When Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.  

Even if you’ve never seen Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it’d be nearly impossible not to be familiar with its big 11 o’clock number, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” Marilyn Monroe’s exuberant ode to gold-digging has been homaged, reimagined, and satirized by everyone from Madonna to Moulin Rouge! to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s one of the most iconic moments of Monroe’s career—rivaled for the top spot only by her blowing white dress from The Seven Year Itch. Yet Monroe’s breathy celebration of the value of diamonds over the men who give them raises the question that hangs over so much of her career: Is she in on the joke? Are we laughing with her or laughing at her?

It’s a question you could reasonably ask of the 1953 film itself, which on its surface might seem to be a 90-minute misogynistic punchline about the desperate schemes of two devious social-climbing showgirls, ditzy Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and witty man-eater Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell). Thankfully, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is quite the opposite. It’s a cheeky social satire about gender and class that doubles as a celebration of female ingenuity and solidarity, all glammed up in a ballgown and diamonds. Or—to put it in terms of films that came after it—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes combines the glitteringly feminine feminism of Legally Blonde with the comedic pleasures of watching schemers cheat the system by cheating the rich in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Beat for beat, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes just might be the single funniest film I’ve ever covered for this column. It was directed by Howard Hawks from a screenplay by Charles Lederer, two prolific players in the Hollywood studio system, who, among other things, had previously collaborated on the iconic 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday. By the 1950s, musicals had become the favored format of the romantic comedy genre, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of the films that served as a bridge between the fast-talking, verbal and physical comedy of the previous decades and the innuendo-laden Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedies of the early 1960s.

So while “Diamond’s Are A Girl’s Best” is the best remembered song in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, an even better encapsulation of the film’s comedic sensibility is the gloriously staged, gloriously horny production number “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love,” in which Dorothy confidently strolls through a gymnasium full of half-naked male Olympians while lamenting that the men are too focused on their training to fall for her. It immediately undercuts the idea that musical romantic comedies of the 1950s were earnest, wholesome affairs where traditional gender roles reigned. It still feels cheekily subversive today.

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Admittedly, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is more of a female buddy comedy than a full-on romantic comedy, though romance does technically drive the plot, so it feels worthy of inclusion in this column. (Plus it’s one of my favorites and I wanted to write about it!) The film’s comedy largely stems from the odd couple pairing of Lorelei and Dorothy, two lifelong best friends who worked their way up from a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks in Little Rock, Arkansas to a glamorous showbiz life.

Dorothy is a street-smart gal who approaches the world with barbed wit, a hunger for handsome men, and just a hint of romanticism. Lorelei, meanwhile, largely comes across as an airhead, save for her savant-like ability to seek out rich men and charm her way into diamond gifts. Both women worry the other has her priorities all wrong—Dorothy thinks you can’t have a happy marriage without love, Lorelei argues you can’t have love without financial stability. But their friendship remains absolutely steadfast, no matter the men who come in and out of their lives. (It’s an idea my A.V. Club colleague Emily L. Stephens brilliantly explores in her 2014 Toast essay about the film’s fierce female friendships.)

The plot, in so much as there is one, involves Dorothy serving as Lorelei’s chaperone on a cross-Atlantic voyage to France. She’s there to ensure that Lorelei doesn’t do anything her sweetly nerdy fiancé, Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), wouldn’t approve of. As Dorothy notes, however, “Nobody chaperones the chaperone. That’s why I’m right for this job.” Disappointed to learn the Olympic team has to be in bed by nine, Dorothy begins to fall for charming Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), not realizing he’s secretly a private detective who’s been hired by Gus’ wealthy father to spy on Lorelei. Malone soon finds something to take note of when Lorelei starts getting chummy with Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn), a buffoonish older passenger who just happens to own an entire diamond mine.

So much of what makes the film work ultimately comes down to just how fantastic Monroe and Russell are in it, both individually and as a duo. Russell was the bigger star at the time and commanded the higher salary, but this is one of the key films that launched Monroe into the Hollywood stratosphere and established her signature “dumb blonde” persona. I could fill this whole column just listing off the genius comedic scenarios that Hawks and Lederer dream up, and that Monroe and Russell flawlessly deliver. One of my favorites is a sequence where Lorelei tries to escape a locked room via a porthole window, which becomes a great showcase for Monroe’s pitch-perfect comedic timing and Hawks’ clever eye for physical comedy.

