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Friday, October 17, 2014

Ten Essential Marilyn Monroe Films

There will never be another like Marilyn Monroe. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, Marilyn started her career modelling, followed with tiny, often not speaking parts, in films for 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures. But it wasn’t until her appearance in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in 1950 for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that people started to take note of her.
Her profile only increased when old nudie pictures of a young Monroe surfaced, which in turn led to her gracing the cover of the first edition of Playboy magazine and becoming the first ever Playmate of the Month. As a result, her film roles became bigger and in 1952 she really broke through with Monkey Business, a comedy which starred Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers and the first film in which Monroe would appear with her trademark platinum blonde hair. From there on in her fame skyrocketed and she turned into the sex symbol she will always be remembered for, dominating most the fifties with her screen and media presence.
By the late fifties fame and personal problems would start taking their toll on the actress, before her untimely death in 1962 at the age of 36. But in the decade preceding her passing, Monroe left a legacy of films which would make her into a true cultural icon, one of the most mythologised actresses ever and the ultimate American sex bomb. There will never be another like Marilyn Monroe.

10. Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)
asphalt jungle marilyn monroe
Whilst The Asphalt Jungle is by no means Marilyn Monroe’s first appearance on the silver screen and even though she had larger roles before the one here, this is the first noteworthy movie the rising starlet appeared in. It is in fact one of the best films she appeared in although that would be skewing things as this is hardly a Marilyn Monroe movie. Based on the novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle is a classic heist flick in which Monroe had a minor though noteworthy part as the young mistress of the mastermind behind the crime.
Master criminal Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison after a seven year stretch and immediately gets involved in a planned jewellery heist by crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) . Doc assembles a team, which includes a hooligan named Dix (Sterling Hayden), a driver called Gus(James Whitmore) and professional safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso). The job is meticulously planned and executed but on their way out Louis get shot in the belly when Dix slugs a security guard whose gun drops and goes off accidentally. From there on in, the team’s perfect plan slowly starts to unravel as the police close in and the men start double-crossing each other.
A classic film noir with a fantastic heist sequence, which takes up about 11 minutes of screen time, The Asphalt Jungle is a suspenseful and gritty caper. Monroe wasn’t famous at the time of its release and consequently not mentioned on the film’s original posters but this would all soon change and later, when the film would get re-released, she would be prominently featured on the advertising amongst the other stars. Beautifully shot in moody black and white and featuring a great cast, the film managed to pick up four Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography.

9. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
All About Eve
The Asphalt Jungle got Monroe enough attention to be cast in another major production: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and George Sanders. Once again, this might also be one of the best films the rising starlet ever appeared in although that certainly didn’t have much to do with the minor part Monroe played. Basically appearing in one scene at a party as a blonde who is trying to make it on Broadway, she is famously introduced in the movie by Sanders as “a graduate of the Copacabana school of dramatic arts”.
The film follows Eve Harrington (Baxter) as she works her way into the life of aging Broadway star Margo Channing (Davis) by initially becoming her personal assistant, after expressing her admiration for the star and telling her her sad life story. But not before long it becomes apparent that Eve is just using Margo and those around her to further her own agenda, threatening Margo’s career and personal life in the process.
Whilst Monroe once again had a tiny role in All About Eve, this performance and the one before it in The Asphalt Jungle garnered her enough attention to make the jump to larger supporting roles. It didn’t hurt that All About Eve was a resounding success, winning six Academy Awards that year, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for George Sanders.

