Ladies of the Chorus Review
Firstly, let me point out that, of the full Marilyn Monroe Screen Goddess box set, I have only got three out of the four films and none of the documentaries available to review, so I can't supply my opinion on the entire package. But what we have here are one certifiable classic, one sombre but important curio, and one utter waste of time - in my view, anyway.
The classic, of course, is Billy (Sunset Boulevard) Wilder's evergreen Some Like It Hot (1959). This is the kind of film that critics, magazines and nostalgic documentaries tell you emphatically is a classic, and that it should be a part of your collection. Even if you had never actually seen it - which is doubtful - you would almost believe that you had, it is so well-known. It possesses that untouchable celebrity status that places it in everyone's top ten comedies, simply because not to put it there would be tantamount to sacrilege. So, delving deeper than the surface-value praise regularly showered upon it, let's find out if it's actually as good as everyone insists? Does it still stand the test of time?
“I'll make it up to you.”
“You're making it up pretty good, so far.”
The madcap farce begins when two hard-up and hard-done-to Chicago musicians, Joe (a superb Tony Curtis) and Jerry (a slightly irritating Jack Lemmon) witness a gangland massacre and are forced to go on the run from Spats Columbo (George Raft) and his gurning crew of hatchet-faced mobsters. Adopting the now-infamous disguise of the two newest members of the all-girl jazz band, Sweet Sue And Her Society Syncopaters, the pair become Josephine and Daphne (Curtis and Lemmon, respectively) and wind their way down to sun-kissed Florida for high-jinx and loopy antics aplenty in the pursuit of life, love and money. Of course, turning this established double-act into a comedy trio is the delectable Marilyn Monroe - at her absolute sexiest - as lovelorn singer with a drink problem, Sugar Cane. She throws the cat amongst the pigeons by becoming a friendly, and trusted, confidante to both the newcomers, testing the tightness of their disguises whenever she sidles near. The triumvirate worm their way through many twists and turns, both men falling for Sugar and battling for her sweet charms, whilst attempting to keep their true identities covered up, so to speak. But having all-girl parties and going for a swim is just asking for trouble.
“Get a load of that rhythm section.”
The zany situations come thick and fast. Sugar wants a millionaire with a heart to sweep her off her feet, Joe becomes that millionaire in his now-legendary Cary Grant impersonation in an attempt to do just that, and poor Jerry actually gets to meet a real millionaire playboy (the fabulous Joe E. Brown as ancient letch Osgood Fielding) with definite intentions of sweeping her/him off his/her feet and on into the sunset. Complicated, eh? Just wait till Spats and his boys hit town with more than just crooning on their agenda.
“This may turn out to be a surprise party.”
Despite the great initial hook that sees our guys become gals, the first hour of Some Like It Hot, detailing that interminable train ride down to Florida - the getting to know you section - is actually quite tedious. I don't know about you, but I find Jack Lemmon's overly physical and animated style of comedy somewhat grating. Whereas, Curtis understands the value of downplaying (yes, even when in drag) Lemmon just goes for broke with a twitching display of wild expressions and gesticulations that border on pure caricature. He's a good actor, and certainly a likeable character, but he often seems to push the envelope just a touch too far. I know it becomes essential to the plot that he assumes his female role a little deeper than originally intended - when the dogged affections of the wily old Osgood finally win him over - but he really does seem to enjoy the quirky mannerisms, high heels and stockings a little too much. The giggling and the pouting actually become quite frightening. In fact, it must be stated that these two cross-dressers make the most hideous women. And that goes for the terrifying visages of those two White Chicks, as well. All powder and almost drugged-up eyeballs.
“Every girl in the band is a virtuoso ...and I intend to keep it that way.”
The deliciously knowing screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond (The Apartment) is a constant delight, though. That Shell Oil gag is priceless. The witty wordplay is dealt fast and fluid, with a smart vein of ripe innuendo pepping it up. Just try not to get hot under the collar when Sugar remarks that, “It's not how long it takes, it's who's taking you.” But the style is draped in knowing subversion, too. Just consider the warped imagery of the ever-so-cuddlesome Monroe snuggling up to Lemmon in full drag that stokes up some very unusual, and slightly queasy, feelings. In fact, it makes you wonder just what audiences of the day made of it, farce or not, such is the strange liberation of the tale. Check out the hotel porter who has the hots for Josephine - he might “like 'em big and sassy,” but he can't more than sixteen and, let's face it, she ain't the prettiest pebble on the beach. The rampant nature of practically all-involved conjures up an almost Carry On atmosphere of smutty abandon. And, hey, there's nothing wrong with that, now, is there?
“I don't have much of a voice ... but, then, this isn't much of a band.”
