Getting to know Marilyn Monroe.

 

The legendary blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, has for some time been a mystery to me. The handful of movies that I’ve seen of hers have left me unimpressed. While unarguably beautiful, she always seems to play an unintelligent, gold-digger type, which is unappealing to me (personally, I’ve always been more of a Katharine Hepburn fan: I like a strong, independent female lead). However, while researching more about the mysterious Monroe, I’ve learned that she may have been much deeper than she seemed on the surface. Monroe had a troubled childhood; her father abandoned the family, and her mother was mentally ill. She grew up in foster homes, and was said to have been abused and nearly raped at the age of six. Surely she was more intelligent than the characters she portrayed, as she took literature courses at UCLA and was said to have been well-read (from a literature teacher’s mindset, this is an obvious sign of intelligence). So why did Monroe continue to play the role of the sex symbol, the bubble-headed blonde, seemingly without fail?

Two of Monroe’s early screen performances set the stage for the persona that would ultimately define her career. In the humorous 1952 film We’re Not Married!, five couples discover that their marriages are not legal. Two years after ceremonies conducted by a senile judge were performed, the couples are informed by letters that their marriages are not official. The elderly judge is reprimanded; apparently, he was not officially in office until January 15, but he still married five couples between December 24 – January 14. Because he was not officially a judge when he performed those ceremonies, the couples involved were not legally wed. One such couple is Mr. and Mrs. Norris (David Wayne and Monroe).

When the judge and his wife recall the couple, the judge can’t stop talking about how cute the young woman, Mrs. Norris, had been: “Wasn’t she cute? Remember how she blushed about everything?” The husband, on the other hand, was remembered as a “jerk.” When we meet the couple, we see that things have changed for them: while the Mrs. is away competing in beauty contests, her husband is at home cooking, cleaning, and taking care of their infant.

Her husband is obviously very frustrated with this arrangement. When he answers the door in an apron, the postman says, “Where’s Mrs. Norris? At the office?” When Mr. Norris opens the letter that explains the couple is not legally married, he is thrilled. He immediately wires the Mrs. Mississippi committee to have her stripped of her title, since technically she is no longer a “Mrs.” He believes that this will allow him to share more of the domestic duties with her. Unfortunately for him, when he tells her the news, she is ecstatic. This means that she can compete in the “Miss Mississippi” contest instead of the “Mrs. Mississippi” contest that she’s previously been a part of.

“We’re not married!”

This is one of the few films in which I’ve seen Marilyn playing a married woman with a child. Although she is a beauty queen, she does not play the sex kitten that she has in the majority of her other films that I’ve seen. Also, although she is rather selfish and neglectful of her family, she is not the ditsy blonde that I’ve come to know as “Marilyn Monroe.” Instead, she is an ambitious woman who seems to work hard to reach her goal, which, for once, is not to bag a rich man.

Marilyn has another small part in the 1952 film Monkey Business starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.

In this film, Dr. Fulton (Grant) attempts to create a fountain-of-youth drug. Thanks to a lab monkey, he is fairly successful. When he drinks the “miracle juice,” he begins to act like a young man. He goes out and purchases a new suit and a flashy sports car. Although he is married to the loyal Mrs. Fulton (Rogers), he spends time with a secretary who works at his company, Miss Laurel (Monroe). She seems to believe that he is romantically interested in her, and does her best to catch his attentions.

They spend the day together driving around in his sports car, roller-skating, and swimming at the community pool. After the drug wears off, he is no longer interested in the young, air-headed secretary. One of the most enjoyable parts of the film was watching Rogers threaten Monroe to stay away from her husband: “I’ll pull that blonde hair out by its black roots! … Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!”

Although she fit the bill, I found Monroe’s character to be, once again, static. This is another Monroe film in which she plays a beautiful, yet ignorant blonde. She seemed to be the exact same character that she played in some of her other films, such as The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Her performance in Bus Stop (1956) was slightly better, although she still plays a naive pushover who can’t seem to take control of the situation in which she becomes involved.

After reading her biographical information, I really want to become a Monroe fan, but I’m stymied by that overwhelmingly dizzy persona. In the relatively few films of hers that I have seen, Monroe just seems either unwilling or incapable of rising above the tired blonde stereotype. Was it fear? A sign of her inability/inexperience as an actress? Pressure from the studios? Or was she just more comfortable letting people see the facade as opposed to the “real thing?”

