…have you ever heard of the words “star quality”?
Is it the same as talent?
It is rarer.
— Terry Prachett, Maskerade
Is there a movie that’s better-known for one scene (and necessarily remembered for anything else) than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Decades ago, I went to a traveling exhibition on diamonds at the Natural History Museum, and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” was playing on a loop in one room (just before the end, where you could watch a diamond cutter at work). Madonna stole the look and much of the choreography for one of her most iconic videos, “Material Girl.” That pink dress with its big bow still looks timeless, and Marilyn Monroe still magnetic. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” deserves its immortality.
So, though, does Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Based on a hit musical that was based on a bestselling novel, directed by legend Howard Hawks, it’s a battle-of-the-sexes comedy, a romance, a musical, and at its heart a completely sincere ode to female friendship.
Marilyn and the then-better known Jane Russell star as best friends and showgirls Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei is optimistic, sweet, a little ditzy; Dorothy is down-to-earth and no-nonsense. But Lorelei is smarter than she lets on (for those of you old enough to remember WKRP in Cincinnati, that show’s Jennifer owes a lot to Lorelei), and Dorothy has a big, generous heart. This is a classic buddy comedy, but the movie doesn’t lean on cliches to make the plot or comedy work. It doesn’t need to. Instead, there are two women defying expectations about what women want, saving the day and looking out for each other, and having a ball in the process.
The plot is reasonably straightforward: Monroe’s engaged to a rich man, the rich man’s dad doesn’t trust her and hires a private investigator, Russell falls for the PI, there are a few flirtations and a man who can’t be trusted, but it all turns out okay. The pleasures are the bright tone, the jokes (Russell’s “Anyone Here for Love”, where she tries to flirt with a score of indifferent Olympic athletes, is full of them), the camaraderie that lets us believe that these two very different women are the best of friends. It’s the same generous spirit that made female friendship shows like The Golden Girls such pleasures, and makes the viewer wish they could sit down with Lorelei and Dorothy for a cup of coffee and a lot of gossip.
Russell and Monroe are sometimes dismissed as sex symbols or jokes, or tragedies. It’s true that Marni Nixon dubbed some of Monroe’s high notes in Gentlemen. It’s true that she wasn’t always easy to work with. It’s true that Howard Hughes designed a bra just for Russell and tried to force her into more revealing outfits for the movies he financed, and that both women struggled with substance abuse. But these women are more than any of that, and their talent is undeniable (Russell held her own in Sondheim’s Company in a six-month Broadway run much later in her career), alongside that all-too-rare star quality that made Russell a pinup in World War II and has kept the world obsessed with Monroe’s brilliant smile.
I haven’t said too much about the plot because I want you to discover this movie’s pleasures for yourself; lucky for you, if you’re in the US, the movie is streaming on Hulu right now (and available on most other platforms for about four bucks). Like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, it’s a lot more than it appears to be at first glance…and a hell of a lot of fun.