Emily L. Stephens’ previous work for The Toast can be found here.
On the surface, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sounds like a delivery system for the tritest sexist jibes of midcentury movies: diamond-enthusiast Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and her man-hungry best friend Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) take their cabaret act overseas, setting sail for Europe to teach a lesson to Lorelei’s fiancé. At sea, they’re surrounded by Olympic athletes and rich older men, temptations that could easily sink the women’s reputations and ambitions. Even the title suggests rivalry between Lorelei and Dorothy, between blonde and brunette, between the soft-voiced siren and her brazen, wisecracking best friend.
Howard Hawks’ 1953 film upends those tired expectations with gleeful abandon. Instead of diminishing or disdaining the women or setting them at odds, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes observes the bonds of female friendship, showing how unfailingly Dorothy and Lorelei adore and defend each other. Their goals are different — Lorelei single-mindedly pursues financial security and Dorothy wants bawdy fun on her own terms — but both women use their smarts and sex appeal to navigate the constraints of a sexist world, each striking the patriarchal bargain that best suits their desires and needs, never selling each other out or selling themselves short.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a romping example of female agency in limited circumstances. These women work and play together, wresting their power and pleasures from the hands of men with relish. It’s a simple plot: Lorelei and her milquetoast millionaire fiancé Gus (“Missster Essssmond,” Lorelei calls him with sssultry sssibilance) are slated to sail on the Ile de Paris, to be married upon arrival in Cherbourg. When Mr. Esmond, Sr., wises up and forbids his son-and-heir to sail, Lorelei decides to use her ticket anyhow, in hopes of luring Gus (Tommy Noonan) away from his dominating father and into the delights of matrimony. Dorothy comes along for the ride — to see France, to perform abroad, to keep any whiff of scandal away from Lorelei, and just maybe to savor some scandalous good times herself.
From the first frame, their friendship is front and center. The opening number, “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” is adapted from the Broadway musical’s song about one girl from Little Rock. Instead, the film introduces Lorelei and Dorothy as a pair: they grew up together “on the wrong side of the tracks,” learned about romance and hard knocks together, and achieved success together. The two commiserate over romantic failures, celebrate success, cobble together plans as a pair, and affectionately wrangle over who has the more promising approach to romance.
First and foremost, they look out for each other, each trying to secure the other’s future and save her from heartache. Knowing Lorelei’s penchant for baubles (and the millionaires who bestow them), Dorothy runs interference with fat cats who might spur Lorelei to engagement-endangering hijinks. And as her first duty on board, Lorelei studies the passenger list in search of a worthy (wealthy) escort for Dorothy, who usually runs after any dead-broke hunk who gives her the eye. Just as Dorothy worries that Lorelei might blow her chances with her sweet, spineless scion of industry, Lorelei frets that Dorothy’s high spirits will land her in a loveless marriage. When Dorothy scoffs “Me? Loveless?,” Lorelei points out, “If a girl spends all her time worrying about the money she doesn’t have, how’s she going to have any time for being in love?”
Even when they disagree, they’re on the same side: each other’s. Dorothy razzes her friend, but the minute Dorothy’s shipboard beau Ernie Malone (Elliot Reid) disparages Lorelei, she gets fierce fast: “Let’s get this straight. Nobody talks about Lorelei but me.” True friends can counsel and kid each other, but Dorothy doesn’t truck with anyone — even her newest flame — badmouthing or backstabbing her buddy. When she spots Malone taking compromising photos of Lorelei, Dorothy puts it together fast: he’s a private eye shadowing Lorelei, and (she thinks) he cozied up to Dorothy to get close to his target. But she doesn’t waste time bemoaning her heartache; getting Lorelei out of a jam comes ahead of Dorothy’s good time.
And Dorothy does like a good time. She’s after fun, men, and fun with men, and she doesn’t hide it from anyone. Before they set foot on the ocean liner, Dorothy’s already ogling “the talent in the blue jackets,” a crowd of athletic young men who’ll be cruising to France with them. Told who they are, she gloats, “The Olympic team? For me? Now, wasn’t that thoughtful of somebody?,” adding a throaty “Dibs on the shotputter.” By launch time, she’s brought the relay team to her stateroom for a bon voyage party. When Gus remonstrates, Dorothy shuts him down: “Now, let’s get this straight, Gus. The chaperone’s job is to see that nobody else has any fun. But nobody chaperones the chaperone. That’s why I’m so right for this job.”
More striking than her unblushing candor is the nonchalance with which it’s greeted. The paunchy, graying titans of industry fetching her cocktails and cigarettes might feel slighted at her enthusiasm for hunky athletes (and her dismay at their early curfew). But the wealthy gentlemen accept Dorothy’s outspoken desires without comment or demur. Just as men, in film and in life, have confidently broadcast their sexual appetites for generations, Dorothy unhesitatingly voices and acts on her hankering.
