Every studio has 'franchise' stars and series, like Clint Eastwood, James Bond or Batman; at 20th Fox one of the biggest draws remains Marilyn Monroe, who spent most of the first half of her career there developing from a bit player without much promise, to the biggest name in the galaxy. This monster box set of her biggest Fox hits is a handsome package packed full of MM: a couple of her best, and three more that her fans aren't going to kick out of the dvd player, either.
The transfers are dazzling. One of the films is pre-CinemaScope, and the rest are post-, but all have obviously been given careful treatment. For several of the pictures, this is major news. But more on that when we get down to cases. The five features and one documentary are wrapped in a classy white box that would perfectly appropriate on a jewelry counter. All of the discs have some kind of special extra. In case you get lost, each disc contains its own trailer, and also trailers for the other four ...Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
It's 1953 and Marilyn still has to give cede billing to RKO's Jane Russell, but she looks perfectly happy taking over the role of Lorelei Lee from Broadway. This is the most old-fashioned film in the box, basically a re-tread of any of umpteen musical comedies about golddigging girls on a madcap romantic cruise, but with Charles Lederer's racy script there are surprises to be had if one pays attention. The sex jokes get downright musky for '53:
Olympic Athlete, drooling at MM & JR: "If they both were
drowning, which one would you rescue."
Using lots of Howard Hughes humor, and knowing full well that this pair of women represent ground zero for '50s breast worship, the script leaves no opportunity unnoticed. "Doubles, Anyone?" There's a rather good musical number cropping up every few minutes or so, with the under-appreciated Russell proving to be a perfectly game girl in the Howard Hawks mold.
Blondes is immediately recognizable as a Hawks film for a number of reasons (pointed out by Robin Wood in his essays about 30 years ago): The glib toughness is there, with the unspoken understanding that the girls are 'professionals' proud of their man-killing, just like Hawks' soldiers or fliers. They have an impromptu sing-along number at a Paris cafe that is very Hawksian. The women are frequently compared to animals and otherwise objectified, and not just symbolically: portly Charles Coburn just stares at Marilyn and chortles 'By Jove!" These are dangerous weapons the girls carry around and like good professionals, they try to be careful where they point them. Frog-voiced George "Foghorn" Winslow, a kid, gloms Marilyn and then says how attractive he finds her in his best Joe Friday monotone. Russell even delivers her lines similarly to Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.
Marilyn plays a stock character here, the same one producers always seemed to want to steer her back to: the innocent bombshell, the childlike woman who is a sex dream and pure in heart at the same time. She obviously has the job down pet, I mean pat, but it isn't all that demanding. Of course, all she has to do is bat her eyes to make Jane look like the potted plant next door. Russell seems to be such good sport about this, with a part that allows her lots of eyerolling at her voracious partner, that the result is a pretty potent, well sustained sex tease of a movie. Nobody is going to think the joke's on Jane after she parodies Lorelei Lee (and Monroe, too) in a courtroom musical number.
UCLA had the Fox collection in the early '70s so Savant saw this picture in 35 Tech studio copies several times. The DVD transfer does a good job of approximating the gaudy candy colors and saturated flesh tones of the original prints. The red lipstick and sequined, crimson gowns are so vibrant, you may want to subdue the color. The legendary 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' number has never looked better.How to Marry a Millionaire
Billed as the very first CinemaScope comedy, this is probably the most dated of the bunch, only because the dating and mating attitudes seem so prehistoric now. The rigid 'rules of the game' for snagging that perfect man, are almost sad. It's much more interesting for its status as the showcase CinemaScope film - it boasts a built-in short subject up front, of Alfred Newman conducting his 'Street Scene' music, and interrupts the story at regular intervals for panoramic views of New York City.
