Hollywood Prefers Blondes: Analysis of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and the Cinema of the 1950s

American cinema of the 1950s saw many changes and challenges. On January 1, 1950 the Paramount Decree had gone into effect, making it illegal for studios to control exhibition of their films. Additionally, the rising popularity of television meant that studios now had to compete for viewers and tried numerous methods, including color and widescreen, to draw in audiences. One film from this era that exemplifies the changing climate of cinema is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Released in 1953 and directed by Howard Hawks, this film serves as a microcosm of the 1950s. Hawks’ filmmaking career began in the early 1930s with gangster films such as Scarface and The Public Enemy. Hawks was conscious of the changes occurring in the film industry however and shifted the style of films he was making. He “suggested that Hollywood needed to make pictures with imagination that sustain interest because television is taking over the trivia.”[1] By the 1950s, Hawks was making screwball comedies such as Monkey Business and, of course, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Examination of the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes proves essential in understanding the cinematic shift taking place in the 1950s.

The film’s two leads, Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy (Jane Russell) are showgirls who have differing ideas on what is important in a man. All Lorelei cares about is money, as such she is engaged to a naïve young man named Gus whose father is extremely wealthy. Dorothy believes that love is more important to money and is attracted to athletic men. Lorelei and Dorothy board a ship bound for France where Lorelei hopes to marry Gus. His father interferes believing that Lorelei is not good enough for him. Gus promises to meet her in France and gives her a letter of credit before leaving the ship. It is then revealed that Gus’s father has hired a private detective named Ernie Malone to spy on Lorelei. Malone ends up falling in love with Dorothy, but she is only interested in the members of the male Olympic team who are also onboard. Later, Malone photographs Lorelei in an embrace with a wealthy diamond mine owner called Piggy. The girls steal the photos and Lorelei persuades Piggy to give her his wife’s tiara. Upon their arrival in France, Dorothy and Lorelei are kicked out of their hotel room because Gus cancelled the letter of credit after Malone revealed her infidelity. When charges are filed against Lorelei for theft of the tiara, Dorothy persuades her to return it, but they discover the tiara is missing. Dorothy poses as Lorelei to stall the judge. Dorothy covertly reveals that she loves Malone but would never forgive him if he hurt Lorelei. Malone then reveals that Piggy was the one in possession of the tiara. The film ends at the double wedding of Dorothy and Malone alongside Lorelei and Gus.

One of the most famous scenes from the film is the one in which Marilyn Monroe performs the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. This scene helped cement Monroe as a member of the new group of emerging stars in the 50s. This group also included James Dean. This new star persona that Dean and Monroe occupied was constructed around youth and sexualization. The content of this famous song also helped establish Monroe as a feminist icon, a view of her that still exists today. The 1950s was a decade of change in gender roles leading up to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. When Monroe sings about women not needing love, she is on the forefront of the change that is taking place in society and pop culture. Another important aspect of this scene is the scale of its production. It is a large set with elaborate costumes and choreography. It is a scene that is designed to impress an audience. This is what Hawks is referring to when he stated “Hollywood needed to make pictures with imagination.” Spectacle has always been an important component of Hollywood cinema and is especially relevant in a decade where film is seeing strong competition for the first time. Also present in this scene are reverse shots of Gus in the audience watching the performance. These shots emphasize the importance of viewership at this time while also serving as a comment on the male gaze. While the male gaze may not seem consistent with Monroe’s status as a feminist icon, it is actually very significant. In this scene Monroe’s character Lorelei is conscious of his gaze and is using it to her advantage. This subversion of traditional gender roles is a key component of Monroe’s persona.

Another important scene in the film is the one in which Dorothy performs “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” In this scene Dorothy is surrounded by the male Olympic team who are performing their exercises shirtless and in short shorts. The song itself might seem like a regression for women as the lyrics are about wanting love rather than women not needing a relationship as “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” implies. However, when paired with the visuals of the scene the song is given new meaning. Throughout the scene Dorothy is clearly ogling the male athletes who are wearing much less clothing than she is. Dorothy makes no secret of her looking and, in doing so, is flipping the male gaze. Having a woman actively take pleasure in looking is something that would have rarely been done in films from an earlier era. This scene gives agency to Dorothy and legitimizes female desire. This is another example of how this film strives to be at the forefront of women’s changing status in society.

A scene from this film that has not produced as much discourse as the ones previously mentioned is the one in which Lorelei meets Piggy. Piggy is the rich owner of a diamond mine. He serves a caricature of a wealthy American capitalist. In the 1950s, America saw a big economic growth following the end of World War II. As a result, consumerism began to rise.  Having the ability to buy material goods was seen as having access to a better quality of life. Piggy’s character represents the American attitude toward consumerism and success that was prevalent in this decade. Additionally, the fact that the diamond mine he owns is in Africa is also significant as the Civil Rights movement was currently taking place. The fact of Piggy’s diamond mine speaks to the racial injustices of the time. It also exposes the hypocrisy of American capitalism. The aforementioned American Dream of owning material goods was only available to white families. Piggy represents white, American views on capitalism and consumerism of the 1950s. Another interesting detail in the scene is a specific shot of Piggy. When Lorelei first learns that he is the owner of a diamond mine, we see a point-of-view shot of Piggy with a large diamond covering his head. This shot shows a literal objectification of Piggy by Lorelei. Similar to Dorothy observing the athletes, this shot is a reversal of the typical objectification of women in film. Furthermore, Lorelei is not objectifying Piggy for sexual pleasure but rather for the monetary gain she hopes to get from him. This is another example of how this film speaks to women’s changing role in society.

By examining these reversals of gender roles on screen, as well as the representation of American consumerism, we are able to see just how this film exemplifies the 1950s. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a film that is highly conscious of its place in a changing world. In a time where television is gaining popularity, the film uses techniques that are unique to its medium to retain audiences. This film also addresses the larger cultural shift that was taking place as gender roles began to change. By observing the manner in which the film interacts with its changing environment, we can observe how cinema changes as a whole during the 1950s.

[1] Lev, Transforming The Screen, 11.