Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, 20th Century Fox has released a collection of the blonde bombshell’s most iconic movies in a single set. The “Forever Marilyn” collection, which is available on both DVD and Blu-ray, features “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “How to Marry a Millionaire,” “River of No Return,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Misfits.”
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES
MOVIE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Featuring Jane Russell and Monroe as showgirls out to land a husband. They end up on a cruise and get caught up affairs and accused of being robbers. This film marks the start of a historic run of films from 20th Century Fox, and it includes the iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production number that has found its way into pop culture history.
This is a charming film with both Monroe and Russell lighting up the screen. They offer a sharp contrast, not just in hair color but in delivery and what makes them each beautiful. Russell holds her own against Monroe’s sexuality, offering a more mature and less quirky allure. They are the Betty and Veronica of old Hollywood in this film.
Though made before the sex comedies became popular, it dips into these taboo subjects and galvanized Monroe into the sizzling sex symbol she has become. She’s not the greatest actor in this film, but it’s impossible not to fall in love with her in this film.
HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE
MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
Following up “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Monroe is joined by Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall as three Manhattan models who hatch a scheme to marry into wealth. Each girl is given her own story as they swerve into unlikely relationships and find out that love is sometimes more powerful than money.
Like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “How to Marry a Millionaire” gives a modern audience a chance to not just look at the charming Monroe at the height of her career, but also a chance to sample other sex symbols of the day. Grable and Bacall are both charming and beautiful, delivering a light-hearted romance for each. It’s an ensemble piece and works as three colliding storylines.
Monroe’s part in the film is relatively small for such a starring icon, but she does some things a little bit outside of the perfect beauty. Playing a near-sighted klutz who refuses to wear her glasses (because she fears no man will find her attractive with them), Monroe allows herself to take a few pratfalls, showing her as relatable and sympathetic. It’s not my favorite film in the pack, but it makes a worthy companion piece to watch with “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
RIVER OF NO RETURN
MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
Here was Monroe starting to stretch out of her dumb blonde persona. She plays a showgirl in the old west who ends up in the middle of a feud during the Gold Rush. Her husband and partner double-crosses Robert Mitchum, and she sticks around to help him and his son.
Even though Monroe plays the typical chorus beauty from the classic western, much of the film finds her outside of that element, living off the land as she travels down the river with Mitchum and his son. It gives her a meatier part and doesn’t rely on her looking flawlessly painted with make-up. Monroe’s part is still unrealistically fresh, but she’s given a chance to stretch a bit in this film and dip her toes into adventure.
What’s impressive with this film is the scenery, as you’ll find with most quality westerns. In addition to the grand landscapes, there’s some thrilling moments on the raft in the raging river that are extremely impressive for the time this movie was made. Much of these scenes are filled with obvious cinematography gaffs by today’s standards, but that only stands at a testament as to how ambitious these scenes were to be shot in the 1950s.
THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS
MOVIE: *1/2 (out of 5 stars)
This is easily the weakest film of the bunch and the weakest film for a Monroe fan. In fact, it’s not much of a Marilyn Monroe film any more than “All About Eve” was because Monroe’s part was so limited. Instead, this is a show tune spectacular starring Ethel Merman and Dan Daily as Vaudeville performers adjusting to changing times. Their family is the focus, and its only their son Tim (Donald O’Connor) and his relationship with Monroe’s character that brings her into the story.
Not to speak ill of musical legend Irving Berlin, but this film suffers from the problems that many forgotten musicals did. There’s about twenty minutes of real story to the piece, and even then it’s loaded with painful cliches. Most of the connective tissue of the film is found in the production numbers, which are often impressive. However, the film plays out more like a musical revue than any real story.
It’s no surprise that “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was a bit of a dud in its original run and only came back to prominence as a nostalgia piece on the old movie networks.
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH
MOVIE: **** (out of 5 stars)
This is easily my favorite of the collection, and not just for Marilyn Monroe’s part in it. Tom Ewell, who is arguably the main star in the film, knocks this Billy Wilder comedy out of the park with his portrayal of Richard Sherman, a mild-mannered publishing executive who finds himself fraught with temptation when he meets his sexy upstairs neighbor. With his wife out of the city for the summer, he engages in Walter Mitty style fantasies as he faces the “seven year itch,” which is the desire for a man to have an affair every seven years.
Monroe is critical to this film, however, because she plays the most adorable and charming object of Richard’s affection. She’s aloof but not annoyingly so. She manipulates a bit, but not in a malicious way. A strange friendship blossoms between the two of them, and its’ Richard’s hang-ups that cause him so much strife. Billy Wilder expertly directs this almost-sex-comedy, which is filled with references that seem tame by today’s standards but pushed the limit back then.
Like other Billy Wilder films, “The Seven Year Itch” works best when it’s just showcasing its actors, often in the same set for long stretches of time. Being based on a play, it works with these constraints and allows the audience to focus on the chemistry of the characters rather than the sets or the locations.
SOME LIKE IT HOT
MOVIE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
This is another classic, and it was my first introduction to Marilyn Monroe when I was a child. More a starring vehicle for Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (who make awesomely ugly women, by the way), the film tells the story of two musicians who witness a mob hit and go on the run by cross dressing and hiding in an all-girl band on a trip to Florida. Monroe plays Sugar Cane, the lead singer and ukulele player whom both have the hots for.
Again directed by Billy Wilder, “Some Like It Hot” delivers a sweet, light-hearted comedy that has a lot to say. Monroe had a bit of a come-back with this movie, working with Wilder again after some conflicts on “The Seven Year Itch.” She’s as charming as ever, and she provides a nice foil against the attractive but cocky Tony Curtis.
Even for its two-hour-plus running time, “Some Like It Hot” moves briskly and delivers both laughs and character development. It’s no wonder this is one of the most famous movies in the pack without necessarily being known for iconic Monroe moments.
MOVIE: **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Here is the bittersweet installment in the collection. “The Misfits” was Monroe’s final completed picture, which was released the year before her death. It shows an aging Marilyn Monroe, who is noticeably staring to lose her picture-perfect looks from the 50s. She’s put on some weight, and her body isn’t looking the best in a bathing suit. She’s still beautiful and stunning, but it shows an American icon who (had she not died) would have started to fade into her 40s.
Also, “The Misfits” was quite a diversion for Monroe, even though she still played a version of her classic image. This was more of a characters study and intimate portrait than a caricature that she often played. The story followed a band of unlikely friends who meet in Reno, Nevada and spend time getting to know each other before they try to make a last-chance effort to make money rounding up wild mustangs.
“The Misfits” is a tender story, although overly talky for my own tastes. It’s significant in showing both Monroe and co-star Clark Gable’s final films. Shot in stark black-and-white and feeling wholly from its era (the early 1960s, with a flavor of a non-supernatural “Twilight Zone” episode), “The Misfits” shows where Monroe’s career could have gone before it was cut short.