The other night the classic 1953 film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was on; I’ve seen it many times, as it’s one of my mom’s favorite musicals. When the movie came out in Spain, she and her friends obtained a recording of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the soundtrack, and would loudly sing along to it in their schoolgirl English. This apparently horrified my grandmother, who had a better grasp of the subtleties of English, and therefore of what the gold-digging Lorelei Lee – played by Marilyn Monroe in the film – was singing about.
I mentioned to an elderly neighbor that I had caught the movie on TV, and he recalled being a graduate student in Paris in the 1950’s, and seeing it premiere at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees. As he recalled, back then Europe was still in poverty and recovering from World War II, even though over here in America, we were filling our homes with the products of the first wave of middle-class consumerism. So people flocked to see upbeat, colorful American movie musicals like this one, because their own lives were often so harsh, unhappy, and colorless.
It’s funny that back then, people like my grandmother looked at this film and found it scandalous. True, it’s about two women performing a musical more suited to a so-called “gentleman’s club” than the Broadway stage. Yet when you watch the movie now, in light of what we see not only on the big screen but the small screen on a regular basis these days, you realize how far we’ve fallen as a culture since that time.
The racy jokes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are definitely still racy, but they’re not insulting. The women are clearly objectified by the men, from their suitors, to the policemen in the courtroom, to the entire U.S. Olympic Team, but at the same time, the women are in complete control of the situation. They insist on being treated with respect. They like to look beautiful, go dancing, drink cocktails, and have beautiful things. They work hard at what they do, and they’re pretty happy with who they are.
For the generation that enjoys soul-sickening programs like “Girls” and other such societal take-downs of women disguised as entertainment, I imagine it’s difficult to”get” movies like this. Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Lena Dunham would recoil in horror at learning that the film’s other star, Jane Russell, became an outspoken pro-life activist, one of the few in Hollywood. Yet if you strip away all the cheap basement rumpus room plywood veneer that’s been foisted on us over the past 40 years about what men and women are supposed to be like, you can just enjoy being in the presence of two beautiful women who enjoy having a good time, coming close to the line but never crossing over it. They’re just two little girls from Little Rock, after all.