(In French, On TV, November 2018) I’m on a quest to watch pretty much everything that George Cukor has directed, and for Let’s Make Love to feature Marilyn Monroe is just extra incentive. Coming at this film with expectations raised too high may be a problem, though: despite a few cameos and occasional flashes of wit, the result is decidedly average and not quite what we’d expect from the cast or the opening moments. The first few minutes of the film do set up a far funnier film than what we get, through narration explaining the family history of the lead character (played by Yves Montand), a Franco-American billionaire who ends up playing himself in a satirical play in order to get close to Monroe’s character. The difficulties in having a businessman attempting to become a stage sensation soon lead him to the film’s most inspired sequences, namely hiring Milton Berle for comedy tips, Gene Kelly for dancing lessons and Bing Crosby to learn how to sing. The three men play themselves, leading to a few cool moments if you’re already a fan of these entertainment legends. Otherwise, though, the film is surprisingly underwhelming. The traditional romantic comedy hijinks aren’t executed particularly well when Montand looks lost (thanks to language difficulties), Monroe is fine but doesn’t have much of a character besides looking pretty (this was at a point in her career when she was gathering a reputation for being unreliable), and the casting definitely seems off. High expectations make this film a disappointment, so do try to keep them under check: it’s not as good as you think it will be from reading the cast list, and the behind-the-scenes drama of making the film (what with an affair between the two leads even as they were married to other high-profile celebrities) is arguably more interesting than what shows up on-screen. [December 2018: My opinion of Let’s Make Love went up a small notch after catching an English-language broadcast of the film: The French version not only has some very awkward transitions between English-language songs and interstitial French dialogue, but has the gall to cut off some of the Berle/Kelly/Crosby material that is the highlight of the film. French dubs are usually much better than this.]
(On TV, November 2018) As someone who doesn’t go crazy for blondes, I’m less susceptible than most to Marilyn Monroe’s charms. But she could be a hilarious comedienne when given the right material, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) is as good a showcase for her brand of humour as anything else I’ve seen her in so far. Helmed by the always-excellent Howard Hawks, this is a Hollywood musical from the golden age, as two women make their transatlantic way to Paris in search of husbands and their fortunes. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Monroe’s Pink Dress are set-pieces of the film, the song reprised more than once. Monroe is very, very funny as the ditzy but clever heroine, while Jane Russell is spectacular as her brunette friend—her “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” number (complete with a surprising amount of cheekiness) is a highlight. Maybe a bit lighter on songs than you’d expect from a 1950s Hollywood musical comedy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) is heavier on comedy. All of this plays quite well to Monroe’s comedic talents—the film is her showcase even if I prefer Russell on general principles. The gender roles of the film are hopelessly dated, of course (the film is based on a 1940s Broadway musical itself based on a 1920s comic novel, explaining some of the material such as crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner) but once you get into the 1950s frame of mind, anyone will realize that the heroines are really the masters of the plot, playing their hands as skillfully as they can. That kind of agency (need we go over the Hawks woman archetype again?) certainly helps Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (nonsense!) survive well through the decades, offering many of the same pleasures that audiences of the 1950s enjoyed while watching the film.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2018) It’s easy to see why Monkey Business is often considered to be a loose follow-up to Bringing up Baby—Howard Hawks is back with a fast-paced comedy, Cary Grant reprises his silly intellectual mode, Ginger Rogers steps in as the wilder female partner and the film is at its best when it’s just goofing around. Thanks to a high-concept premise (what if a serum gave you back your youth … or at least made you regress back in age mentally?), there are plenty of opportunities for random silliness. The film never gets better than seeing Day play at being a bratty schoolgirl, although seeing Marilyn Monroe vamp it up as a voluptuous secretary is also fun. While it’s technically a science-fiction film, Monkey Business is best seen as a farce reteaming Hawks and Grant together and just having fun along the way. (This being said, the film’s best laugh comes early on in the opening credits sequence, as the director tells Grant “not yet” and to go back behind the door before making an entrance. Alas, the film doesn’t go back to metatextual comedy.) It’s really not quite up to Bringing up Baby’s standards—the film is occasionally annoying (the monkey), occasionally dull (anything with the scientists), occasionally offensive to modern sensibilities (never mind “the secretary”; I have in mind the “Indian scalping” schoolyard playing.) It’s still not a bad time thanks to the aforementioned goofing off, but it could have been better.