CinemaScope was wide, all right, and the direction of this film is greatly intimidated by the process, as if Fox execs had become bamboozled by their own "3d Without Glasses!" propaganda. Pans and tilts are made far slower than normal so as not to propel the audience into dizzy fits. The camera seems to stay about 20 feet away from the actors most of the time, which gives us lots of time to soak up the flat-lit sets in the empty space around them. The 'experts' were also concerned that the wide, wide screen was not conducive to cuts, which are resorted to only when necessary. And finally, real closeups are almost completely avoided -a full compliment of lenses did not yet exist to go along with the new system, and when people got too close, their faces tended to squash out sideways. This unwanted effect was dubbed the CinemaScope mumps. But boy, is this wide. In its first year or so, the 'Scope process was 2:55 to one, and this disc retains much of that width, so a big screen is almost mandatory to appreciate this one.
The story here is more than serviceable: Grable, Bacall and a very nearsighted Monroe all have a different modus operandi for snaring their men, while picking their way through a minefield of candidates from the Fox stock company. It's strange to see Alex D'Arcy here in the company of these exalted stars: we forget his big-studio origins after his later career in euro-nonsense like Horrors of Spider Island. The likeable Cameron Mitchell is along for the ride, and even William Powell puts in a sizeable appearance.
Nowhere near as broad as her role in Blondes, Monroe here is just a more sentimental version of the same type, and the part doesn't add up to much more than blonde window- dressing. Bacall has the serious audience sympathy, and Gable the biggest heart, so this was probably exactly the kind of part Monroe so desperately wanted to flee. Note in the newsreel that she chooses the Screenwriter - producer's arm to hang onto at the premiere. Never a dummy, we're given to understand that she already had serious acting plans, and was actively rebelling against playing more Lorelei Lees.
At about 31 minutes in, in chapter 8, Marilyn walks to a mirror and hovers there for a few seconds, watching six clones of herself spread across the CinemaScope acreage. This image most likely got applause all on its own.There's No Business Like Show Business
Unlike modern stars, Marilyn sometimes had no choice at all what she played in for Fox, and this film is not one of her brightest moments. Shoehorned into a semi-minor role in what is really Ethel Merman's starring vehicle, Marilyn aquits herself well. Yet the producton is rather garish and empty (an awful lot of wide screens full of billowing, sequined drapes) and does no favors to talents like Donald O'Connor, who deserved better. The story is so light it's almost not there, and although MM is paired with Donald, it's totally by convention - romantically involved, they hardly seem to know each other. She seems to have been shoehorned in to bolster the marquee. I know this is supposed to be the gaudy world of vaudeville, and I'm no judge of costumes, but the final kiss of death is that a lot of the stuff they have her wearing here is just plain ugly.
The Irving Berlin musical numbers are of course the draw, and Ethel Merman is marvellous in one of her last big shows, belting out the title tune from her stage success Annie Get Your Gun brassier than Judy Galand or Betty Hutton ever could. But it's not a great movie, and it's certainly not good Marilyn.The Seven Year Itch
Billy Wilder purists think it's one of his lesser films, but The Seven Year Itch is still a hugely funny movie that has his mark all over it. Tom Ewell's dog-faced clowning hasn't dated badly, and he's surrounded by an eclectic mix of Tex Avery-ish gags and topical references. The hit Axelrod play had been on the boards for years, and consequently couldn't originally have made use of cultural touchstones like From Here to Eternity and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Wilder even throws in Riot in Cell Block 11 when he needs something with which to compare modern NYC apartments. A dirty-minded soliloquy becomes an only slightly dirty-minded Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with very neatly-staged fantasies (look for a young Carolyn Jones as a libidinous nurse).
Once again Marilyn found herself in a vehicle that parodied her image; in the original the Girl Upstairs remained kind of a fantasy image, but here it's La Monroe in all her glory. Since Hollywood's production code wouldn't really let anyone DO anything with sex, what we get instead is one of the best of the frustrated tease pictures, with Fox and Wilder and probably Monroe as well, trying to push the silk envelope and make things as provocative as possible.