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Choreographer Jack Cole and costume designer William Travilla are two other creative forces who played major roles in shaping the iconography of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (As her go-to designer, Travilla created nearly every one of Monroe’s most iconic onscreen looks across her career.) But there’s a lesser remembered voice who deserves a lion’s share of the credit, and that’s Anita Loos, the woman who wrote the 1925 novel on which the film is based.

Known as the “Soubrette Of Satire,” Loos was a pioneering female screenwriter in the earliest days of Hollywood. She worked alongside D.W. Griffith, shaped the onscreen image of Douglas Fairbanks, and wrote the stage adaptation of Gigi, which launched Audrey Hepburn’s career. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary Of A Professional Lady was Loos’ satirical reflection on all her lived experiences—marriages to men who undermined her, strong friendships with glamorous actresses like Constance Talmadge, and her perpetual battle against a patriarchal world that wasn’t eager to make space for her career ambitions.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes became the second-best selling title of 1926, and, along with The Great Gatsby, it helped define the image of the hedonistic Jazz Age. Loos earned literary admirers in William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, and Edith Wharton, who called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “the Great American Novel.” In addition to writing a sequel, Loos would go on to adapt her novel into a 1926 Broadway play, a 1928 silent film (now lost), and a 1949 Broadway musical, which launched the career of Carol Channing and served as direct source material for the Monroe/Russell film. (Of the changes Lederer made in adapting the musical for the screen, the biggest was updating its 1920s setting to the contemporary 1950s, shifting Lorelei and Dorothy from flappers to a showgirl double act.)

While Loos didn’t work on the 1953 film directly, her satirical signature is still all over it. It was way back in 1925 that Loos wrote the line that would later inspire Broadway composers Jule Styne and Leo Robin to craft one of the most famous songs in pop culture history. As Lorelei observes in her misspelled diary: “Kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.”

Lorelei’s obsession with diamonds is both a funny comedic runner and the film’s most pointed piece of satirical commentary. As Lorelei sees it, if the world is going to objectify her anyway, she might as well get some financial benefit from it—especially since she’s learned firsthand that diamonds won’t betray her in the way that men so often do. As Lorelei ultimately argues in her big climatic monologue: “Don’t you know that a rich man is like a pretty girl? You don’t marry her just because she’s pretty. But, my goodness, doesn’t it help?” When Lorelei’s potential father-in-law responds with surprise that she doesn’t seem to be as stupid as he was told she was, she responds, “I can be smart when it’s important. But most men don’t like it.”

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Like the best satires, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes heightens cultural dynamics to the point where you can’t help but see the absurdity in them. Yet it does so in a way that always gives Lorelei and Dorothy the comedic upper hand, rather than forcing them to be the butt of the joke. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes imagines a world where women are allowed to be as open and unembarrassed about their desires as men—whether that’s Dorothy’s interest in “a beautiful hunk o’ man” or Lorelei’s proclivity for wealthy beaus. They never waiver in their directness about asking for what they want, nor from their loyalty to one another. In the end, they’re rewarded for their ingenuity, not punished for it.

That was actually a bit of a trend in Golden Age Broadway musicals. Both 1943’s Oklahoma! and 1948’s Kiss Me, Kate feature romantic subplots in which a promiscuous woman is rewarded with a happy ending without really having to change her ways. The comedic numbers “Always True To You In My Fashion” and “All Er Nuthin’” center on women negotiating relationship dynamics where they’re allowed the same level of extramarital caddishness that wives had so long been expected to put up with from their husbands. As in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, these numbers use irony, comedy, and musical theater glitz and glam to convey their pointed social commentaries.

There’s a sort of loosely accepted myth that cultural progress is linear—that of course a movie made in 1953 would be more sexist than a movie made today. Yet once you lock into the satirical tone beneath its surface-level pleasures, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes refutes that idea in nearly every scene. It’s both an old-fashioned romp and a shockingly progressive ode to female independence, sexual agency, and camaraderie. Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but—as this romantic comedy sees it—so is the woman who will happily throw on her finest evening wear and upend the patriarchy with you.

Next time: The Best Man and the ever-popular black ensemble rom-com.