited on or off the stage. Lorelei, by far the more mercenary of the pair, has all but landed herself a rich husband in Augustus Esmond Jr. (Tommy Noonan), although his father's daily phone calls have thus far kept him from actually proposing. The solution is a trip to Paris where they can get engaged and married without interruption, though they don't go together - Lorelei is traveling by ship and Gus will follow by air. Dorothy comes with Lorelei as a chaperone, which seems like a sweet gig - the Olympic team is on the same boat, and there's no rule saying the chaperone can't have fun! The athletes' coach has them turning in early, leaving Dorothy spending a lot of time with Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), a sweet guy except for how he's a private eye hired to spy on Lorelei. Not that she'd dream of cheating on Gus, even if another passenger (Charles Coburn) does have his own diamond mine.

As plots go, it's as wispy as cotton candy, kind of stumbling toward the end because it requires characters to act more nakedly selfish and unreasonable than they do before or after; whether that's the case in the original play or not, screenwriter Charles Lederer and director Howard Hawks are kind of gambling that they've built up enough goodwill to get away with it. The Good news is that it's also as sticky as cotton candy, creating plenty of room for Dorothy and Lorelei to have misadventures, musical numbers, and other entertaining moments without feeling like they're missing out on anything important. A sea voyage is often about filing time anyway, and the filmmakers use the farcical bits to keep things moving, if not forward, than side-to-side rather than backward.

The two lead roles are so perfectly cast that is a surprise that the studio never actually managed to pair Russell and Monroe again. That they share the same hourglass figure puts them on equal footing for the folks who bought a ticket to spend an hour and a half looking at pretty girls, but they play off each other well: Russell wisecracks with the best of them but doesn't make Dorothy cynical in doing so; she knows what she wants but isn't mean or petty about it. Monroe's Lorelei is about the same in terms of knowing what she wants, but if she's calculating, we're taking about pretty simple math, and there's never even a hidden harshness under her breathy come-on of a voice. She also hits a very specific dumb blonde target perfectly, sounding sweet and innocent in her man-focused way, trying to imply that she'd fit in with high society with her "thanks everso" and failing, but not so badly that she looks pathetic. They play off each other well, and the moments when they play against expectations are even better. While the guys they captivate don't have quite the same charisma, Charles Coburn and Tommy Noonan are amusingly besotted while Elliott Reid stakes out a good place where he can be smooth or genuine as the need arises.

To a certain extent, sex comedies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes avoid becoming anachronisms by not being ashamed or too clever about how open-minded they are; Dorothy and Lorelei being able to pursue their own pleasure without much complaint beyond worries that Lorelei is a gold-digger keeps the movie from being strident or open to snickers. Dorothy being Lorelei's chaperone is so obviously an anachronism exploited to bring her friend along that Malone is necessary to the plot. And, heck, you could argue that the most overly sexual number has Dorothy wearing pants amid dozens of male athletes dressed only in flesh-colored shorts, while the dialogue calls out the hypocrisy in how society views men and women coating partners for shallow reasons.

Or, at least that's what we tell ourselves to not feel guilty for ogling the girls. Not that they're the only pleasures the movie offers; aside from the fun screenplay, the songs are catchy whether just being bouncy or moving the story along. The best is obviously "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", and is even better in the movie than on its own, a tart response to the situation Lorelei and Dorothy find themselves in but covered with enough sexy sugar to not ruin the mood by making the pair feel like victims. It's also a great-looking film, with bright colors all over, fun costumes, and direction by Howard Hawks that preserves the fun of a door-slamming farce without feeling particularly stage-bound.

It's hard to become a classic comedy; what was once considered innocent fun can seem less so or become the target of a viewer's laughter rather than the source as standards change (generally for the better). "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" isn't immune, but it's still winning enough for plenty of honest laughter and other good feelings sixty years later.

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originally posted: 01/27/16 12:49:52
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  DVD: 03-Aug-2001

  09-Oct-1953 (U)

  N/A (PG)

Directed by
  Howard Hawks

Written by
  Charles Lederer

  Jane Russell
  Marilyn Monroe
  Charles Coburn
  Elliott Reid
  Tommy Noonan

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