At long last, something good has happened to Marilyn Monroe.
Enough with the exploitative picture books and increasingly dubious biographies that have driven the Monroe industry since her death, at the young age of 36, in 1962.
Instead, 20th Century Fox, Monroe’s home studio during her most creative years, has paid her the genuine tribute of going back to five of her most important movies and spending enough money to restore them to a state close to what they looked like on their original release.
The results, on Blu-ray, have been packaged as “Forever Marilyn,” a seven-disc boxed set that includes the five remastered Fox titles – “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (Howard Hawks, 1953), “How to Marry a Millionaire” (Jean Negulesco, 1953), “River of No Return” (Otto Preminger, 1954), “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (Walter Lang, 1954) and “The Seven Year Itch” (Billy Wilder, 1955) – as well as two previously released United Artists titles, “Some Like It Hot” (Billy Wilder, 1959) and “The Misfits” (John Huston, 1961).
Although the Fox titles are available individually ($24.99 each), the box is a bargain at its retail price of $99.98.
What really matters is the quality of the image and sound, which is simply superb. Monroe emerged as a star in the early 1950s, a problematic era for film preservation because of the new formats and color processes the studios introduced to compete with television. Designed to be shown on huge, gently curved screens in movie palaces, Fox’s wide-screen CinemaScope process looked spectacular – and provided such a satisfyingly immersive experience that the technology killed off its chief rival, 3-D.
As the CinemaScope films aged, they lost much of what made them special. They were chopped into standard sizes for television and shorn of the stereo soundtracks that gave them added depth and presence.
For the first time it’s possible to discover the design choices behind what had seemed the garish and arbitrary production design of “No Business.” What emerges is an advanced study in eccentric, midcentury color theory, with startling combinations of gray, grape, rose, turquoise and chartreuse.
Shot in Technicolor shortly before the CinemaScope explosion, Howard Hawks’ “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” has always been the best preserved of Monroe’s color films. Although its most audaciously entertaining effects – the ruby red dresses of Monroe’s duet with Jane Russell, about the “Little Girls From Little Rock”; the hot pinks and velvety blacks of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” – fell under the watch of the great dance director Jack Cole, it’s the one film in this collection in which Monroe seems in charge of her screen image.
Hawks, who had first cast her as a platinum blonde and made use of her comic talents in “Monkey Business” (1952), possessed an almost mystical ability to bring out the most appealing aspects of his performers’ personalities, and in this female buddy film Monroe remains thoroughly and delightfully conscious of her sexuality.
Her talents are not so very different from the abilities of Hawks’ Western heroes: a professional attribute that can be used strategically in pursuit of one’s goals. In one of the film’s finest moments, Monroe’s Lorelei Lee exposes her native intelligence: “I can be smart when I want to,” she says, “But I’ve noticed most men don’t like it.”
Monroe gives her most relaxed and emotionally complete performance in “River of No Return.”
“River” was one of the few times when Monroe was matched by a male performer, Robert Mitchum, who was in some ways her peer as a a sex symbol. This was an experience she was rarely allowed to repeat, as Fox insisted on casting her against weak-tea types.
The men became wimpier as Monroe became more of an abstract sex symbol: a barely humanized set of body parts in Wilder’s ugly and shallow “Seven Year Itch” (Wilder doesn’t bother to give her a name) and an all-purpose earth mother/quivering innocent in Huston’s pretentious “Misfits.”
Huston may not exploit her sexually in “The Misfits,” as the eternally clueless Walter Lang of “No Business” does. But Huston does something a little creepier by treating this vulnerable human being more as a metaphor than a person.
The former “man trap” becomes the director of a day-care center for self-pitying men – no way to end a career, but by then she may have had enough of it.