Friday, July 1, 2011

Some Like it Gab!

Wise: Welcome home, Werth!

Werth: Why, thank you, Wise. It was so nice to come home from my European vacation to find out that BAM is throwing me a special Welcome Home party.

Wise: BAM is throwing you a Welcome Home party?

Werth: What else could a festival of Marilyn Monroe movies mean?

Wise: Right, Lance. And the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is for your birthday. 

Werth: The festival starts today, July 1st, and runs through July 17th, and includes all of Marilyn's best work. Marilyn was my gateway drug to the world of classic film so I can't wait to catch a couple of these flicks on the big screen. If only I could move into BAM for a couple weeks...

Wise: I know this must be difficult for you, but if you had to choose your favorite Marilyn movie—which would it be?

Werth: I can't. It would be like picking out your favorite child if all of your children were beautiful, talented and never sassed you back. 

Wise: Your children will be genetically full of sass.

Werth: —but for today's Film Gab, I'd like to talk about what many feel is her most well-rounded and fully realized role—the nightclub chanteuse, Cherie in Joshua Logan's Bus Stop (1956). After her uber-successful turn in The Seven Year Itch (1955), Marilyn high-tailed it to New York City to study with Lee Strasberg at the prestigious Actors' Studio, made 20th Century Fox re-negotiate her contract in her favor, started her own production company, and began dating famed playwright Arthur Miller.

Wise: None of that seems to be the work of a dumb blond.

Werth: Exactly. Marilyn was fighting desperately to be taken seriously by the studio and the public, so Bus Stop, the movie version of the highly acclaimed William Inge Broadway play, was critical to her re-creating her persona. Bus Stop tells the story of Beau Decker, a naive, never-off-the-ranch cowboy (played with annoying fervor by handsome Don Murray) who goes to Phoenix to compete in a rodeo and find the gal he's gonna marry. When he hears Cherie singing "That Old Black Magic" in a cheap honky-tonk, he's convinced he's found his "angel." 

Wise: Because nothing puts a man more in the mood for love than bronco busting. 

Werth: But Cherie has no intention of being thrown off her unlikely Hollywood stardom "direction" by being diverted to matrimony on a cattle ranch. So what is Beau to do but lasso Cherie and drag her onto a bus bound for Montana. 

Wise: Who wouldn't fall for a man with a bus ticket and a plan for abduction?  

Werth: While many of the typical Marilyn touches are here (beautiful pale skin and blond hair, singing and humor that relies on her not being the sharpest pin in the cushion) she elevates these elements beyond mere comedy to develop her character—much as a dramatic actress would craft a role. Cherie is so much more than a "dumb hillbilly." She is soft and tender, lost, willful, and earth-shatteringly beautiful without glamor. Her show costume is ripped, her hair mussy and in one scene Logan even catches Marilyn drooling languidly on her arm.

Wise: Drooling usually makes me worry that I've had an aneurysm. 

Werth: Unfortunately Marilyn's desire to re-craft her movie career was not successful, but with Bus Stop, Monroe proved she could act—and it's sad that we never got to see her fully realize her potential as a more mature actress. 

Wise: I think there are a few clues about what that might have looked like in one of her final performances, and while it's a little bit difficult to come by, Something's Got to Give, a reconstruction of her final, uncompleted film, is definitely worth watching.  

Werth: The reconstruction was included as part of the documentary Marilyn: The Final Days

Wise: The film, a remake of Cary Grant-starring farce My Favorite Wife, began filming in 1962 under the direction of George Cukor and co-starred Dean Martin as Nick Arden, an attorney who has his wife declared dead seven years after her boat was lost at sea.  Ellen (Marilyn) reappears just before Nick and his new wife Bianca (Cyd Charisse) return from their honeymoon, and the revelation that Nick is an inadvertent bigamist drives all the screwball comedy that follows.  

Werth: Bigamy—Mormonism's greatest gift to comedy.

Wise: The Marilyn that appears in the footage is very different from the comedienne who had been charming audiences for over a decade.  Plagued by an acute sinus infection she had caught on a trip to New York to study with  Strasburg, and still recovering from gall bladder surgery left her twenty-five pounds lighter than her typical adult weight, Marilyn was thinner and more mournful than the giggly buxom blond she normally played. 

Werth: The documentary also points out she was heavy into her affair with one or both of the Kennedy boys—not to mention her addiction to sleeping pills that plagued her last several films. 

Wise: There are some great comedic bits that survive (including Wally Cox playing a milquetoast Ellen recruits as an alibi), but an undercurrent of sadness runs through the competed scenes.  Of course, Marilyn's illness was partly to blame, but she's also playing a woman who has lost everything—her husband, her children, her home—and she's not sure whether there's still a place for her among them or even if she wants to be there.  
It makes me wonder how much Marilyn connected this role with the events in her own life; the hardships in both her personal and professional lives must have made returning to a film set into a bit like haunting a world where you no longer exist.  

Werth:  Pretty spooky, Wise.  But Marilyn wouldn't have wanted to creep us out. Let's pep up this Welcome Home party with some blond fireworks.  

Wise: Happy Fourth of July to all our Film Gab readers! 



Bratty Duke said...

What? No comment about her spot-on comedic timing in Gentlemen Prefer Blonds? For shame, you two. She was brilliant in that film; Howard Hawks clearly brought out the best in her.

FilmGabwithWerth&Wise said...

Gentlemen is definitely a great film and Hawks a fantastic director, but part of the greatness of Marilyn is how well she was able to tailor her blond bombshell persona to suit the demands of each film she made.


FilmGabwithWerth&Wise said...

I would argue that Billy Wilder brought out the best in her- but you are absolutely correct in singling out her performance in Gentlemen. Comedy gold.