Lorelei is just as candid as Dorothy, especially with the men from whom she extracts her prizes. She’s money-minded, but she’s not sly about it. She knows her beauty has value to the men who pursue her, and she demands good value for what she gives. When you see how the world treats Lorelei, her determination seems downright sensible. At every turn, men are angling to enjoy her body and her company. Though they’re quick to stereotype her, Lorelei is no dumb blonde. She knows exactly how men view her, what they want from her, and how to leverage her assets to greatest advantage — and she knows too well that she has no protection or prospects except what she can gin up for herself. Courtship is Lorelei Lee’s livelihood and she means business.
Lorelei, fortune-hunter extraordinaire, isn’t the only one who thinks romance is hard work. It’s laid out by both women in the opening song: “I was young and determined/ To be wined and dined and ermined/ And I worked at it all around the clock.” Later, preparing to hoodwink Ernie Malone out of his compromising photographs, Dorothy advises Lorelei that it’s time to get dolled up in their finery and “get to work.” (An early hat-tip aligns Malone with the two women rather than his fellow men: he also conflates work and romance. When Lorelei, looking out for Dorothy’s future, asks “What’s your line, Mr. Malone?,” he responds with a self-deprecating joke about his own romantic failures.)
Let’s be clear: work means just that. It’s a fair trade, not a scam or a shake-down. If “gentlemen” enjoy Lorelei’s company, she encourages their generosity, but she doesn’t bully or blackmail them. Having secured the damaging photographs of herself and Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman — in which, she innocently protests, he is only telling her about the dangers of Africa, acting out the deadly embrace of a python — she hands them over freely and assures him there are no other copies to haunt him. When he offers a token of appreciation, she cajoles him into giving her his wife’s heirloom tiara. He shouldn’t agree, but he does. Piggy himself exclaims “You little angel! You don’t even know that there is a certain kind of girl that would take advantage of a thing like this.” Lorelei extracts her prizes but never extorts them; she just takes them as her due.
“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” sometimes decried for glamorizing gold-digging, makes Lorelei’s plight explicit. The song is popularly remembered as this:
Lorelei’s lyrics flatly reject the entitlement men feel to use her for their amusement, insisting instead on some tat for tit. If men want to exploit her charms, they’ll pay for the privilege — and pay handsomely, because physical beauty is fleeting, and kisses “won’t pay the rental/ On your humble flat/ Or help you at the automat,” but (as Lorelei tells Piggy) “a diamond tiara is forever.” “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is cynical or pragmatic depending on your point of view, and it advises women in varying situations, from fortune-hunters to mistresses to working women pressured by “hardboiled employers” (although the latter advice is a fatalistic “get that ice or else no dice.”)
Even before the credits and title, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes prepares us for its witty, knowing appropriation of stereotypes and tropes. In the opening number, Lorelei and Dorothy flick aside the sheer stage curtain, exchange a significant glance, and step forward, shimmering in matching red sequined gowns cut up to here and down to there. Carelessly, they toss their matching white fur coats toward the audience and strike an imperious curtsy before launching into their song.
This spectacular introduction ends with a cut from frontstage to backstage, where a stagehand watches from the wings. These broads are constantly observed from every angle, and the film wants us to know it. Dorothy’s ogling and Lorelei’s self-possession don’t occur in a vacuum: they’re firmly set in a world where men expect to enjoy these privileges — and expect women to be content as objects of pleasure, not agents of it.
But that early glimpse from the wings has an even more potent meaning. The heart of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes resides in the space between backstage and frontstage, between performer and performance, between surface and substance. Nothing is what it seems: not the characters, not the story, not the film itself. At first blush, Lorelei looks like a clichéd gold-digger, with all the trickery and extortion that implies, but she’s just a woman trapped in a sexist world who mines her few resources without compromise or shame. Dorothy sounds like a good-time gal who’d throw over her best friend for a handsome scoundrel, but she’s true through and through, even in the tightest pinch. And Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which could easily recite stale tales of grasping women getting their comeuppance, lets Lorelei and Dorothy’s desires take the lead — and take everything else they desire.
The last frames of the film spell out Gentlemen Prefer Blonde’s central story one last time, cementing the image of Lorelei and Dorothy as partners, with men on the side for fun or financial security. Against a Grecian mural depicting two female figures, Dorothy and Lorelei enter the ship’s great hall in identical bridal dresses, veils, and bouquets. Each bride has a split-second close-up with her fiancé (and ring), but then the frame narrows, cutting out the men. Dorothy and Lorelei swap the same significant glance they shared in the opening, then turn back to the altar as a pair, just before the words “The End” scroll onto the screen. They end the film as they began: standing shoulder to shoulder against the world.