The Essential Marilyn Monroe Films

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The world would truly be a dull place without the extraordinary charisma and talent of American actress and model Marilyn Monroe, born on June 1st 1926, at the Los Angeles County Hospital. She starred in 29 films, and is best remembered for her dizzy blonde bombshell performances in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). But as intoxicating as she was, Marilyn it seemed also had a talent for comedic relief, arguably best remembered in the film The Seven Year Itch (1955). That said, there was also another side to Marilyn as an actress that possibly just wasn’t explored enough. That, of course, involved her dramatic abilities, rarely on show but nonetheless evident in films like Niagara (1953) and Bus Stop (1956). 

Hollywood profited greatly from her popularity, but in private Marilyn was a fragile woman. In her early years as a child, she was in and out of foster care after her mother Gladys was institutionalized. She was subsequently exploited and abused (raped as a small child) but at sixteen escaped the clutches of her abusive carers the only way she knew how by getting married. Forging her way in the world she was forced to skimp and felt uneasy for a number of years before being recognized as a budding model late in 1944 by photographer David Conover.

It was during this period in her life that her career in front of the camera truly got off the ground, after quitting work on the assembly line at Radioplane, a munitions factory.

Marilyn would soar to the dizzy heights of fame during the 1950’s, but in a troubled life away from the cameras, her inner demons would bare all too much for the flamboyant starlet, when she was pronounced dead in the early hours of August 5th 1962 from probable suicide.

For students of cinema, film buffs and readers in general, here below is what I believe are five essential films that say something about Marilyn Monroe as an actress and do I dare I say screen goddess. I hope that you agree with my choices, but I am always happy for you to persuade me otherwise.

Niagara (1953)

Of all of Marilyn Monroe’s most important early roles, it’s Asphalt Jungle which I would dearly love to talk about in length one day. It’s such a great film. She plays an older man’s dizzy mistress, and despite her minor role in it, we get a glimpse of her potential as a rising star. (It is the first film that Marilyn also changed her hair colour to the more familiar blonde bombshell look.) Unfortunately, many of her early supporting roles are just that, and it took the sexy thriller Niagara (1953) to give Marilyn her first truly starring vehicle.

The film follows the story around Rose Loomis (Monroe) plot to murder her weary suffering husband George (Joseph Cotton), a war veteran. In short, the selfish manipulative Rose endeavors to use her young lover to carry out her dirty work. But the plan to kill George completely backfires. George is no fool, but as a trouble man, he is completely enraged by her plot and act of adultery (which he always suspected) and hatches a plan of his own. Caught in the middle of it all are a couple on honeymoon, which helps to anchor the story in its twists and turns, especially the tragic and dramatic ending of the film set on Niagara Falls.

If there is one minor criticism of the film worthy of discussing, it is undoubtedly the producers and/or director’s obsession with Monroe’s blooming as a sex symbol. I wonder whether the filmmakers intentions was to exploit her femininity just for the sake of it, rather than tidying up some of the loose threads in its script? The film is particularly famous for its daring walking sequence, often referred to as “the longest walk in cinema history”, where Monroe walks away from the camera and our eyes firmly fixated on Monroe’s hip-swaying walk. Though, I suppose, no female fatale character on-screen would truly work without its female protagonist flaunting her beauty, charm and sexual allure? If we look at from this point of view, Monroe played her part to perfection as a scheming blonde bombshell adulteress.

All of this is heightened by Twentieth Century-Fox’s choice to film Niagara in Technicolor, rather than black and white. As a Hollywood film noir enthusiast, those early pictures filmed in Technicolor, somehow for me never really capture the fatalistic mood or menace that b & w film noir pictures had, especially with its stylized use of low-key lighting, silhouette effects and unbalanced compositions. (If you ever get the chance, see Niagara in B & W first!) Nonetheless, Marilyn is admittedly truly dazzling in colour, despite my biased opinion, where she glows supremely, especially in her tightly fitted attire revealing her sultry figure. Look out for that infamous red dress as she sings in a soft low voice the song ‘Kiss’ in one of the films memorable moments.

