Ed here: Marilyn Monroe is in the news again because there's another one of those "true" books about her. This one has her calling up Jackie O and fessin' up to lockin' lips with JFK. This allegedly came from the late Peter Lawford who made a point of being sober at least fifteen minutes a day. I don't trust any of these books. I don't believe J Edgar Hoover was a cross-dresser and I certainly don't believe that Erroll Flynn was a gay Nazi spy. When would he have time? He was always servicing fifteen year old girls. But that's the biz. You can't libel the dead. Anyway David Kalat's been writing a long and interesting series of articles about Howard Hawks over at Movie Morlocks. Since MM is in the news I thought you might be interested in this episode. For the whole thing:
There’s a phrase—oil and water. It’s meant to suggest that two people are of such disparate temperaments that they can’t mix, like oil and water. But that metaphor is a limited—oil and water may not mix, but they are such inert things. But try mixing potassium and water and see what happens—they don’t mix either, but stuff explodes. And that’s our metaphor for today—because putting Howard Hawks in the same room as Marilyn Monroe and expecting anything other than stuff exploding was madness.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks exploring Howard Hawks so if you’ve been tuning in, you should have a pretty good sense by now of the main problem here: Hawks was a proponent of an unself-conscious, almost improvisational approach to acting. He wanted unstudied, unrehearsed naturalism. And he was prepared to resort to dirty tricks to get it.
Meanwhile, Marilyn Monroe was an insecure little rabbit who relied almost pathologically on her acting coach, Natasha Lytess. And one of Lytess’ tools to keep Monroe’s paranoia in check was to insist on endless retakes.
Hawks had no problem with remakes, but retakes weren’t his bag, baby. If the first take wasn’t usable, he figured it made no sense to ask the actors to do it again, he’d just write a new scene and have them go do that one instead.
So, how do you think Hawks responded to Lytess’ repeated calls for retakes? Did he respond calmly and reasonably, accommodating his nervous star’s insecurity? (Let me remind you here that we are talking about a man with a mangled hand, a souvenir left over from punching Ernest Hemingway for no reason other than that it seemed like a good idea at the time).
Nope. Hawks banned Lytess from the set.
This had the predictable effect: Marilyn figured if her drama coach wasn’t welcome on set anymore, then they didn’t really want her to act, so why bother showing up for work at all?
Studio chief Darryl Zanuck wanted to know why the production seemed to have ground to a halt. Hawks offered three suggestions for solving the logjam: fire Marilyn Monroe, fire Howard Hawks, or not shoot the whole movie.
In the end, they settled on a fourth option: Hawks recanted, and allowed Lytess to return. And if she wanted to have Marilyn run through dozens of takes, why not? Of course, there was no law that said they actually had to have film in the camera for those retakes.
The thing is, this wasn’t the first time Hawks and Monroe had worked together. He had to have known what he was getting into. But that raises the question of why Howard Hawks was making this movie at all.
This was in no way Hawks’ comfort zone—he was working in color for the first time, and wasn’t otherwise inclined towards musical comedies—in fact, he was so out of his element in the musical numbers he delegated them to choreographer Jack Cole.
And for that matter, let’s pause a moment and consider these musical numbers. Gentlemen Prefer Blondeshad been a 1925 book by the fabulous Anita Loos, which spawned a long-running Broadway adaptation. Hawks was ostensibly making a film version of the play, but the play didn’t have much of a workable plot, so he was rewriting it extensively with Charles Lederer, and the rewrite entailed discarding a fair number of the famous songs from the stage version—a decision which somewhat calls into question the logic of making a movie version of the show in the first place.
And if the whole point of the thing seemed to be a justification for 90 minutes worth of breast jokes, Hawks seemed blithely unaware of the sex appeal of his two stars. In one of the strangest things anyone has ever said, Hawks said of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell “I never thought of either of them as having any sex.” They just weren’t his type.
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