She was and remains the kind of celebrity whose legend outshines her work. To face facts, surprisingly few of the 30 movies in which Marilyn Monroe appeared hold up well today, and fewer still treat her as anything other than some kind of erotic mutant. It was Monroe’s misfortune to be the reigning sex goddess of a decade profoundly screwed up about sex, and it didn’t help that many of her films were made for that most provincial of studios, Twentieth Century Fox. To watch those movies, almost all of them available on video, is to see her vibrant mix of lust and tenderness mocked, ogled, scorned, misunderstood — and every so often used to its fullest. But it’s those exquisite occasions that keep the flame of her reputation as a screen actress flickering.
The Face in the Chorus Lines
In 1946, Fox snapped up the successful magazine model but used her mostly for publicity stills. After work in two films-Monroe’s one line of dialogue in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948, D-) landed on the editing-room floor, and she had a walk-on as a tarty waitress in the juvenile-delinquent saga Dangerous Years (1948, D) — Fox dropped her contract. She went to Columbia to sing three numbers in the cheap but intriguing burlesque backstager Ladies of the Chorus (1948, C-), then bounced around as blink-and-you’ll-miss-her baggage to Groucho Marx in Love Happy (1950, C), Dan Dailey in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950, C-), Dick Powell in Right Cross (1950, D+), Mickey Rooney in The Fireball (1950, D+), and Alan Hale Jr. — Gilligan’s future skipper — in Hometown Story (1951, D+).
Two 1950 roles suddenly had critics and audiences asking, ”Who’s the blond?” She was the bimbo bauble on George Sanders’ arm in All About Eve‘s party scene (A+), but it was John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (A-) that debuted the Monroe we know: As Louis Calhern’s nymphet mistress, her unnerving combination of sex and naivete is in full flower. Fox signed her to a new contract-then wasted her in tiny parts. She’s a secretary in As Young as You Feel (1951, C), the ”other woman” in Love Nest (1951, C-) and Let’s Make It Legal (1951, D+), a streetwalker in O. Henry’s Full House (1952, C), and a beauty-pageant entrant in We’re Not Married (1952, C). Three films from this period stand out:
Clash by Night (1952)
This dockside melodrama cast her as a fish- packing friend of star Barbara Stanwyck. With a typical Clifford Odets script — passionate, wacky, verbose — and one of Monroe’s most relaxed performances, it’s an anomaly that hints at how a different studio (in this case RKO) might have served her career better. B
Monkey Business (1952)
Back at Fox and playing a secretary again — but a sweetly daffy one opposite Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers in Howard Hawks’ uproarious youth-formula comedy. B+
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
Her first dramatic lead, and a doozy: She’s a psychotic hotel baby-sitter with a yen for Richard Widmark. Critics were still split on whether Monroe could ”really act”; today, her spooky performance seems a premonition. B-
Finally realizing what they had on their hands, Fox began featuring Monroe in grade-A productions. One big drawback for today’s video viewers: Grade-A usually meant wide-screen CinemaScope, which tends to play horribly on the small screen.
This suspenser miscasts Monroe as a femme fatale scheming to murder wimpy husband Joseph Cotten — but it’s the first to use her profound sex appeal as more than cheesecake. C+
How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)
A meanspirited ”comedy” about gold-digging roommates Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Monroe; as a myopic manhunter, Marilyn’s about the only funny thing in it. D+
Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953)
Here’s the gold-digger movie to rent: a generous and genuinely funny Howard Hawks farce that pairs Monroe with brassy Jane Russell. Featuring some of her most endearing musical numbers (”Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”), Blondes looks more and more like the film that best plays to Monroe’s strengths. A
River of No Return (1954)
Her only period Western, and a mistake. Playing a dance-hall singer headed downriver with rancher Robert Mitchum, Monroe over-enunciates her dialogue like an earnest acting student. C-
There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)
The last, most bloated of the Fox backstage musicals offers Ethel Merman blaring the title tune and Monroe slithering through the delightful ”Lazy” production number. C-
Monroe’s celebrity was now eclipsing her films, even as she attempted to stretch beyond the limits of her persona.
The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Monroe is the nameless girl upstairs whose presence torments Tom Ewell with thoughts of adultery. For many critics, it’s the classic Monroe, but have you seen it lately? It plays like a stagy sitcom that misuses Monroe as the punch line of a smutty joke. C-
Bus Stop (1956)
An overrated movie that condescends to its characters, Bus Stop still offers one of Monroe’s most affecting moments, in a lingering close-up toward the end. Too bad Don Murray’s so obnoxious as the callow cowboy who takes a shine to her ”chantoozee.” C
The Prince And The Showgirl (1957)
Chorus girl Monroe plays Miss Fixit to a family of dysfunctional European royals; it’s weird but watchable. There were tensions on the set, but Monroe’s such a pro you’d never know it. C+
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Billy Wilder’s cross-dressing comedy is an acid classic, and in the center is a whole new Marilyn — luminous, lost, a sweet victim of men and the world. Despite the camera’s cynical focus on her breasts and butt, this is the role of hers that is most brimming with heart. A+
Let’s Make Love (1960)
Let’s not. A big musical with a tiny story — billionaire Yves Montand woos beatnik actress Marilyn — Love tries so hard to be hip that it becomes the definition of unhip. Two nice Monroe songs, though: the title tune and ”My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” D+
The Misfits (1961)
With John Huston directing and Arthur Miller scripting, The Misfits is that rare bird, an American art Western. It’s also ruinously self-conscious. Still, in what was to be the last film for both, Monroe is compellingly fragile, and Clark Gable movingly rugged. B-
Something’s Got to Give (1962)
This final return to frothy comedy was never completed, but a documentary about the project is available from FoxVideo via mail order (unfortunately, you have to buy one of the other Marilyn videos to get the 800 number). The Give footage featured in it shows a calm, slim, breathtakingly radiant Monroe. Whatever struggles were occurring off camera, they aren’t on film.