I’m convinced that there must more to her than meets the eye. Monroe fans, speak up! Are there Monroe performances out there that prove this? Can you help point this Monroe newbie in the right direction to find some performances that reflect the more cerebral, “real life” Marilyn?

 

This post is an entry in the “2012 TCM SUTS Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Check out the other Marilyn-centric posts that will be submitted throughout the day, and be sure to catch 24 hours of Monroe’s films all day on TCM.

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9 thoughts on “Getting to know Marilyn Monroe.

  1. What a provocative post! Loved it! It’s hard to separate Marilyn the Icon from Marilyn the Actress, isn’t it? I first embraced her as a feminist cautionary tale, especially after reading Steinem’s biography. It wasn’t until long after that I was able to enjoy her films for their own merits — as just movies. I recommend you watch The Prince and the Showgirl, the movie My Week with Marilyn was based on. She was one of the producers, so it reveals the kind of parts she wanted to play. And she’s so funny, so touching, so authentic — especially in comparison to Olivier. But then, in almost all her movies, she’s by far the best thing. And yes, I believe she was a studio pawn. Vulnerable to their machinations because she wanted IT (the chance to work as well as the public validation) so badly. It’s fascinating to compare her to La Liz. Taylor was told from infancy she was beautiful and was supported by an unconventional but still nuclear family. Her career was not her choice, it was thrust upon her, and she found so much success at such a young age that she understood her power and was bold enough to use it. Marilyn, on the other hand, tried to be a good little girl and do what the studios asked of her, and when it got too much for her she acted out in passive-aggressive ways that ended up hurting her more than them. I guess that’s what I have learned from Marilyn’s sad saga — there’s a big price to pay in sacrificing yourself to be what THEY want you to be.

  2. Pingback: 2012 tcm SUTS Blogathon Day 4: Marilyn Monroe « ScribeHard On Film

  3. Did you ever see “Clash by Night”? It’s not an entirely successful film – I think the Clifford Odets dialogue is a little overwritten – but Monroe gives a performance unlike most of the ones she ever gave in her iconic movies. She plays the girlfriend of Keith Andes (who plays Barbara Stanwyck’s younger brother), and for once, she’s not playing a larger than life figure. She even holds her own in her scenes with Stanwyck.

  4. Monroe was sort of hemmed in by the time in which she worked. The studio system was beginning to falter, and TV and suburbanization were slowly disintegrating the mass audience that movies had experienced since the 1920s. Add to that the diminished status of women after World War II, where they were relegated to Levittown motherhood, and their roles onscreen simply became less interesting.

    Marilyn was talented and likable (I am not about to use the overworked v-word to describe her), and part of me wishes she had been born 20 years earlier, when women in Hollywood were as valued for their personality and intelligence as for their measurements. Perhaps a ’30s Monroe might have been limited by her physicality into “dumb blonde” roles a la Marie Wilson — the popular build for women of that decade tended to be sleek, not buxom — but her charisma and comedic talent would have placed her right up there with Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and others of the era…and a Thalberg or a Lubitsch might have given her better treatment than Fox did in the ’50s.

  5. I have only seen a handful of Monroe films, so I don’t know if I’m the best person to comment on this, BUT–

    I have to admit that I cringe a little at the dumb blonde persona. That said, I adore the likes of Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, and even Judy Holliday. I think my problem is less Marilyn and more the movies of her time. I’m not a huge fan of the technicolor sex comedies.

    I agree with vp19– I think her performances would go down easier had she been a star during the ’30s.

    Thanks for this great piece for the blogathon!

  6. I love Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire”. Now, this is probably the kind of movie you abhor, but I think her comic timing is spot-on. In contrast to this movie is her final role in “The Misfits”. She is fantastic in this dramatic role.

  7. Although she played the ditzy, man chasing blond so often I have always felt like there was just so much more there. I think Niagara was one of her more serious roles…not sure how likeable her character would come off since she is cast as the femme fatale, but it is an interesting look at a different type of performance for her. Like so many others, I wish we’d had her with us longer.

  8. The Misfits Roselyn is a very different character and based alot
    on Marilyn herself. An unusual film and Clark Gables best ever.

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