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Friday, October 16, 2009

Part Two of Marilyn Monroe and Niagara

I guess Marilyn and Elvis are the two biggest legend names we have. You could add James Dean, though he’s down the line from them and getting more so with passage of time. Will Monroe ever wear out? Elvis won’t so long as there are devices to play his music. Even devoted fans of Marilyn are watching less of her movies now, I suspect, but still images will likely survive civilization itself. Like a lot of female icons, Garbo, Louise Brooks, etc., we think of MM more as an infinite line of photos than a moving and speaking presence. When followers had her alive and vocal, it mattered more what feature she’d turn up doing next, or which marriage she’d be in or out of. Now it’s just reams of frozen imagery selling product not necessarily related to films. We know she was a real person because of much tragic stuff and the fadeout. Everybody has their opinion about that. Mine is that she thoughtlessly downed sleep tablets much as I used to chug nickel bags of M&M’s, only she chased hers with alcohol. Probably not a suicide, or at least not one she meant to see through (there'd been several attempts thwarted by friends and caretakers). Could have been murder, but how would the perp have gotten in and managed that with a housekeeper standing by? I do believe Peter Lawford was sent to vacuum the place before authorities took over. Imagine what that was like for him. Stepping over a corpse in search of a diary and whatever might compromise his/her masters. What if these were clutched in Marilyn's hand? Too bad Lawford took all that truth with him, for he probably knew the score better than any of the rest. They’re all gone now, and it’s not even been fifty years. Was there a curse on everyone in Monroe’s orbit? My family happened to be in Los Angeles the day Marilyn died. I’ve sometimes imagined looking her up at age eight to warn of impending disaster. Would I have met a Kennedy at the door? It's said she was getting ready to call a press conference and spill it all. Maybe somebody did get rid of her. High stakes rode on this woman who was unpredictable at best and capable of taking careers, entertainment and political, down with her if she went. I’m surprised no one has offered up a fake Marilyn diary … or, maybe they have, and no one showed me a copy.

Early photos of Monroe are disturbing. You can tell bad things were being done to her. They're a lot like sad adolescent Clara Bow poses I’ve seen. One magazine even published a shot of Marilyn’s mother sitting on a park bench, during the seventies I believe. Anyway, it was years after MM died. The face was spooky and vacant, as though this woman had no idea who her daughter had been, or even if she had a daughter. Does anyone know when she died? You see, there are experts on Marilyn far beyond levels I could hope to achieve. They collect dust particles of her life and could tell you what Monroe did from hour-to-hour on any day out of that final decade. They know her movies inside out but could care less about anyone else’s movies. My MM knowledge is mere flyspecks beside theirs, but there are bits I do remember. One was grubby chapters in columnist James Bacon’s paperbacks (one was called Hollywood Is A Four Letter Town) about how he bedded Marliyn when she was young and struggling. Seems Bacon was sharing her with aged producer Joseph Schenck, who would call whenever varied potions kicked in and he was, for an hour or so, able to perform. Again I ask … was it worth it being a star? Good thing I wasn’t Marilyn, for in that event, randy old Joe would have had gratification delayed by endless queries about the flame-out of Roscoe Arbuckle’s career, independent producing with John Barrymore, and the formation of Twentieth-Century Fox. Oh, and I’d have chastised him severely for selling Buster out to MGM. Coitus interruptus, indeed!

Fans would shoot home movies around New York in hope of sighting Marilyn. They staked her morning to night and knew where she’d turn up. The candid captures often found a distinctly un-Marilyn-ish Monroe, her scarf wrapped tightly round, an expression distracted or confused. Such 8mm glimpses of MM’s off-guard world include coffee shops, automats, and theatres open all night as backdrop to her retreats. You almost expect J.J. Hunsecker to pass by and say Hi. Everything about Marilyn is bound up in 50’s iconography (wonder who the first writer was to observe that … certainly not me). So many books present Monroe with a startling glamour grin and lipstick that looks like freshly sucked blood. Much of Marilyn’s posing seems too much, at least for me. She looked prettier and more natural in pre-stardom sessions and ones done, interestingly, toward the end. 20th had its own twisted notion of allure and Monroe had to abide with it. Their subsequent build-up for Jayne Mansfield might beat MM’s for crass, but not by much. You can’t help sensing the cloud of cigarettes and sneaked bottles that accompanied campaign strategy meetings for a picture like Niagara, Fox’s first to exploit her as an all-out sex trap. Everybody but Marilyn got a laugh over the fact she was getting only $750 a week for being so exhibited. The price of her fame would be cheap so long as she remained with that company.

Niagara is the best Monroe to show for those with simple and pre-conceived notions of what she was about, as it fulfills civilian expectations for melodrama with switches turned up, a prime sampling of what we’ll call scenic noir. That’s a (sub) sub-genre requiring color for full effect, and included but a handful of titles. Leave Her To Heaven and Desert Fury came earlier and were set in places where you wouldn’t mind living but for so many murders. I was blind to how good Niagara is for sub-par Eastman 16mm prints and black-and-white TV broadcasts that were my former lot. Its pace is quick and they don’t waste time with subtleties. Neither did Fox cheat with locations. All exteriors appear to have been shot at the Falls, making me want to visit even more than when Gilbert Roland did a tightrope walk over them in The Big Circus. Technicolor still had picture postcard quality in 1953, and Niagara is gorgeous on Fox’s DVD. Henry Hathaway (with Marilyn above) directs as he did for Louis De Rochemont where-it-happened thrillers, only this one happens at a place more engaging to look at. As we’ll never have auto courts again in real life, it’s instructive seeing one here. Did vacationers at such places really intermingle as freely as in Niagara? The essential debate passed down these fifty-six years comes to choice between Marilyn Monroe and second lead Jean Peters. Which did/do viewers prefer? I wonder if 1953 males gravitated toward Marilyn in simple observance of billing and poster placement. One writer said that Monroe’s character was for the hoi polloi, while Peters appealed to thinking men. Looks like I’ve finally gotten affirmation, for to me, there’s no contest. These girls might be the Ginger and Mary Ann for barroom discussion of what was sexy in 1953. Niagara supplies money’s worth just for opportunity to ponder the two. A friend who was a service projectionist back then told me that his soldier audience chose Jean Peters to a man. Maybe it’s time for someone to take Niagara out on the road and do the definitive national survey. Any volunteers?


Blogger Christopher said...

Thanks for the scoop on this film as it was really my introduction to la Monroe..and has long been a favorite..Great moody,atmospheric movie set in a place we all grew up hearing about yet never get to really see.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Gunnar and Sherry said...

I love the line in the movie "Scuttle it" and how the great Casey Adams is so prominantly featured.

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

So nice to see a nice piece about this film since it's one of my favorite Monroe movies. She's dazzling and ferocious in this! I hate the fact that people think of Monroe as some silly blond when she was obviously smart and sensitive. And even though I'm a lady who tends to like the boys I would easily pick Monroe over Peters. Monroe had charisma and I found Peters dull and forgettable.

11:13 AM  

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