8. Clash By Night (Fritz Lang, 1952)
Clash By Night
After having been noticed in small roles in the aforementioned films, Monroe’s star was on the rise and whilst still playing supporting roles, her screen time and fame steadily increased. Monroe’s best film during the years between those initial bit parts and her true rise to fame and leading roles has to be Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night, the first film in which she was credited before the movie’s title in the opening credits. The fact that her old nudie pics calendar also surfaced during the production of this film, only increased her exposure and notoriety.
The film tells the story of Mae (Barbara Stanwyck), who after a ten year period of absence, comes back home to live with her brother Joe, who is seeing factory girl Peggy (Monroe). Soon after her arrival she meets Jerry, a local fisherman, and starts dating him, which leads to marriage and a child despite the fact that Mae doesn’t really love Jerry and is only seeking stability. Meanwhile Joerrys friend Earl (Robert Ryan) starts making moves on Mae and soon the two are having affair, causing a rift between the two former friends.
A melodrama with some noir elements, Clash By Night is an aptly directed film by master filmmaker Fritz Lang. The last small role by Monroe you’ll find on this list before she would become a star, she nonetheless was credited with much of the success of the movie due to the buzz surrounding her at the time. She would soon make the jump to leading roles in Don’t Bother To Knock and finally making it into the big time with the next entry on this list: Monkey Business.

7. Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952)
Monkey Business
The first film on this list that can be truly called a Marilyn Monroe movie, even though she did not have a lead role in it, Monkey Business truly kick-started the Marilyn Monroe craze. The first film in which she would appear with her signature platinum blonde hair, this screwball comedy, which was headlined by Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, was a sizeable hit and even though Monroe didn’t have a whole lot to do, simply playing a secretary, she nonetheless managed to stand out and cause quite a stir.
The story is as silly as screwball comedies tend to get. Dr. Barnaby Fulton (Grant) is an absent minded professor who is trying to come up with a concoction that will restore one’s youth. Try as he may, he can’t seem to find the right formula but when a lab chimpanzee is let loose, the animal manages to mix chemicals in just the right amounts to actually create the elixir of youth. Unknowingly Dr. Fulton drinks some and spontaneously regresses to his twenties. As a result he spends the day with his boss’ secretary (Monroe) which greatly upsets his wife (Rogers). But when she also drinks some of the elixir, she turns out to act even worse and soon everybody seems under the potion’s spell.
A goofy comedy, if ever there was one, and also quite reminiscent of Hawk’s earlier Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business sealed the deal and turned Monroe into a star. The following year she would capitalise on this new found stardom and truly become the sex symbol we still know her as today with the production of not one or two, but three iconic films in her repertoire, one of which would see her join forces once again with Howard Hawks.

6. Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)
1953 was without a doubt the year of Marilyn Monroe. It the year she finally became a full blown star and Niagara was the first film out of three to be released that year to do it. Giving her first billing for the first time in her life, this tense Technicolor film noir is the closest Monroe has ever been to a Hitchcock-like thriller in her career. It also proved one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest box-office draws that year.
The film tells the story of two couples. Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams) are on their honeymoon and arrive at Niagara Falls, only to find their cottage occupied by another couple, George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) and his wife Rose (Monroe). Soon enough Polly finds out that Rose is having an affair with Patrick (Richard Allan) and Rose seems to flaunt her sexuality constantly, which causes her husband to have violent episodes.
It’s all part of the plan though as Rose and Patrick want to kill George and people to consequently think that his violent temper might have been the cause of some sort of accident. But things don’t go as planned as George outwits the lovers and ends up killing Patrick instead. From there on in things go from bad to worse as George also wants to kill his wife in revenge for her cheating and conniving ways. But before he is able to do so, Polly runs into him, discovering that he is still very much alive and informing the police of what’s going on.
Niagara wasn’t a critical darling at the time but that didn’t stop the audience from turning up in droves. The film is also noteworthy as it allowed Marilyn got to extend her acting chops a bit since her role here required her to be a scheming femme fatale instead of the vulnerable dumb blonde she had basically always been asked to play before. Unfortunately for her, the critics didn’t praise her for her performance and the audience ultimately did not come to see her act. They just came to see the gorgeous natural beauty in the film, both Niagara’s and Monroe’s.