Monroe simply oozes sex appeal as the curvy Sugar. The awesome sequence of her singing “I Wanna Be Loved By You” can't go on long enough in my opinion. Her star quality is never once in question, that simple and adorable charisma literally igniting the screen. Her interplay with Joe, in his pilfered guise as the yacht-owning oil tycoon, is scintillating. His tale of a bespectacled fiancé plunging into the Grande Canyon is fabulously daft and nothing could be better than having Monroe, at her most gorgeous, attempting to rekindle your broken libido just out of sheer mercy. And that afore-mentioned Cary Grant riff? Curtis truly dominates with this performance, his delivery of that softly clipped voice is a perfection of parody.
“She squealed on her roommate and they found her strangled with her own brassiere.”
Some Like It Hot is daft, dizzy and sky-high with corn, yet all the more irresistible for it. A glorious farce that richly deserves the praise and acclaim. Top stuff, all round.
And now we come to the curio. The Misfits (1961), directed by John Huston, and starring alongside Monroe, the now weathered Clarke Gable, a ravaged Montgomery Clift and (personal fave of mine) a surprisingly clean cut Eli Wallach, is the exact opposite of Some Like It Hot - a dour, downbeat tale of people wandering through a jaded wasteland, either clinging to the last residue of a dying freedom, or searching desperately some new lease of life. A hollowed-out and beaten down modern-western that is memorable, unfortunately, for being the last film made by two of cinema's greatest icons. That both Monroe and Gable died shortly after its release - Gable only eleven days - means that it has since become their unique, and combined, swansong. Sadly, it does neither of them justice, I feel.
The story has Monroe's disillusioned and divorced Roslyn Tabor coming to befriend the misfits of the title - three worn-out cowboys, whose lifestyle and wild roving are a sham hiding the sadness of days gone by. Gable plays Gay Langland, a womaniser who cannot find the heart for the pursuit any longer. His hustling is but a dusty veil for a man who knows that progress is nudging him aside, an ageing cowboy that no longer understands the world in which he is living. His scheme is to rope and catch wild Mustangs - nature's own misfits - to sell on as meat to dog food companies. And along for the ride are Montgomery Clift's alcoholic ex-rodeo-rider, Perce Holland and Wallach's heartbroken, but still weasely-with-mischief, pilot, Guido. When Roslyn enters their bleak world she expects to discover the live-for-the-moment exhilaration that was lacking from her loveless marriage and both Gay and Perce come to symbolise the macho posturing that she, at first, may find attractive, but will, ultimately, come to abhor.
Arthur Miller's glum screenplay has plenty of wonderful dialogue and there is, indeed, some poetry at work in here, yet the film's relentless vision of a way of life slowly disintegrating is quietly forlorn and draining. The jaundiced, almost musty, look of the movie seems to signify the dying spirit of the characters, their ideals literally falling to dust as you watch. It's almost as though hope is gradually being leached from the film. The pilot knows that “knowing things don't mean that much,” but he often offers up the most clinical insight into their miserable plight. His final tirade about women putting spurs on men is a testy slice of desolate cynicism. Clift's Perce soon fades away to little more than a shadow across the desert and even the once mighty Gable seems withered and shrunken, his stature whittled away by the women who have tamed him. Their lines may be eloquent, but their eyes tell a much different story.
“Where are you at? I don't know where you at!”
It is also unusual, and more than a little heartbreaking, to see Marilyn Monroe looking as frail and as dowdy as she appears here. Her sparkle has dulled, her charisma becoming an anguished scream at the passing of an age - the scene of her emotions being venting at the barbaric way in which the poor Mustangs have been roped and caught proves to be a catalyst in more ways than one. There is real pain there. Her marriage to Miller was on the ropes and it is difficult not to see the strain of it all in both her portrayal and in Miller's writing, the resulting film becoming an interesting, but desperately poignant one.
“I seen a picture of the moon once ... looked just like this.”
It's a strange arena in which this intensely human drama is played out, and one that feels a little uncomfortable. Gable's final struggle with the symbolic stallion is suitably meaty, if a touch overwrought, but the overall message is, I feel, fumbled. The clever idea of simple people fading away against an epic landscape, that will continue to endure no matter what befalls them, could have worked much better than this exhausted fable - but it would take a cold heart not to swell come the final, star-pointed drive back home. A dark and sombre treatise on the American Dream gone awry.
The third movie that I have from this boxset is Monroe's second feature - Phil Karlson's Ladies Of The Chorus from 1949. Running for just 58 minutes, I'm sorry to say that this is also 58 minutes too long. As burlesque queen Peggy Martin, Monroe is glamour personified, but this loud and off-the-boil Big Time Showpiece just annoys. The lines fall flat, the acting is way off the mark and the entire plot is detailed on the back of the box. My advice - read that instead of watching it. Monroe had star written all over her, but this one is for the completists only.