But the Monroe image was already a parody, and if there's not already ample evidence that she was an intelligent judge of her own career, Marilyn's stubborn insistence on leaving the bubbleheaded babes behind for dramatic roles, is not so much careerism as the wisdom to know that the public would eventually tire of her if she stayed in cheap tease mode. At some point, a parody of a parody becomes an unfunny joke, a place where unfortunate Monroe emulators Jayne Mansfield and (more sadly) Sheree North had to begin. The amazing thing about Monroe is that even when she's making a spectacle of herself, sending herself up, she's more powerful than her own cliché. Wilder was right, she's one of those stars with whom you just can't make a dull scene.Bus Stop
One of Joshua Logan's best films, Bus Stop is regarded as the first of Marilyn's bids to be taken seriously as an actress, and by and large she succeeds in adding a human dimension to the character of the dimwitted but adorable dance hall girl, Cherie. For once showing how tough and humiliating it is to be the dumb blonde singing off-key, her character here has a lot of rough edges, and while by no means a natural, Monroe's efforts go a long way towards leading with her acting talent instead of her sex appeal.
The script is fine, and surrounds Monroe with excellent character actors, especially Eileen Heckart, who is always wonderful even in lousy films. The theatricality of the film is obvious, what with Don Murray, in his first screen role, directed to be over-the-top. His bumpkin cowpoke has to be a galoot to make the story work, but it would have helped if he were just a little bit more likeable. No matter how well he transforms from a wild animal to a slightly less wild animal, he doesn't seem like the right catch for Monroe.
Especially notable about this DVD of Bus Stop is its image restoration. Of all the films, this one previously looked the worst on television, with depressingly faded color. Savant had also never seen it properly letterboxed, so the DVD was an extra treat. The showcase scene of Marilyn trying to sing in the honkytonk bar, awkwardly kicking switches to change her mood lighting, works much better in the wider format.
An extra disc in the box set is entitled Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days, and contains an AMC cable television show directed by Patty Ivins, produced by her and Kevin Burns, with narration by James Coburn. There are lots of sub-par AMC docus to be seen, but this one has substance and perspective. The unedited footage from the aborted Something's Gotta Give has been shown in ghoulish glimpses and bits for 40 years, but here we get an honest and thorough look at the entire set of raw dailies. In almost every take, Marilyn comes off as disoriented and strained,uncapable of good work, for whatever reason.
It's a good docu, with frank discussions of the kind of sticky production intrigues that studios usually avoid in favor of publicity pap. The movie was intended as a remake of My Favorite Wife, and eventually done as Move Over, Darling, with Doris Day. Playing a woman with children for the first time might have begun a great central section for Monroe's career, but as the dailies make very clear, her performance is forced and distracted, not quite as pathetic as Judy Garland's for Annie Get Your Gun, but just as useless.
The restoration demonstrations on each disc deserve a close look. Obviously proud of their fine work on this set, Fox here has the maturity to do real comparisons with previous video masters, where we can plainly see beyond the color improvement to notice that some older letterboxed transfers (especially Bus Stop) had indeed been 'zoomboxed.' This was a term Savant first read in Video Watchdog, which blew the whistle on laserdisc transfers where the image was surreptitiously blown up a bit to enlarge actors' faces, and then matted back down to conform to the expected letterbox.
Even more dramatically shown is the role played by digital video cleanup, when a second comparison is made between the restored film element, and the final video. All manner of scratches, splotches, printing irregularities, digs, and other blemishes have been eliminated. Yes, the film has to some extent been 'repainted', but it just plain looks great. Especially improved in all of the Eastman 'Color by Deluxe' titles are the splice points between original negative and the optical negatives of dissolves, effects, etc. Every time one of Tom Ewell's fantasies began or ended in older copies of The Seven Year Itch, a jolting color and grain shift would occur across a splice. You can still see them, but just barely. These final digital fixes are for video presentations, it must be remembered, and do not represent a real film restoration, so we hope that the negatives, etc., of these pictures are being 'backed up' with good restored print material at the same time. This is convincing evidence of good work.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,