Marilyn Monroe, the most iconic sex goddess in the history of cinema, passed away fifty years ago this week, leaving behind one of the most genuinely mythic careers in all of movie stardom. Naturally enough, this has caused a great many people to devote some energy to eulogising and celebrating the actress, including Nathaniel R of The Film Experience, who has very reasonably selected a Monroe vehicle for this week’s edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot: the 1953 comedy How to Marry a Millionaire, co-starring Betty Grable (who receives top billing) and Lauren Bacall (third-billed, and the most important character of the three). I will confess myself unsure why this picture, of all Monroe films got the nod, but I’m in no position to complain: it was, prior to now, one of the only major titles in her filmography that I’ve never seen (leaving Niagara as the only embarrassing gap in my education), and any excuse is a good excuse. Besides, it has a very important claim to fame, visually: it was one of the first three CinemaScope pictures put into production at 20th Century Fox, and the first completed (though The Robe preceded it into theaters).
And boy, what a first completed CinemaScope production it is, filled with cityscapes of New York that exist for really no particular reason other than to announce in the widest way possible, “hey, look at what we can do now!” I’d almost thought about choosing one of them for just that reason, but I couldn’t do it, though I will still happily share with you two such examples – and I want to point out, these are the first two shots of the whole entire movie (absent a damn peculiar six-minute prologue consisting of just the 20th Century Fox Orchestra and Alfred Newman, because not only was this one of the earliest CinemaScope features, it was one of the first four-channel stereo features as well):
That being the amuse bouche, on to my pick for best shot. I will confess it difficult, for two reasons: one is that the shots in How to Marry a Millionaire are startlingly long and involve a great deal of tracking, which makes it harder to think of the movie in terms of stills. The second is that the best-composed shots, in general, are those cityscapes, director Jean Negulesco being especially noteworthy in my estimation for how much he doesn’t make movies with really sharp compositions.
And yet: there was a shot that did everything I wanted to: highlight the CinemaScope frame, and the Oscar-nominated costumes, and the up-and-coming starlet who is the reason we’re all gathered right now. The only problem is, it’s so perfect, so much better than nearly everything else in the movie, that I can’t imagine being the only one to chose it. And I feel dreadfully boring about it. But, the game is still the game, and I really want to write this one up, so here goes.
Our three heroines have just managed to lasso three wealthy men and taken them to dinner at a swanky restaurant, and have retired to the powder room to regroup and compare notes. The first thing we see is Grable, fixing herself in the mirror.
I take it that I needn’t point out how perfect that composition is: a chain of Bettys, filling the great big screen with all her sex appeal and charisma.
The camera than pans left for the next minute and change, to the girls’ actual discussion, framed in a powerfully undistinguished three-shot:
And we get lots of nice dialogue and character building moments here, but the scene’s punchline is after Grable and Bacall have left, and Monroe heads to the mirrors to primp herself:
Same composition, wholly different feeling. Where Grable clomped about cracking wise, Monroe swans into the field of the mirrors and preens for it, standing with the self-confident, “damn, I am beautiful” poise of a born movie goddess (the shot ends with a gag of the nearly-blind Monroe walking into a door frame, but let’s not dwell on that).
Whether it was planned this way or not, the paired shots of Grable and Monroe represent the passing of the torch: How to Marry a Millionaire was the last hit of Grable’s career, and indeed one of her very last movies; it was, meanwhile, an early hit for Monroe, who’d only started headlining projects the year before (indeed, the first time she got top billing was earlier in 1953). The identical set-up, contrasted by the very different ways that the two actresses inhabit that set-up, communicates, subtly but effectively, that one of the great sex symbols of the 1940s is just about used up, and here comes the the great sex symbol of the 1950s to replace her. A pity for Grable, who was a strong comic performer and vibrant movie personality, but the star system was savage-minded that way.
A final note: in addition to serving as my Hit Me with Your Best Shot entry, this is also the kick-off to a short festival of Marilyn Monroe films at Antagony & Ecstasy over the next three days, in which I’ll be taking a look at what I consider to be some of the most important and best films in her development as a cinema legend and actress. Things kick off tonight with fellow Class of ’53 comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a snappy Howard Hawks comedy featuring one of the single most famous moments in Monroe’s career.