“Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but, my goodness, doesn’t it help?” That may be the definitive summary of modern American relationships. Hardly surprising, then, that it comes from the ruby lips of Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film that finally distinguished director Howard Hawks as capitalism’s Sergei Eisenstein. But though Gentlemen Prefer Blondes may be a celebration of the 1950s consumerist status quo, Hawks subverts conventional social mores—especially the phony, commercially endorsed notion of “romantic love”—with his depiction of two highly intelligent, cunning, sexually domineering women in Monroe’s Lorelei Lee and Jane Russell’s Dorothy Shaw.
The film is only Hawks’s second experiment with the musical, after 1948’s Danny Kaye vehicle A Song Is Born, and yet the genre feels like such a natural fit. Many of his other films contain musical interludes—“Hong Kong Blues” in To Have and Have Not and “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” in Rio Bravo— that deepen our understanding of his characters and the worlds they inhabit. Robin Wood, as ever, silences those plot-minded critics who erroneously regard these moments as mere filler: “Those who complain that [Hawks] ‘compromises’ by including ‘comic relief’ and songs in Rio Bravo call to mind the eighteenth century critics who saw Shakespeare’s clowns as mere vulgar irrelevancies stuck in to please the ‘ignorant’ masses…Hawks like Shakespeare uses his clowns and his songs for fundamentally serious purposes….” The musical form was ideal for Hawks, and he uses the three songs kept from Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s original Broadway score, and a couple new ones written by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson, to reveal new dimensions of character to predatory Lorelei and man-hungry Dorothy, as, in what little plot there is, they cross the Atlantic on a luxury liner, picking up men—and jewels—by the handful. As a battle of the sexes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes reverts back to the pre-screwball comedy era of Baby Face and Gold Diggers of 1933 (Anita Loos’s original flapper novel, on which the film is based, was written in 1925), in which material comfort is emphasized over true love. This nascent 1920s feminism is at odds with the conservative 1950s milieu of the film itself, clashing almost as violently as Hawks’s out-of-control color palette.
Hawks is not typically thought of as a woman’s director, the way George Cukor or Kenji Mizoguchi have been. Hawks usually directed male-driven yarns about guys performing a job. His male leads define themselves in terms of their occupations—whether Cary Grant’s pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, Gary Cooper’s stuffy academic in Ball of Fire, Rock Hudson’s sports-gear salesman in Man’s Favorite Sport?, Bogey’s charter-boat operator in To Have and Have Not, or John Wayne’s sheriff in Rio Bravo. The key is that these characters never identify themselves by their relationships with women. The opposite sex is always mystifying and, actually, intimidating. Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) in Ball of Fire, Slim (Lauren Bacall) in To Have and Have Not, and Feathers (Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo far outrank the male characters in their films in terms of sexual experience, making these tough-guys actually look immature, even virginal, by comparison. If Hollywood’s ideology, per Robin Wood, typically celebrates virile, sexually capable, undomesticated men and demure, domesticated women, then Hawks’s films almost always break from this dogma.
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, however, he places two women front and center as his leads: the man-eating Dorothy and the gold-digging Lorelei, who, played by Marilyn Monroe, is like the parody of what men want in a woman, but whose predatory instincts are revealed when she imagines Charles Coburn’s head turning into a humongous diamond. Unlike Cukor or Mizoguchi, those supposed masters of directing women, who too often regard the opposite sex with little more than reverence or pity, Hawks actually gives Dorothy and Lorelei sexual agency. From the opening image of the movie, when the two gals pop on screen in their bombshell red dresses against a black, then blue, backdrop, it’s clear he intends for them to dominate the screen from start to finish. This is no mere cheesecake spectacle served up for a horny male audience. Even at their most glamorous, in the opening number or during the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” centerpiece of the film, Monroe and Russell always look directly into the camera, the gazed gazing back, fully aware of their power over the men in the film and in the audience. In fact, if there’s a single film that could shatter Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze” it’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The camera’s point of view in much of Hollywood cinema may be a male one, regarding women with fetishistic fascination, but Hawks shows how it can be easily hijacked by gals smart enough to control—and manipulate—what it is that their drooling dude audience is seeing.
Of course, Hawks portrays the whole male race through the absurd trinity of a bespectacled milquetoast, an aged letch, and a fastidiously intellectual 12-year-old boy—not to mention the anonymous, interchangeable hard bodies of the U.S. Olympic team, the entirety of which Dorothy intends to romance. Not since Mae West purred to Cary Grant to come up and see her sometime has a woman so successfully objectified men as in Russell’s rendition of “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” Russell parades in an androgynous black leotard through a crowd of unnamed, shirtless dancers and acrobats—sexualized, yet marginalized, the way female backup dancers usually are—belting lyrics like “I like big muscles and red corpuscles/I like a beautiful hunk of man.” Since today we’re so unaccustomed to seeing men reduced to anonymous sexual spectacle, one’s kneejerk reaction to this number is its homoeroticism—I suppose just like how Lady Gaga’s overt expressions of her sexuality must mean she has a dick. Or is it that Hawks actually provides for a female gaze? In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, at least, he does.