Marilyn’s good performance in Niagara, dramatic at times and sultry the next, opened the door for Marilyn in Hollywood like no other film before. The commercial success of the film alone secured her roles she probably never dreamed were possible.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

In 1984, Madonna was the hottest female music artist around, with her hit singles Like A Virgin and Material Girl racing up the charts. It is the latter single’s music video that caught everyone’s attention, an homage to Marilyn Monroe’s performance, of the song Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Madonna was truly inspired by her admiration to imitate Marilyn’s figure-hugging erotic and manipulative song and dance on a bunch of guys too stupid to know otherwise.

On the subject of Marilyn’s near perfect performance, not only in that famous choreographed scene, but the picture as a whole, we are left with no doubt that Monroe was a bona fide star. Interestingly though, you would never have picked up on it, but Marilyn during the production of the film suffered from bouts of stage fright, which makes her performance even that more remarkable.

The film is a musical comedy, taken from the musical stage hit by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos, about two women who know what they want and how to get it. In short, Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) and her friend Dorothy (Jane Russell) take a cruise ship to Paris, where Lorelei hopes to marry the wealthy Gus Esmond (Tommy Nooman). There are plenty of laughs, musical numbers and eligible gentlemen along the way that they might meet.

On a final note, although many people nowadays, refer to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a Marilyn Monroe picture, lets not forget co-star Jane Russell wonderful standout performance as showgirl Dorothy Shaw. There is no doubt in my mind that, without Russell’s savvy and relatable and at times manipulative performance, Monroe would have struggled to carry the picture on her own. Many of the films most memorable scenes worked best with the banter Monroe and Russell shared.

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The notion of a husband cheating on his wife was considered a completely unacceptable action onscreen during the 1950’s. It was a time when the censors had a field day deciding what they believed was morally accepted. That is why The Seven Year Itch succeeded and failed at the same time as a film. It failed because Director Billy Wilder was hamstrung by film censor rules and moral code of decency. Wilder always personally felt that his vision for the film was unjustly compromised. But it succeeded because the forced changes allowed for a comedy/fantasy film to instead play out, teasing the audience about infidelity without actually going as far as the stage play (which it was based on), which actually showed the husband cheating on his wife. For Wilder, who was known for pushing the envelope by showing themes no one else would dare do, it was a compromise that he eventually accepted and surprisingly payed dividends.

It was Marilyn Monroe and actor Tony Ewell that Wilder turned to, to bring to life on-screen the story of a husband’s fantasy of seducing a beautiful young model, after his wife of seven years and their son go to a resort in Maine for vacation. In many ways the success of the film was a coup for everyone involved. Marilyn in particular shines with her comedic touch, plushy personality and sultry charm. But for the most part, I believe Marilyn’s cheerful demeanour and poise wins the day as Sherman (Tony Ewell) makes a fool of himself.

I cannot escape without mentioning one of the best scenes in cinema history that took place in this film, where Marilyn stood over a subway grate and her white dress blew up in the air. Marilyn, of course, shrewdly catching her dress before it blows up over her head is genius, allowing the cinema public to feel faint enough without going into a catatonic state.

Bus Stop (1956)

In 1955, Marilyn was determined to put behind her, the series of flighty comedies she starred in, despite the amazing commercial success of her films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Her ability to read comedy better than anyone, playing the world’s most famous dumb blonde, had become a little tiresome. With one swift stroke she severed her ties with Twentieth Century Fox and moved to New York and enrolled into Les Strasberg’s Actors Studio for a year to develop her skills as an actress.

