Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and celebrating female friendship

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In our old movies column, we take a look back at an iconic musical from the Golden Age of Hollywood – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke briefly about the brilliance of Howard Hawks in his film Twentieth Century. The acclaimed director of Golden Hollywood films was best known for his work producing forward-thinking women who were whip-smart, hilarious, and sometimes chaotic.

Perhaps his most famous work is musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The devilish duo of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is an absolutely delight. And what do you know, the colourful, entertaining, and highly brilliant film is celebrating it’s 70th anniversary this week.

“No, I might as well warn you, flattery will get you anywhere.”

Based on the 1948 stage musical of the same name, Howard Hawks’ musical masterpiece revolves around two showgirls Lorelai and Dorothy – played by Monroe and Russell respectively – who are best friends who happen to have different ideals on the perfect man.

Lorelei looks for financial wealth and security, someone who can help support her, whilst Dorothy prefers men who are on the more handsome and fit side. When Lorelei plans to wed her fiancé Gus in France, she is dismayed to learn that his father despises her and will do anything to break up the betrothal. He starts by sending Ernie Malone to spy on the pair. Enter some hijinks, miscommunication, and absolutely banging musical numbers, and you’ve got an absolute classic.

Reading that plotline and going into the film, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s sexist guff. The breathy work of Monroe’s ditzy Lorelai as she parades around the screen crooning about shiny objects in pink or the brunette, headstrong Russell marching around a cruise ship’s gym touting about the muscular Olympic team that workout around her hardly denotes a feminist classic.

But here lies the genius of Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Here’s a thing about feminism – women wanting those things are also OK. Strong female characters aren’t empowered because they kick men in the gonads and make some witty remark (as some modern-day blockbusters seem to think). Strongly written female characters are terribly layered and can be weak-willed, can be money grabbing, can be one-dimensional. They can be a whole multitude of things. They just have to be purposefully written – with the same agency as the male characters opposite them.

“A kiss on the hand might be quite continental… but diamonds are a girls best friend.”

Let’s break down Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, for a moment, shall we? The musical number which has been lampooned, parodied, and covered countless times, including most famously in Madonna’s music video for Material Girl, Nicole Kidman’s excellent version in Baz Lurhman’s Moulin Rouge, and my personal favourite, Rachel Bloom’s homage in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Much like the film, the song on the surface seems to cut Lorelai’s want to just a gold-digging need. Like the object she lauds, it is shiny and shallow.

Yet if you mine a little bit deeper, you’ll see what Lorelai is truly saying: in a patriarchal society, riches and stability is important for a woman to get ahead, lest she be left stranded. As Amy March professes in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, marriage is an economical decision for most women. You don’t have to go far back for that to still be true. Lorelai is singing about the disparity between the genders, the classes, and how advantageous one must be when making marital decision.

The chaperone’s job is to see that nobody else has any fun. Nobody chaperones the chaperone. That’s why I’m so right for this job.

I love Monroe’s song juxtaposed against Russell’s hot number, where the men of an Olympic team train around her. Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love is a wildly tongue-in-cheek song where Russell is lamenting about the superficial ideals of the people around her whilst simultaneously eyeing up the buff, muscular men. It’s a great ditty that similar showcases Dorothy’s ideals – and how she’ll do a lot to get what she wants.

Thanks to the wonderful choreography from Jack Cole, these two opposing numbers are seared iconically in popular culture.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes displays these willed women wonderfully. Monroe and Russell’s character feed off one another with different yet altogether understandable intention. Thanks to the performances of the two leads, what Hawks’ film presents to us is fiercely different, capable, and brilliant characters who spark an indelible friendship. Sure, the film features some men, but at the heart of what makes this movie tick is the relationship between Lorelai and Dorothy. By the end of the film, that point is driven home – the one thing that truly matters, above all else, is their friendship.

Truthfully, I suppose the ending double wedding perhaps feels a bit tacked on, because god forbid any woman leaves a musical without a marriage (I could understand Lorelai’s marriage but Dorothy’s? Perhaps not). Still, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an absolute must-watch film that should be celebrated for its social satire and female comradery.

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