Alas, for a lot of young people today, many of the most celebrated names in Hollywood history have faded into obscurity. Ask most teenagers about Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, heck, even Paul Newman (!), and they'll be hard pressed to give you much of an answer, let alone place the name with a movie. But one star continues to shine more than four decades after her death, a name that remains for most everyone synonymous with sex appeal, motion-picture allure, and pure, old-fashioned glamour: Marilyn Monroe.
Her name appears sixth in the American Film Institute's list of Fifty Greatest Female Screen Legends, but how many of the top five would a young person actually recognize: Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn (maybe), Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo? I doubt it. But Monroe? Most certainly. I know because I asked my classes. It's more than overdue, then, that Twentieth Century Fox celebrate some of Ms. Monroe's best work in a six-disc boxed set of restored prints called "The Diamond Collection."
The set includes five of her most well-known films for Fox, plus a bonus disc, "Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days." The movies included are "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), "How To Marry a Millionaire" (1953), "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954), "The Seven Year Itch" (1955), and "Bus Stop" (1956). The bonus disc documentary, made for "American Movie Classics," contains a never-before-seen reconstruction of the actress's last, unfinished film, "Something's Got To Give." For those folks not interested in investing in the entire box, however, each movie is also available separately.
For me, nothing topped Marilyn's 1959 performance in "Some Like It Hot," but of the films represented here, the musical-comedy "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is one of the standouts. It was directed by Howard Hawks, who seemed equally at home in light comedy ("Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday") as in action drama ("Sergeant York," "Red River," "El Dorado"). In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," Marilyn and Jane Russell play a pair of entertainers, best friends with opposite tastes in men. Marilyn is Lorelei Lee, a gold digger interested only in marrying a rich fellow. Russell is Dorothy Shaw, the more sensible of the two, who is looking for an ordinary guy. Interestingly, as this was Ms. Monroe's first real starring vehicle, she gets second billing to Russell. In her next picture, "There's No Business Like Show Business," she would also be billed second (third, actually, to Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor), but that would be the last time.
Anyway, in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" Lorelei is engaged to a milquetoast character, Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), who seems to have solely one thing going for him--money. He gives her a diamond as big as the Ritz and asks her, "Is it the right size?" She responds, "Well, it can never be too big." That's the kind of girl she is. Marilyn plays her as a dumb blonde stereotype part of the time, but as a not-so-dumb blonde, too, a manipulator who can be smart when it's needed. "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man," she explains.
The story is slight, and neither Lorelei nor Dorothy is particularly lovable or even sympathetic. Most of the plot occurs while the two are on board a luxury liner bound for France, where Lorelei is to meet her fiancee's family. On board, they encounter an American Olympic team, all looking to be in their thirties, members of which Lorelei tries to set up with Dorothy; but Dorothy is attracted to a tall, dark stranger, Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid). "I want you to find happiness and stop having fun," Lorelei tells her. Meanwhile, Lorelei meets a doddering old codger, Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Corburn), who owns a diamond mine, and her eyes light up. Trying on a tiara belonging to the old man's wife, she exclaims, "I just love finding new places to wear diamonds."
The film, based on the play by Anita Loos and Joseph Field, is primarily enjoyable for its music and songs, and for its witty dialogue provided by screenwriter Charles Lederer ("His Girl Friday," "Kismet," "Can-Can"). The songs include "Two Little Girls from Little Rock," "Bye Bye Baby," "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love," "When Love Goes Wrong," and the show stopping "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," first sung in a big set piece by Monroe and later done in a lively reprise by Russell.
Like the other discs in the Diamond Collection, the transfer of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" to DVD was done from a restored print. The results are excellent, but you'll have to ignore the small print at the bottom of the keep case that says the movie is in widescreen. It isn't. In fact, it's the only one of the movies in the collection that isn't in widescreen, having been made barely prior to (or shortly after) the introduction of CinemaScope. In any case, the image quality is outstanding, the Technicolor hues gorgeously bright, glossy, and jazzy, just as I imagine they first appeared on the big screen. There is some small degree of color bleed-through, very minimal, but no grain or markings of wear of any kind to be seen. Indeed, this standard-screen rendering provides the best picture quality of any of the discs in the set, the others, all in widescreen (and some very wide, like up to 2.30:1 wide), seeming just a little more ragged around the edges or just a tad more faded out.
"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," like the other discs, offers two audio choices--the original monaural or a newly remastered Dolby Digital stereo. Understandably, the sonics are not too wide across the front speakers and hardly noticeable in the back, but they enjoy the benefit of sounding smooth and natural and betray no hint of age. Background noise is virtually nonexistent.
All of the discs have a few special features on them, "Gentlemen" containing English and French spoken language choices, English and Spanish subtitles, a before-and-after demonstration of the film restoration process used on the film, a very brief Movietone newsreel called "Mann's Chinese Theater: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Cement," some poster art, thirty scene selections, and a theatrical trailer. But the principal extras appear on the sixth, bonus disc in the box. That's where we get the two-hour documentary, narrated by James Coburn, on the making of Marilyn's final, unfinished picture, "Something's Got To Give." The first hour and a half is given over to the travails of production, mainly the constant delays caused by Monroe's various "illnesses," her deterioration, her subsequent firing, her surprising reinstatement, and her death. The last thirty-five minutes or so present the reconstructed film, as much as was completed, which costars Dean Martin, Cyd Charisse, Wally Cox, Steve Allen, and others. The reconstruction was pieced together in 1999, and it's the first time it has ever been available to the public. It doesn't amount to much and would be remade the next year as "Move Over, Darling" with Doris Day and James Garner; but the reconstruction does contain Marilyn's infamous nude swimming scene. Such a tragedy, as she appears never to have looked or performed any better than here at the last.
"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" will win no contests for greatest musical-comedy ever made, nor is it Ms. Monroe's greatest achievement. She would later prove her acting talents, more or less, in "Bus Stop" and refine her comedic flair in "Some Like It Hot." But "Gentlemen" does offer a solid two hours of lightweight fluff as only vintage Hollywood could provide. It fills the screen with beautiful people, beautiful color, clever talk, and enjoyable songs. You don't get that kind of thing much anymore.