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) There’s a deliciously impish quality to All about Eve that becomes apparent only a few moments in the movie, and remains the film’s best quality throughout. It’s a cynical look at showbusiness, triangulated between actors, writers and critics. Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz can use rich material in his exploration of the dirty side of theatrical showbusiness, and his actors, in-between Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and George Sanders, are all up to the challenges of his vision. (Plus, a small role for Marilyn Monroe.) All about Eve has a lot to say about fame, acting, age and even a touch of closeted homosexuality. It does so with considerable wit—the film is good throughout, but it improves sharply whenever George Sanders shows up as a waspy critic acting as an impish narrator. The film still plays exceptionally well today: showbusiness hasn’t changed much, and much of the film doesn’t deal in easily dated artifacts … although some of the social conventions have thankfully moved on. A bit like contemporary Sunset Blvd, All about Eve is a film built on wit and a great script, so it’s no surprise that it would stay so engaging sixty-five years later.
(On DVD, January 2018) Curiously enough, it takes longer than expected for Some Like it Hot to warm up. The first act, in which two Chicago-based musicians witness a mob murder and decide to go on the run by cross-dressing and joining an all-female musical group to Florida, is occasionally a slog. Sure, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are sympathetic enough, and Marilyn Monroe makes a striking entrance, but the film seems far too busy setting up its ridiculous situation to get many laughs. Things get much better once the story lands in a posh Florida resort, as the complications pile up and the film’s true nature starts coming out. By the time Lemmon’s character has to fake being uninterested in Monroe as she slinks all over him, or as Curtis rather likes the attention he’s getting as a woman, the film starts hitting its peak comic moments. It keeps going to a rather simple but effective final line. It helps, from an atmospheric perspective, that the Floridian passages spend quality time looking at a high-end lifestyle in which yachts are treated as mobile homes for the rich—there’s some wish-fulfillment right there. Thematically, the film has a few surprises in store: For a comedy dealing in cross-dressing and attraction based on misrepresented gender, Some Like it Hot has aged surprisingly well—it’s far less prone to gay panic than you’d expect from a movie from the fifties, and still feels almost progressive in the way it approaches same-sex attraction. As a result of its pro-love anti-hate agenda, it can be rewatched without too much trouble even today, while many (most!) movies of its era feel grossly dated. Much of this credit goes to director Billy Wilder as he allows Lemmon, Curtis and Monroe, to become a terrific comic trio and help the film get over its duller moments. The far more interesting last half makes up for an average beginning, and Some Like it Hot is still worth a look today.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s a place for everything in the universe of movie-making, including a movie-about-a-movie featuring a thespian, a star and a young man who learns better. Based on the true story of a young British man who once became Marilyn Monroe’s assistant during the shooting of a movie, My Week with Marilyn is a look at a flawed icon, a comedy about 1960s British film-making and a coming-of-age drama in which people get their heart broken “a little”. While much of the film’s noteworthiness is based on Michelle Williams’ convincing portrayal of Marilyn Monroe at the height of her stardom, the film is just as interesting as it presents the adventures of an aspiring filmmaker hired as a production assistant. Movie-making isn’t necessarily romantic, and My Week with Marilyn is perhaps at its funniest when it shows figures such as Laurence Olivier dealing with the stresses of directing a fluffy comedy production. The second half of the film evolves into a quasi-romance between Monroe and our boy protagonist, showing Monroe’s flaws and not neglecting the inexperience of the viewpoint character. The film doesn’t have to fight hard to keep viewers’ attention, and the period detail is convincing even though it’s Monroe’s personality that brings the entire story together. Not particularly deep, but intriguing enough: It’s easy to see why My Week with Marilyn earned some critical attention, and that it did so without sacrificing any of its ability to please audiences.