Page to Screen: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
based on the novel by Anita Loos

I was so excited when I went home for the winter holidays. (…Posting buffers are a beautiful thing, people.) I was under the impression that The Borgias, starring my beloved Jeremy Irons, was available on Netflix Instant, which I could access at my parents’ house. But I was bitterly disappointed; it was, rather, Borgias, a Canal+ production. I’d cleared out an evening to devote to the first few episodes, so I browsed around and stumbled across Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I love Technicolor musicals and it was, in a roundabout fashion, based on a book! It was a win-win situation for everyone.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes focuses on two best friends—showgirls Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw. Bubble-headed blonde Lorelei is engaged to the wealthy Gus Esmond, whose father disapproves of the marriage, assuming Lorelei is only after Gus’ money. (This is only half-true.) The two plan on sailing to to France to marry, but Gus is prevented by his father. Lorelei decides to go anyway, bringing along the acerbic Dorothy, onto a cruise that includes rich old men, an entire Olympic team of athletic young men, and one detective sent by Esmond’s father to keep an eye on Lorelei. All the two women have to do is keep their noses clean… but when have Lorelei and Dorothy ever been good at doing that?

I now refer to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as “Idiot and Bad Idea Friend Go on a Cruise”. Lorelei’s not the brightest, to be sure (although she can be about somethings), but Dorothy is a stunning example of the Bad Idea Friend, whom you might be more familiar with from modern romantic comedies. She’s the snarky best friend with a healthy sexual appetite and an even healthier appetite for drink. The modern incarnation can be a bit of a hot mess (and gloriously so—take the best friend from 27 Dresses for example), but Dorothy is tall, dark, snarky, and amazing. (I think I’m a little in love with Jane Russell, guys, it’s fantastic.) Russell and Monroe play wonderfully off each other, as Dorothy tries to rescue Lorelei from herself and Lorelei’s bubble of stupidity resists her logic. They’re wacky without being vulgar or falling into slapstick, and it’s an absolute delight.

I love Technicolor musicals because of the color palette; there’s really nothing like it. It’s bright, cheerful, and almost artistic in its simplicity. I was first introduced to it in Singin’ in the Rain, which I shamefully saw for the first time just last year. (But how blue were Cosmo’s eyes!) The rest of the art design doesn’t disappoint. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes takes place in an idealized, sanitized universe, which is particularly apparent when the girls reach Paris. But it’s a glamorous world of men fighting for Lorelei’s table at dinner, drinking at dinner, and, most fascinatingly, a world of female agency.

I wasn’t exactly expecting that in a 1950s musical, but the film actually treats women’s sexual agency as a given. True, it’s only straight white women and true, the two are married off at the very end of the film, but Dorothy’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” is an entire number about Dorothy lusting after attractive, athletic men wearing gym shorts that make them look like they’re entirely in the buff. Even Lorelei is refreshingly pragmatic about her attraction to monied men, which culminates in a fantastic speech she gives to the senior Esmond, ultimately shutting him up—not to mention the famous “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number. It’s downright refreshing, and it’s pleasant to see in a female-led comedy. Not that the gents don’t get some cracks in; Ernie Malone, the detective, gets in some absolutely fantastic lines. Of course, some of this is undercut by the female furniture in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, which just freaked me out.

The music isn’t as fantastic as I had hoped; first of all, very few songs from the actual musical based on Loos’ book survived to the film adaptation, and I’m used to much more produced modern versions. (I first encountered “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” via Moulin Rouge, which is a fantastic cover.) “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a little disappointing, but the fact that Dorothy gets to sing her own version of it while hoodwinking the French judicial system (it makes more sense in context, I promise, but it’s just as awesome as it sounds) more than makes up for it. It’s still a musical with a musical’s sensibility, but the music is a bit lacking. Still, it’s quite a fun ride.

Bottom line: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a delightful and fun female-led comedy that could use better music, but still remains a great ride nonetheless.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.