The Burlesque of Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean Mortenson, 1926-1962) was born on June 1.

It may seem madness that I did a post on Jayne Mansfield five years ago, but have not yet done one on Monroe, the much more major star — until you remember that my original jumping off point for this blog was and is vaudeville. The cartoonish Mansfield is much easier to tie into the Mae West tradition, and she even had her own night club act. Monroe is a much more complex subject, and frankly one that has already been written about (forgive me) to death.

But I do have a few scattered thoughts about Monroe and how she relates to the themes of this blog and my book No Applause.

The raw material

The first is the degree to which Monroe’s persona was an invention, an act of self-creation. From a poverty stricken, neglected background, she went on to transform herself into the ultimate symbol of luxury (“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”). This was a trajectory common among burlesque stars and pin-up models, not to mention vaudeville stars, and is a theme we’ve written about with regard to Grace Kelly, Andy Warhol, Cary Grant, and many others. Movie starlets often wrought similar alchemy — Jane Russell seems a particularly relevant precedent for what Monroe became, especially in movies like The Outlaw (1943), an entire movie crafted to showcase her endowments.

Monroe was never in burlesque but as she began to develop her screen persona and gradually got more attention, burlesque comedy was the natural touchstone for her talents. She is already “her” in her scene stealing little bits in the Marx Brothers’ Love Happy (1949) and All About Eve (1950). In her early parts she is the gorgeous, dumb girl on somebody’s arm. She might have only one line, but it would make a huge impression, in the manner of a burlesque blackout skit, or the caption in the kind of cartoons we wrote about here. In this context, I find these publicity stills with Milton Berle irresistible:

And this, with Charlie McCarthy:

Or Martin and Lewis:

Later comedies and musical comedies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), and Let’s Make Love (1960) all riff on the idea of her either as the comically “dumb blonde” and/or some degree of burlesque style glamour. The western River of No Return (1954), pictured at the top of this post, similarly casts her as a dance hall girl, evoking the same idea. And this, easily accessible, side of her was of course emulated by everyone from Jayne Mansfield, to Mamie Van Doren, to Tina Louise, to Madonna, to Lady Gaga. Not to mention the late great Dixie Evans, the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque. 

The fact that not all of her work falls into this category was one of the things that probably delayed my tackling this post. But, duh, it eventually occurred to me that even in her other roles, sex is a huge element. While she is usually cast as a wide-eyed innocent who was vulnerable and easily taken advantage of, on occasion, as in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and Niagara (1953) she went against type as a psycho or femme fatale. I find these parts intriguing, and if it isn’t TMI, much sexier. Most of her work as a print model gives off this quality as well, and I frankly find her far more beguiling and alluring in photographs than her film work — but, again, TMI. But even that could revert to burlesque. Look, here she is looking sexy in a potato sack!

The hardest part of her career for me to mentally integrate concerns her aspirations as a serious artist. Ultimately she wanted NOT to be a sex symbol or at least not JUST a sex symbol. But even THAT becomes a road to sex, doesn’t it? The top Method actors of the day, Marlon Brando and James Dean, what were they but carefully self-created sex symbols? Sex symbols who gave “real” performances yes, but sex symbols nevertheless. The plays (and films adapted from them) of Tennessee Williams, the hottest writer of the 1950s, were all about sex, as were those of William Inge, whose Bus Stop (1956), Monroe was in. And Arthur Miller, considered by some (not me) to be the American Shakespeare, whom she married, and wrote for her the vehicle The Misfits (1961), which casts her as…what? A sweet naive girl who bounces around for two hours with four or five drooling middle aged men all of whom want to get in her pants. She gives her realest performance in the film, but it’s not like she escaped the apparently relentless gravity of sex.

I’d like to give a shout-out here to my favorite Howard Hawks comedy, Monkey Business (1952), in which Monroe goes against type as a college student, although let’s face it, a pair of glasses on a sexy blond is still a burlesque sketch.

And yet we all know, the story of Marilyn Monroe is ultimately a tragedy rather than a burlesque sketch. She spent all this time creating an artificial self, and then became trapped in a reality where people could only see that creation (which is great for selling movie tickets, but the worst possible thing in a relationship). It’s academic, but nice to dream about, whether she would have eventually met somebody who could have transcended it. He’d have to have been just the right combination of Saint and Sinner. Paging Elvis!

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