Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
‘I overheard Dorothy tell Major Falcon that she liked to become intoxicated once in a dirty while.’
from Anita Loos novella, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
One of my favourite books is a hardcover 1926, tenth edition of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. So popular was Anita Loos’ novella that it ran to over 80 editions and was translated into fourteen languages – including Chinese.
On my copy it has a subtitle, ‘The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady ’. Its been ‘intimately illustrated ’ by Ralph Barton. Barton’s line-drawn illustrations are marvellous; witty, insightful and mocking.
Anita Loos began her novella Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, after observing a female passenger on a train trip from LA to New York. A vacuous blonde actress was effortlessly hogging all the male attention, including that of the handsome actor Douglas Fairbanks. Loos idly wondered if it was because, ‘She was a natural blonde and I was a brunette.’
While still on the train, Loos whipped out her notepad and got to work, creating the blonde character, Lorelei Lee from Little Rock Arkansas. After the riotous success of Loos’ book, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes became a popular musical comedy Broadway show in 1949.
Later it morphed into a film with Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei in 1953. Monroe already possessed the acting skills to invest her latest character with immense wit and naivety while subtly giving out hints that she was one hell of a clever dame.
In the original novella Lorelei isn’t a showgirl – as depicted by Marilyn Monroe – instead Lorelei is a professional gold-digger, hustler and quite possibly a classy prostitute.
She’s a gorgeous, vivacious young platinum blonde who actively seeks out rich gentlemen to fund her fabulous, transatlantic lifestyle. The scenes on the ship were filmed on an old Titanic set but the ocean liner they’re on is supposedly the SS lle de France.
In Anita Loos novella, what makes Lorelei so damned seductive is that she’s a hell of a lot smarter than she pretends to be. Lorelei’s wry observations are sharp and observant but never cruel. She tries to look on the bright side of life. However, she’s wise to the potential for rape, murder, seduction and whoring in the jazz age world she inhabits.
The 1953 film with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell – made in spanking new Technicolour and directed by the infamous Howard Hawks – is set in a later era. Monroe and Russell are showgirls on the make. The darkness that was hinted at in Anita Loos’ book has mostly been sanitized. Monroe’s breathy-voiced Lorelei and exquisite comic timing keeps the audience emotionally engaged. Why shouldn’t the witty, blonde showgirl genuinely care for a filthy rich but very kind-hearted geek?
While Russell’s character (Dorothy Shaw) is athletic, bold and attracted to handsome, penniless, clever men, Monroe plays Lorelei as breathy, seductive and somewhat empty-headed. But Lorelei’s actions demonstrate she knows exactly what she’s doing – she intends to bag herself a very rich man.
The comedic scenes when Dorothy and Lorelei meet the men’s US Olympic team are delicious. All that male sexuality and muscle affects Dorothy deeply, much to Lorelei’s disgust. She believes that because the athletes are not financially loaded, they’re not worthy of Dorothy’s attention.
Even the very serious avant-garde German film director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder loved Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and declared it one of the ten best films ever made.
Illustration above: from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes novella by Anita Loos. ‘Intimately illustrated‘ by Ralph Barton. 10th edition1926, Brentano’s Ltd London Publishers.