The third of four new movies featuring Marilyn Monroe being released by Fox, Let's Make It Legal (1951) is definitely the weakest of the bunch, this despite the presence of Claudette Colbert and a script co-written by I.A.L. Diamond. Monroe is wasted, too, in the kind of window dressing part that did nothing for her career.
Colbert and Macdonald Carey play Miriam and Hugh Halsworth, a middle-aged couple in the process of getting divorced. She lives at their house with her childish, lazy daughter, Barbara (Barbara Bates), and her husband, Jerry (Robert Wagner). He works as publicist Hugh's assistant at the swanky Hotel Mirimar. On the day the Halsworth's divorce is to become final, an old flame of Miriam's, millionaire playboy Victor Macfarland (Zachary Scott), arrives at the hotel and takes a sudden interest in his old sweetheart.
The picture is seriously marred by a curious apathy on the part of the leading characters, whose actions seem arbitrary or illogical. Miriam is too smart to see Victor as anything other than a slick womanizer, yet decides to marry him just the same, solely to teach Hugh a lesson and win a $20 bet! Even in screwball comedy terms, such motivation is quite unbelievable. Hugh's attitude toward Miriam is nebulous and unformed, a direct contrast to other archly contrived, unfunny aspects of the character -- he's a chronic gambler and constantly obsesses over his rose garden.
An obvious route this script might have taken would be to have Hugh trying to win Miriam back before their divorce becomes final, and before Victor (whom Hugh refers to as a "mustache-puller") can win her over. But while the film seems to be heading in that direction, the script quickly unravels into a big pile of nothing, concluding on an unsatisfying, feeble note.
The characters played by Wagner (looking scrawny in his fourth film role) and Bates are generally superfluous. Bates's Barbara is particularly grating: pouty, selfish and childish, the character adds nothing to the story. Wagner's son-in-law is somewhat easier to take. Eager to move out of the Halsworth home, he wants Miriam to marry Victor so he'll have an excuse to move his wife out and buy a house of their own. Though this motivation is rather forced, it does at least create some tension between Hugh and Jerry.
Colbert and Carey slide by thanks to their winning screen personalities, rather than anything the script offers them. The rest of the cast is functional but have done better work in superior films elsewhere. Frank Cady turns up as Victor's secretary-assistant, while Kathleen Freeman has a couple of scenes as a determined reporter. Monroe's part and her relationship with Hugh -- she a sexpot looking to land a millionaire, he a hotel publicist -- doesn't make any sense unless read subtextually, that he's essentially pimping for his hotel's VIPs. This was not the sort of thing the Breen Office would approve, of course, but seems about the only way to read it.
The picture is only 77 minutes long but its second half moves at a snail's pace. Its length and other clues suggest Fox knew they had a bomb on their hands. Another curious aspect of the film is its uncredited use of the Brown-Freed song "You Were Meant for Me," written for The Broadway Melody (1929) and which turned up the following year in Singin' in the Rain (1952). Both were MGM films, yet it's featured prominently throughout Let's Make it Legal.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Let's Make it Legal is a tiny notch below the other Monroe titles, video-wise. The image is slightly washed out and grayish, and also inconsistent, with some reels/shots looking terrific, others a bit on the dupey side. There's a noticeable splice at 27:43 mark which also appears to be missing a frame or two. Overall though, this is fairly good presentation. As with the other Monroe releases in this wave, a stereo track with no apparent discreteness is offered alongside the original mono one. The DVD includes optional (yellow) English and Spanish subtitles.
For such a minor film, Fox deserves praise for offering a nice extra, a Commentary Track with Robert Wagner who has many interesting reflections on his early career as a contract player. He's full of stories and sharp observations about that era of Hollywood history, and this extra makes this title more desirable than it would be otherwise.
Fox also includes trailers for all 14 Monroe titles Fox has released thus far, including one for Let's Make it Legal, which has text but is obviously missing narration. Also included is a generic ad for the Diamond Collection itself, which has been substantially marked down in price and highly recommended by this reviewer.
Monroe's fans might enjoy seeing her trot around in a fiendishly tight swimsuit, but will be disappointed by her lack of decent screentime, as she's only in the film a couple of minutes. That would be fine if the movie were any good, but it's contrived and sluggish, with sit-com style humor and no credit to the considerable talent that went in it.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.