Marilyn’s abilities as an actress took a while to mature as she tried desperately to sort out her own feelings and emotions. She was a young woman tormented by her past, stuck somewhere they say between adolescence and adulthood. With so much arguably at stake, Marilyn apparently set upon her acting classes with a dogmatic vengeance. Did the lessons help? Her detractors eagerly pointed out that she was wasting her time, but Marilyn must have done something right. She left the Actors Studio and validated her yearlong stay by producing one of her finest performance in the film Bus Stop (1956) that earned her a global globe nomination.

She played the role of café singer Cherie, who harboured dreams of a life as a Hollywood star. Unfortunately everything is turned on its head, when she meets a socially blundering idiot (Don Murray), in pursuit of an angelic wife, who whisks (kidnaps) her away on a bus trip back to Montana (his home town). The film plays out to its final conclusion, with Marilyn delivering a rare dramatic performance, which most critics agree is surprisingly brilliant. For the most part, I believe she moves between moments of humour and poignant pause with ease, making Bus Stop a must see Marilyn picture.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

The hilarious Some Like It Hot (1959) will forever endure as one of the greatest comedies ever made. It still surprisingly holds up and keeps much of its amazing humour and originality. In short, it is a flawless Billy Wilder comedy that has Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis on the run from a ruthless gang of mobsters, whom they witness commit a wicked crime, inspired by the events of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. In a moment of brilliance or madness, disguised in drag, Lemmon and Curtis join a party of a traveling all-female jazz band, train bound for Florida, in an attempt to elude the mobsters on their tail. What they don’t realise is that the same mobsters who are after them end up at the same hotel in Florida as our stars and recognise them. The jig is surely up, but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen this marvellous picture.

Some have argued that Some Like It Hot is one of Jack Lemmon’s greatest film triumphs, even more so than it being a Marilyn Monroe picture. Even Marilyn apparently made her displeasure clear from the beginning, despite the fact that she was given top billing, that the film’s plot revolved too much around the antics of Lemmon and Curtis. For the record, Monroe is introduced as a chanteuse named Sugar Kane, whom Curtis character has eye for and pretends to be a millionaire to win her over. Yet despite all of her misgivings, Marilyn does herself proud, giving an amazing performance proving once again her talent as an exuberant blonde and comedian. It is her comedic timing and banter with Curtis, in particular that stands out. The irony is that most of the time during the film’s production she forgot her lines, time and time again, to the displeasure of director Billy Wilder and her co-stars. (Some scenes took Marilyn a reported thirty or forty takes to get right.)

Behind the scenes Marilyn’s erratic and notorious difficulties as a starlet were in full bloom. Apart from forgetting her lines, she was either constantly late or absent. (It wasn’t the first time Monroe completely annoyed Wilder with her tardiness. That happened also in The Seven Year Itch.) She furthermore didn’t approve of Jack Lemmon replacing Frank Sinatra for the role of Jerry, but she would later back down and come to adore Lemmon.  She also evidently disliked Tony Curtis and drove director Billy Wilder crazy. Marilyn complained in particular to Wilder that she didn’t like the fact that Some Like It Hot was filmed in black and white. Wilder, of course, wouldn’t compromise his vision for it to look like a period piece. What’s more it cleverly softened Curtis and Lemmon’s makeup. (Interestingly, in the years after Marilyn’s death, Wilder once insisted that he deserved a purple heart for working with her in two movies.) To add to her personal woes, Marilyn was also hooked on a cocktail of drugs, which would a few years later become the instrument of her sad demise.

I don’t want to leave this last entry on a sour note, but is impossible not to have said anything at all about it. If it is any consolation, Marilyn received universal praise for her role in Some Like It Hot and was awarded a Golden Globe as the best actress of the year.

I’d like to think that maybe for a short while, Marilyn enjoyed her Golden Globe triumph. With her apparent need for validation and love, maybe her dreams were finally realized? How interesting it is that one of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous musical performances is her singing the song ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ in Some Like It Hot.

Photo Credit: The header image is a studio publicity photo of Marilyn Monroe for Twentieth Century Fox in 1947. This image is in the public domain. I am not the uploader of You Tube clips embedding here.

 



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