Was Marilyn Monroe a good actress? In my opinion no (although she desperately wanted to be), as her range was extremely limited. But what she had in spades was star charisma; an inexplicable power to make you watch and empathise with her on screen. It’s this, as well as her iconic look, tragic story and untimely death that has ensured she has become a legend, with many believing she’s more famous now, 50 years after her death, than she was when she was alive. With that sad anniversary arriving on August 5th, Fox has released the Forever Marilyn Blu-ray box set, which includes four of her most famous films – Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire.
To be honest, it’s only Some Like It Hot that can be considered a true classic, as it’s likely the other three would be largely forgotten if it weren’t for the presence of Marilyn. Gentlemen and Millionaire in particular are the lightest of light comedies. Indeed it’s an odd fact that like many actresses of her era, she’s more famous than the films she starred in – after all, everyone knows Monroe’s face, but most have seen few, if any, of her films.
These are amongst the best though, with only All About Eve (in which she only had a tiny before-she-was-famous role) and perhaps Niagara as good or better than what’s on offer here (although The Misfits, Bus Stop and Let’s Make Love are okay too).
The earliest film in the set is 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is the movie that cemented Monroe’s reputation as the biggest new star around, following her success in Niagara. The movie teams her with Jane Russell (who at the time was the top billed star of the movie), as two women working as lounge singers on a cruise to France. Along the way they enjoy the company of the men on board, which includes the US Olympic team, even though Monroe’s Lorelei has a rich beau at home waiting for her. There’s not really an awful lot of plot and for much of the running time it almost comes across as a celebration of being a gold-digger, but it’s a light, fun and frothy concoction. It also has some great musical numbers, including the classic Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, and Is There Anyone Here For Love?, which may be one of the gayest (and knowingly so) sequences in the annals of classic Hollywood. Gentlemen is ultimately completely forgettable, but it is entertaining.
Also from 1953 is How To Marry A Millionaire, which if possible is even more insubstantial and light on plot than Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but still manages to be a fun watch. Monroe is joined by Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall (again, both were bigger stars than Marilyn when it was made, and again like many female stars of their era, they are now more famous than any of their films), as three women who are desperate to land themselves rich husbands. While each of them sets out to trap a millionaire, Monroe and Grable start to fall for people who may not be all that rich, while Bacall keeps giving the brush off to a man who looks poor, but is actually mega-loaded.
While incredibly light, it was actually the first Cinemascope movie ever made (although released after The Robe) and so no expense was spared on making it look superb, or on trying to ensure you have a good time watching it. It also has a couple of oddities, such as the fact that the first five minutes is simply an orchestra playing music (to show off the improved picture and sounds of Cinemascope), and the plot essentially pauses about halfway through so we can have a fashion show. It all makes for a decent if not spectacular movie.
Next up is 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, which like the first two films, is an adaptation of a Broadway stage production. Also like the first two films, it shouldn’t really be Marilyn’s movie (although she was definitely the biggest star in this one) but partly because of her legend and partly because she has star magic, she’s undoubtedly the thing you remember. In this one, her character doesn’t even have a name, simply being known as ‘The Girl’.
The film is mainly about Tom Ewell’s Richard Sherman, who has to stay in New York and work while his family heads for cooler climes one hot and sultry summer. When he realises a beautiful girl (Monroe) has moved in upstairs, he can’t help but have thoughts of trying to woo her, even though he know he mustn’t. The stage version was about a man having an affair, but this was the time of the Hay’s Code, and so any hint that Sherman might actually cheat on his wife (rather than just think about it) was removed. Thanks to director Billy Wilder it still works incredibly well though, with Ewell wonderful as Sherman and Monroe stealing the show as a woman who’s perhaps a bit too innocent for her own good.
Some Like It Hot is the classic tale of two musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who witness a murder and to hide from the killers, disguise themselves as women and go undercover as part of an all-girl jazz group. It’s one of the wittiest and most joyously fun films ever made, and even 53 years after it was released, it remains one of the best comedies ever made. It’s also probably Marilyn’s best performance, even if it was like pulling teeth for Billy Wilder to extract it from her (he’d vowed never to work with her again after The Seven Year Itch, but relented). Monroe often needed 50 takes to get something as simple as saying “Where’s the bourbon” correct, with Wilder telling the rest of the cast they had to be perfect every time, as the moment Marilyn got it right, that’s what was going into the film. The mixture of her, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis is explosive, each of them giving the movie something truly special. It’s not just Monroe’s best film, it’s one of the best movies full stop.
