Happy birthday, Marilyn Monroe, who was born ninety years ago to-day. Since I didn't have time to watch a movie last night I thought to-day I'd do a Marilyn Monroe list, not really a top ten list but sort of a primer using entries I've written about her over the years. Looking through my archive, I see I watched quite a few Marilyn Monroe films in 2011 for some reason. I have yet to write a proper entry about Monroe's best film, The Misfits, something I need to rectify one of these days. That's the trouble with a movie I first saw such a very long time ago and I've watched so many times.
One of Monroe's most famous films is The Seven Year Itch which I wrote about back in July, 2011. I don't recommend it, despite it being a Billy Wilder film, you're better off watching the famous clips of Monroe from the film than enduring its extraordinarily dated, ham-handed psychology. Of course, the best known collaboration between Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe is Some Like it Hot.
I haven't written a review for the film, another one that I'd seen several times before I started this blog in 2002, but in March, 2009 I visited the Hotel del Coronado, where much of the film's exteriors were shot, and managed to match up my photos with screenshots from the film. It's strange how things do change, like how this film was once seen as exceptionally progressive for sneaking in a pro-gay statement and now might be looked at as transphobic. It's one I think I'll have to revisit but having recently watched Alastair Sim play a woman in Belles of Saint Trinian I can say that I think comedies about men dressing as women can age better than one might expect. In the case of Saint Trinian, I think this is because, while the idea of a man dressed as a women may have been intended as funny when the film was shot, it still works to-day because the filmmakers, and crucially Sim, seem to buy into the reality of the character. She's foolish, like many of Sim's characters, but not because of anything about her that might be interpreted as masculine. Of course, Some Like It Hot has male characters in drag, so it might not age quite as well.
One film I can say definitely hasn't aged well is River of No Return. Starring alongside Monroe is Robert Mitchum and it's directed by Otto Preminger so I thought it couldn't miss. Yet it exemplifies some of the ugliest popular ideals of the 1950s about race, sex, and economics. It does have some magnificent visuals and I would like to revisit it at some point to see what I can find once I get past some of its uglier surface.
For films that have aged better, one might turn to the films Monroe made with Howard Hawks, seen above in the only movie she appeared in with Cary Grant, Monkey Business, which I wrote about on 11/11/11. The film is really about Grant's relationship with Ginger Rogers' character but Monroe has a fun minor role of the kind she was too often stuck with, the dumb blonde, in this very funny film.
Her better known film for Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has her playing a similar character but in a more prominent role where she is allowed to have something of a philosophy, even if it is a shallow one. Her musical numbers are justifiably legendary.
Much more impressive, though, is her one film with Lawrence Olivier, The Prince and the Showgirl. The story is pretty bland but the real great thing about the film is its pairing of the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff with Marilyn Monroe. It's often said how perfect a subject Monroe was for photography and she likely could make a bad photographer look good but there's a great pleasure in seeing her paired with someone truly great: Cardiff's Rembrandt inspired chiaroscuro makes use of her beauty as no other cinematographer did.
But certainly cinematographer Joseph MacDonald was no slouch in his work with Monroe in Niagara. Using hard noir shadows and violent saturated colour, this was Monroe's breakout role as a star and she serves as a muse of destruction for the great self-destructive noir character Joseph Cotten plays in the film. The volatility of their relationship is beautifully grotesque.
Monroe starred in several great films noir as well as having minor roles in other great noirs like Clash by Night and The Asphalt Jungle. Pictured above is Monroe with Richard Widmark in Don't Bother to Knock where she gives us the dark side of that dumb blonde for which she was normally typecast. In a way, she turns it into a villain and yet her vulnerability and inevitable magnetism make the film a true noir with the moral complexity that couldn't be found in a more simplistic crime film.