Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the ultimate American Phantasy, but beneath its glittering skin is an abyss with no bottom. Howard Hawks directs it like a wicked National Geographic Special on human mating habits in late Capitalist society, with Monroe and Russell stalking their respective prey on a colorful veldt of Greek prints, eye-popping gowns, and lush tapestry. The very first frame overwhelms you with color, and the whole movie is just sensory overload—catchy tunes, sexuality unbound, constant one-liners, and of course—diamonds, diamonds, diamonds.
The surface narrative is revolting, and the complete and unapologetic superficiality of the whole enterprise has the saccharine stench of rot. However, like the best work of Douglas Sirk, there’s more than a hint of satire in the pungent brew, and it’s this alien self-consciousness that gives the movie its social value. Francois Truffaut—the famous French critic/filmmaker and one of Hawks’s greatest champions—said of Hawks,
His films are divided into adventures and comedies. The former are a tribute to man, they celebrate his intelligence and his physical and moral greatness. The latter are directed at his degeneration and the emptiness in modern society—Francois Truffaut on Howard Hawks
Underneath Blonde‘s surface of youth, power, and libido is its flipside of old age, weakness, and Thanatos. The subtext encompasses a critique of Capitalism, gender issues, homosexuality, and even racism. It may never let its smile falter, but that’s what makes it a sub-text; if they were to let the satire puncture the surface narrative it would just be Mad Men. I’ll never claim to know that Hawks and Lederer were themselves conscious of the movie’s twisted ironies, although Truffaut certainly thinks they were. For my money, I’ve no doubt that even their ignorance would have only emboldened the film’s text and so granted even greater weight to the balancing force of its counter-narrative.
Well, the reality is, truthfully, if the subtext is really, really going to work it’s just got to be inherent in the material. It’s nothing that I’m writing. It’s no brick, no series of bricks that I’m putting into place. It’s just there, just there, and I deal with the text. I work on the text and I count on that to take care of itself—Quentin Tarantino in an interview with Cinematical
Blondes is the story of two “little girls from Little Rock” who work as performers in a nightclub. Marilyn Monroe plays Lorelei Lee—a golddigger par excellence, and Jane Russell is Dorothy Shaw—her lascivious best-friend. At the start Lee (Monroe) is engaged to a wealthy wimp named Gus who sends her and Dorothy (Russell) alone on a cruise to Paris when his father deems it too scandalous for him to travel unmarried with the two young ladies. Gus hires a Private Investigator named Malone to see if Lorelei stays faithful, but alas there are too many men “with valets” on the cruise’s registry for little Lorelei to ignore. Although he and Dorothy spark up a genuine romance, the PI’s report ruins Lorelei’s nuptials, and the two girls get stranded in Paris. Eventually Gus can’t stand it anymore and chases her down just in time for a happy ending with a huge double wedding for the four of them.
The entertainment value of this surface story cannot be overstated. In The Films of My Life, Truffaut says
Hawks’s comedies, whatever label you put on them, are bright and original, derived more from a nice sense of the absurd than from a sense of commercialism. Whether you laugh or grit your teeth, you won’t be bored—Truffaut on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
The sets, costumes, songs, and performaces are all beautiful, and Noir veteran Harry J. Wild shoots the revelrie with great panache. Hawks never lets the plot slow down, and while Truffaut thinks that the laughs “get caught in your throat” because of the film’s disturbing subtexts, I found the jokes genuinely funny. Russell and Monroe have a repartee like a romantic couple in a Screwball Comedy, and their witty banter begs an explanation of their intimacy. In fact, whether they’re sisters, friends, or “other” is never even established in the film, and the final shot of the wedding is a close up of the two women that eliminates the men on their arms: the one thing they could never give up was each other—Hawks’s now familiar homoeroticism is definitely on full display in Blondes.
Extreme, but logical conclusions
So how does such a funny, sexy story turn into—as Truffaut says—”an intelligent and pitiless” film? He says that,
On principle, Howard Hawks always pushes things as far as possible, and scenes which may seem merely affected to start with become monstrous when they reach extreme but logical conclusions.
A great example from the film is the scene where Lorelei meets the international diamond mogul known as “Piggy.” The diamond superimposed on his face makes an “extreme but logical” metaphor about exactly how Lee views men.