5. How To Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco, 1953)
How To Marry a Millionaire
In 1953 the only thing bigger than a movie with Marilyn Monroe could be a movie with Marilyn Monroe and two other bombshells to boot. How To Marry a Millionaire was that movie as it starred Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable as three gold digging models trying to make their way in New York city. And to contain so much beauty, How To Marry a Millionaire was also the first ever film to be shot in Cinemascope widescreen.
The film is a silly physical comedy in which the three leads play models who, despite not having much money, decide to rent a penthouse in Manhattan to attract wealthy suitors. Whilst the plan in itself is solid and all three women get the opportunity to catch themselves a wealthy husband, they of course all learn that their true loves turns out to be the (seemingly) not so wealthy guys who they also meet in the process.
How To Marry a Millionaire turned out to be another of 20th Century Fox’s greatest hits that year. Feminists need not apply for this one unless you can take the whole thing with a grain of salt, which shouldn’t be too hard considering the movie is just extremely light fluff from another era. All three actresses play to their strengths and director Negulesco makes great use of Technicolor and Cinemascope here. Stunning colors, great locations, sets and costumes, all contribute to a very lush affair here. Also of note is that this was the first color widescreen movie to ever be broadcast on television when NBC aired it in 1961.

4. The Misfits (John Huston, 1961)
The Misfits (1961)
The Misfits is a remarkable film for various reasons. First of all it was directed by one of Hollywood’s legendary old school directors, John Huston. It was also the last film for two of Hollywood’s legendary stars, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, as well as one of the last films for third one, Montgomery Clift, all of whom gave outstanding performances. On top of that it’s also the only original screenplay ever written by Arthur Miller whose marriage to Monroe was breaking down during the shooting of the film. The result is a uniquely dark drama about a divorced woman spending time in the Nevada desert with some cowboys, the disappearance of the old west and mortality itself.
The film revolves around Gay Langland (Clark Gable), an aging cowboy and his friends Guido (Eli Wallach) and Perce (Montgomery Clift), a rodeo rider. They meet young ex-stripper and recently divorced Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe), who has come to the country to forget about her woes, and her friend Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) who is accompanying her. They invite the women over to Gay’s house, which is only half finished as construction halted after his wife died during childbirth. Soon after, Roslyn moves in with Gay but both Guido and Perce also have eyes for Roslyn and matters complicate even further when Roslyn finds out that the three men are planning to sell some mustangs only to be processed into dog food.
For such a high profile film with so much star power, The Misfits, with its bleak and depressing subject matter, did not do well at the box-office at the time of release even though Huston was nominated for an Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures by the Director’s Guild of America.
Nowadays however, it’s considered a classic and might in fact be the most serious acting role Monroe ever took on, playing a real-life vulnerable and damaged woman, which was a far cry from the roles which brought her fame, although it still echoed her “dumb blonde” persona, sex bomb status and even real-life personal issues at the time. But even though it’s one of her best films and probably her best acting performance in any of her movies, the top three of this list is reserved for films which are more typical fare for the fifties sex symbol.

3. Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)
Seven Year Itch
The movie that gave us the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grating and getting her white dress blown up as a train passes underneath, The Seven Year Itch was Monroe’s first collaboration with master director Billy Wilder and further proof that she certainly had some seriously underrated comedic skills.
Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) has stayed behind in Manhattan as his wife and son have taken off for the holidays. Richard is having a mid-life crisis and fantasises about the women he will never get to date since he’s a married man. But when he gets back home after having packed his wife and son off for their summering in Maine, he runs into his new neighbour, a stunning young actress and formal model, who turns his world upside down.
He invites her to dinner with the intention to have a liaison with the young lady but as he’s basically a good guy with a conscience and she’s extremely naïve, nothing happens between the two. Nonetheless Richard starts worrying like crazy that his lustful thoughts will be obvious to everybody around him and that he will have to pay dearly for simply having thought them, even though he remained faithful.
A great parody of conventional Hollywood romances and pitch perfect casting of Monroe as the naïve and stunning girl next door, The Seven Year Itch is a classic comedy and one of Monroe’s most iconic roles. Even though censorship did not permit adultery on screen (in the original play the movie is based on the husband and girl did end up having an actual affair), Wilder managed to instill the film with enough of a cheeky tone and sexual innuendo to make it daring enough for the times. But Monroe and Wilder still had their best collaboration ahead of them as they would join forces again four years later with a movie that would truly become a comedy classic.

2. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
The third classic Monroe film released in 1953 was her second collaboration with director Howard Hawks, which saw the new sex symbol share the screen with another of Hollywood’s greatest bombshells, Jane Russell, who still received top-billing over Monroe at the time. Based on the 1925 novel by Anita Loos called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady, which was first adapted to the screen in 1928 and later turned into a stage musical in 1949, this film adaptation is based on the latter and retains many of its musical numbers.
Miss Lorelei Lee (Monroe) is a gold digging showgirl who sets off to Paris to marry millionaire Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), accompanied by her best friend Dorothy (Russell), who loves good looking fit guys more than wealthy ones. As they make the trip across the Atlantic they are spied upon by private detective Malone (Elliot Reid), who has been hired by Esmond’s father to make sure that Lorelei isn’t the type of girl that will be bad for his son and is simply marrying him for his money. Malone and Dorothy end up falling in love but the fact that he has been hired to prevent her best friend’s marriage doesn’t do wonders for their relationship, nor does Lorelei’s flirtatious behaviour towards a wealthy married diamond mine owner onboard the ship. Will both ladies find true love and does it have a price tag attached?
Retaining many of the musical numbers from the stage show and adding some written especially for the film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes might be the first movie where Monroe truly proved she could charm her audience to bits in a leading part (as she had played a conniving femme fatale in Niagara), even whilst playing a gold digger. The film was a financial as well as critical success and remains one of Monroe’s most beloved films. This movie also features the famous iconic Monroe performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, which inspired Madonna’s video for Material Girl more than thirty years later and has been copied and/or imitated by various artists many times over the years.

1. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Some Like it Hot
The second collaboration between Monroe and Wilder, Some Like It Hot can truly be considered as one of the greatest timeless comedies. Monroe is once again perfectly cast as the sexy blonde ditz but is also allowed to put in a great performance and show off her comedic chops. The film also contains another iconic Monroe scene as she performs the song “I Wanna Be Loved By You”. Whilst not as famous as the skirt blowing scene from Seven Year Itch or the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s best Friend” routine from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, this rendition of the song still ranks amongst her most incredible moments on the silver screen as it has a certain almost ethereal quality to it.
The story deals with Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two musicians who witness the Saint Valentine’s Massacre in gangster-ruled 1920’s Chicago and end up disguising themselves as women in order to escape being taking out by the mob, which doesn’t like the thought of witnesses to their crimes hanging around. Taking on the personas of Josephine and Daphne, they join Sweet Sue’s all-girl orchestra and head off to Florida to do a gig with their new band there.
En route, they meet the orchestra’s lead singer and ukulele player Sugar Kane (Monroe) and both fall for her head over heels but are unable to really do anything about it due to their female disguises. And if that situation doesn’t complicate matters enough, double disguises to win Sugar’s heart, an aging millionaire pursuing Daphne and the mob showing up at their hotel in Miami certainly do.
Some Like It Hot is as funny today as when it was first released in 1959 and one might in fact argue that the timelessness of the film only has made it better over the years. Both Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are in fine form here, whilst Monroe completely holds her own and is as sexy as ever, even though real-life personal problems were starting to take a toll on her and made her notoriously difficult to work with around this time, often arriving late on set and feeling very insecure about her own performances.
None of this shows on screen though and Monroe is a wonder to look at whilst the movie itself remains amongst most beloved comedies of all time. In fact, the American Film Institute labelled Some Like It Hot the greatest American Comedy of All Time when it revealed its list on June 13th 2000. Nobody might be perfect but Some Like It Hot sure comes close.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page:


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