So what do the films look like on Blu-ray? Well, unsurprisingly Fox has taken good care of Monroe’s films over the years, ensuring they have great masters to work from for this HD release. Each film is crisp and looks great. It’s the colours that stand out the most, with the opening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in particular showing off the red dazzle of Marilyn and Jane Russell’s costumes. That brightness and Technicolor glory is evident in all the movies except for Some Like It Hot, which was shot in black and white. Even so, that film still benefits from a sharp image with nice gradation in the shades of grey. We’ve gotten used to Blu-rays of older movies being a step up from DVD but not being particularly amazing, so it’s nice to have a bunch of Golden Age movies that really benefit from an HD upgrade and look markedly better than we’ve ever had them in the home before.
As for special features, there’s not much on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or How To Marry A Millionaire, but The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot each get a good selection. As you might expect, they tend to concentrate on Marilyn’s involvement and the difficulties of working with her, such as her habitual habit of turning up late and how she’d often refuse to leave her dressing room. The Seven Year Itch was made while her marriage to Joe DiMaggio was crumbling, while for Some Like It Hot she was pregnant with a baby she ended up losing, so she certainly had some issues to contend with. The various featurettes on each disc do have a tendency to cover the same information, but they’re still very interesting.
A fun addition to The Seven Year Itch is a picture-in-picture feature looking at the proscriptions of the Hays Code and how close the film gets to flouting them. Due to the fact the original play was about an affair, the Hays Office kept a ridiculously close eye on the production, making sure the sexual innuendo never got too great, so it’s interesting to see exactly what the film faced. It’s a good selection on the discs that have features and well worth delving through, with the thoughts of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder on the Some Like It Hot disc proving particularly illuminating.
Overall Verdict: Marilyn may not have been a brilliant actress, but she was undoubtedly a true star, as evidenced by these four films, which look superb on Blu-ray.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: ‘Marilyn and Jane in Cement’ Movietone News, Trailers The Seven-Year Itch: Audio Commentary With Billy Wilder Biographer Kevin Lally, Isolated Score, ‘The Hays Code’ Picture-in-Picture with Sexual Innuendo Meter, Marilyn Monroe Interactive Timeline, ‘Monroe & Wilder: An Intersection Of Genius’ Featurette, ‘Fox Legacy’ Featurette on The Seven Year Itch, Deleted Scenes, ‘Hollywood Backstories: The Seven Year Itch’ Featurette, Publicity, Stills Some Like It Hot: Audio Commentary, ‘The Making Of Some Like It Hot’ Featurette, ‘The Legacy Of Some Like It Hot’ Featurette, ‘Nostalgic Look Back’ Featurette, ‘Memories From The Sweet Sues’ Featurette, Virtual Hall Of Memories, Trailer
How To Marry A Millionaire: ‘How To Marry A Millionaire: Cinemascope’ Movietone News, Trailers
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: ‘Marilyn and Jane in Cement’ Movietone News, Trailers
The Seven-Year Itch: Audio Commentary With Billy Wilder Biographer Kevin Lally, Isolated Score, ‘The Hays Code’ Picture-in-Picture with Sexual Innuendo Meter, Marilyn Monroe Interactive Timeline, ‘Monroe & Wilder: An Intersection Of Genius’ Featurette, ‘Fox Legacy’ Featurette on The Seven Year Itch, Deleted Scenes, ‘Hollywood Backstories: The Seven Year Itch’ Featurette, Publicity, Stills
Some Like It Hot: Audio Commentary, ‘The Making Of Some Like It Hot’ Featurette, ‘The Legacy Of Some Like It Hot’ Featurette, ‘Nostalgic Look Back’ Featurette, ‘Memories From The Sweet Sues’ Featurette, Virtual Hall Of Memories, Trailer
Reviewer: Tim Isaac