The scene begins as “merely affected” in the same sense as any Melodrama. The great director Sidney Lumet put it, “in a well-written Drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written Melodrama come out of the story.” The characters in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes originate “out of the story”—they’re the embodiments of the sterotypes that the script revolves around. However in the hands of Howard Hawks, Drama is pushed past Melo into absurd satire. It is obvious within the first 30 seconds of the movie that Lorelei is a good-for-nothing golddigger, but Hawks’s use of visual signifiers like the animated diamond pushes that cliche deep into symbolic territory—as Truffaut says,
Lorelei and Dorothy cease to be merely extravagant personalities and become essences; they are more than symbols: they are the blonde and the brunette, greed and lust, frigidity and nymphomania.
This allegory dominates the film, and an in-depth analysis of the movie’s gender politics would be fruitful. In fact, Precious Bodily Fluids did a great review that looked at the film through Mulvey’s theory of Cinematic Pleasure, but today I want to look at Blondes‘ covert Marxist themes.
Don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit
While the film’s consciousness is certainly Capitalist, and in many ways it’s an embodiment of its ideals—this single-minded purpose makes the film’s shadow Marxist because for every dream fulfilled there’s a human value broken. In particular the subtext seems to explore Marx’s theories of Alienation.
Alienation is a complex and fundamental aspect of Marx’s theories, but it’s a concept with which we’re all at least superficially familiar. At its simplest level Alienation means that under Capitalism the laborer becomes separated—or alienated—from his production, his boss, and his coworkers, but most importantly he becomes alienated from his essential nature and nature itself.
First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; is is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.—Karl Marx
Unlike other thinkers of his era, Marx refuted any notion of a psychological or religious core to Human nature; on the contrary he saw human nature much like he saw society: the product of impersonal historical forces. In issue 79 of “International Socialism” Judy Cox said, “however, Marx did not reject the idea of human nature itself. He argued that the need to labour on nature to satisfy human needs was the only consistent feature of all human societies.” Man’s “essential nature” is an endless attempt to shape the natural world. This brings me back around to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the way that Hawks/Lederer show just how alienated human beings can become in a late Capitalist nightmare. Ostensibly Lorelei desires marriage in order to reproduce—like all animals. Of course, her goals are a little less “natural” in the biological sense.
Stop having fun
Lorelei is alienated in every way, and this comes across mostly in the contrast between her and Dorothy. “I want you to find happiness and stop having fun,” she tells Dorothy, and this paradoxical view does well to explain the duplicitous nature of Capitalism. Happiness—the American Dream—is something that can only be achieved by disconnecting oneself from the pleasures that make life bearable. If people are, as Joseph Campbell says, “looking for the experience of feeling alive,” then Lorelei is as far off that path as possible; in fact with her primped hair, polished nails, and perfect wardrobe she seems more like a mannequin than a person—nothing “real” but breath and flush and sweat, like some dreamgirl stuck deep in the Uncanny Valley. She has, “mortified her body and ruined her mind” for her labor.
Now, because the products of the worker’s labor are traded by the capitalist for a surplus-value that the worker doesn’t see or understand, the connection between the labor and its fruits is severed.
The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object…but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.
But the laborer is not only alienated from his product, but also from the labor itself. By selling his labor to a capitalist it becomes another commodity—one that someone else owns. In Blondes, Lorelei is alienated from herself because she has completely accepted her position as a “commodity”. The triumphant argument she uses at the end—a pretty girl=a rich man—is the perfect summation of this madness. Logically, a pretty girl=a pretty man, but of course we know that this isn’t the African Veldt but the modern Western world, and what is biological is no longer considered “logical”. Lorelei’s “essential nature”—one of a reproductive member of her species—has been completely subsumed to the needs of the Capitalist. No one could think that Gus, Piggy, or any of the other men she expresses interest in were good genetic matches, strong father figures, or even especially loyal caregivers, and although she’s convinced that she’s getting the long end of the stick, I’m sure they are too.
The analogy that Lorelei makes at the end may seem perfectly “natural” to you, but that feeling has no basis in historical reality; in fact, for most of human history the money had to travel the opposite direction. A dowry was something that the bride’s family paid the groom, and the alignment of diamonds with engagement didn’t occur until the mid-20th century (the film’s setting). The sense that the beauty and wealth’s equivalence is “natural” is the final joke of Capitalism. Marx specifically says that over time, because it disguises social realities with economic ones, Capitalism always makes its contradictions seem organic and inevitable.