Since we’ve primarily talked about remakes so far, I thought we should move on to another kind of Hollywood recycling: the sequel. Now, while it’s true that some sequels end up becoming equal to or better than the original (“The Godfather Part II,” “Toy Story II,” “The Empire Strikes Back”), most sequels are unfortunately worse and utterly forgettable. Nowhere is that more true than with the fabulous “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953 starring Marylin Monroe and Jane Russell) and its lackluster sequel, “Gentlemen Marry Brunettes” (1955 starring Jane Russell and Jeanne Crain). As star vehicles for two of the greatest sex symbols of the 1950s, what makes or breaks “Blondes” and “Brunettes” is how each film deals with sex, or more specifically how each film deals with the censorship of sex under the Hays Code.
Before the MPAA ratings system we all know, there was a blanket Motion Picture Production Code from 1934 to 1967 that upheld a strict list of dos and don’ts (mostly don’ts) for the film industry. Designed to combat the corrupting influence of film, the Hays Code (named after Will H. Hays the president of the future MPAA) banned outright profanity, nudity, “lustful kissing,” and “sex perversion” (homosexuality). It also put limits on how certain questionable subjects could be portrayed. For instance, adultery could not be shown positively and must be punished, crime could not be shown in enough detail for it to be copied, and no public official or clergyman could be a villain, unless he was proven to be the exception to the rule. For some fun side reading, the full Hays Code can be found here.
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was a movie made to test the Hays Code. Based on the musical of the same name (which in turn was based on a popular book), “Blondes” playfully walks the fine line of acceptability by feigning innocence of its own sexual implications. Marilyn Monroe is doe-eyed as Lorelei Lee, an unabashed gold digger engaged to a mousy millionaire. Jane Russell plays Lorelei’s “chaperone” Dorothy Shaw, a girl with no interest in money but every interest in men. Two characters like this should be a Hays Code nightmare, but every time the audience begins to suspect the worst of our two heroines, the plot turns around with a wink and a smile as if to say innocently, “Did you really expect that of little old me?”
On a cruise to Paris, Lorelei sets her sights on Piggy, a diamond mine owner, and the diamond-encrusted tiara he recently gave to his wife. Lorelei and Piggy are photographed in a compromising position by a P.I. hired by her fiancee’s father. But what, pray tell, were they doing alone in a room with his arms wrapped around her? Don’t get that look on your face! He was simply showing her how a boa constrictor consumes its prey. As Lorelei demurely says to Piggy: “lf a newspaper got it, your wife wouldn’t know you were being a snake!”
“Gentlemen Marry Brunettes” is strange sequel, because none of the characters from the first movie appear in it. Also based on an Anita Loos book, “Brunettes” is the story of two morally-upright showgirls finding true love despite the sexually-depraved Paris nightclub scene. Jane Russell is the doe-eyed one this time, but as Bonnie Jones she’s mostly just dumb and boy-crazy, which actually proves retroactively how good Marylin Monroe was to balance Lorelei Lee in the first film. Jeanne Crain plays Bonnie’s uptight sister Connie, who blames Bonnie for most of their man-related misfortune (of which there is plenty).
Through Connie, the movie takes a remonstrative tone towards romance early on. Apparently Bonnie can’t say no – to marriage proposals. This gag gets tired quickly; while it’s apparent that “marriage proposals” is a stand-in for “sex” in the plot (because we certainly can’t say that under the Hays Code), it’s a bit ridiculous to watch people’s over-reactions to Bonnie. When Bonnie falls in love with a man, Connie scares him off by telling him she’s said yes too many times. When gifts are showered on the girls by an unknown patron (actually the man Connie’s in love with), Connie immediately assumes that Bonnie has said yes again. After a while I started wondering if this even counted as slut-shaming, since accepting what appear to be very chaste marriage proposals (she doesn’t even kiss most of the men) seems like something the sexually-repressed members of the MPAA would applaud. Maybe it’s an argument against bigamy?
Of the two films, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is definitely the one to watch and enjoy. Its deft game f cat-and-mouse with the Hays Code made it the sexy and playful film it is, the film that launched Marylin Monroe’s career. She in turn helped bring down the Hays Code while starring in “Some Like it Hot” in 1959, which premiered without a stamp of approval from the MPAA and was still one of the highest-grossing films of the year.
I’m out of space, so I’ll leave you with the most famous number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and one of the defining moments of Miss Monroe’s career: