At first glance, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes doesn’t have much going on upstairs. Like Marilyn Monroe’s character, the film seems pretty to look at but rather vapid and goofy. The vanity of the characters and the light comedic romps they go on appear light-hearted and rather childish. However, beneath this veneer, there are some smart, subversive ideas at work.
Singers Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) and Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) are best friends with two very different views on love. Lorelei is after the material security a man can get her. She’s gotten Gus Esmond Jr. (Tommy Noonan), the heir to a wealthy family empire, in her pocket. Meanwhile, Dorothy finds herself falling for the more dreamy and physically attractive men. When the two take a charter ship to Europe, both of them find their views on love challenged during the boat ride.
The charter ship also happens to house the American gymnastic Olympic team and Dorothy quickly finds herself looking over the lot of them. During one musical number, she laments the fact that these men are so busy training, they don’t have time for love. The kind of man she wants is so consumed by the constant need to maintain his looks and body, they wouldn’t have the time to dedicate to her that she wants.
Enter Ernie Malone (Elliott Reed), a man who is secretly a detective hoping to find evidence of infidelity by Lorelei in order to discredit her love of Gus for his father. He gets close with Dorothy posing as a playboy with money, which initially turns her off, but as she gets to know him, his sense of humor and character begins to win her over. He may not have the looks, but Dorothy begins to fall for a person instead of a body.
In contrast, Lorelei begins seducing a much older man named Piggy (Charles Coburn) with her act of ignorance and naivety. He has some wealth she hopes to squeeze from him. And while there’s an initial sense of vapidness behind Lorelei’s pursuit of rich men, it is rooted in a recognition that looks are fleeting. As “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” says, “men grow cold as girls grow old and we all lose our charms in the end.”
However, her pursuit of wealth is in something just as fleeting. She does have the smart rationale that one can’t be happy if one has to constantly worry about money in a relationship. Beneath the dumb act, Lorelei is quite smart. She finds a healthy middle-ground when she realizes that she can be that smart girl without Gus feeling threatened, meaning she doesn’t have to compromise herself and put on the act to also find a man with wealth she loves.
These ideas, and more, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes find interesting ways to empower its female leads. Both women in the film are highly sexual beings, but not in the traditional mode of being objectified by men. Instead, their sexual identities are what give them power over men. They’re the characters pursuing the romances, not the traditional passive females waiting to be whisked away. Granted, this is not the most progressive or perhaps feminist treatment of women in films, their identities are still built around their pursuit of and relationship to men, but it does complicate and defy traditional suppositions.
Once one gets past the initial appearance of vanity, Gentlemen Prefers Blondes is a mine of interesting and unexpected ideas. While it stands on its own as a lavished musical with a fun romantic comedy story, it’s those elements of subterfuge that make the film so remarkable and noteworthy. It’s a true gem.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing