Thursday, March 25, 2010

Anecdote of the Week: "Subversive? With That Sombrero?"

I got nothin'. I mean, seriously nothing. So here is yet another one I have been saving.

The Siren is too hard on Marilyn Monroe and she realizes that. She realized it even more Tuesday night at a raucously appreciative showing of All About Eve. On the Ziegfeld's screen, the precision of Monroe's timing becomes even more delightful. The party scene is Monroe's most famous, but the Siren has a special place in her heart for Monroe swanning out of the ladies, shall we say, lounge and murmuring, in reply to George Sanders asking how she feels, "Like I just swam the English Channel."

So here is a little Marilyn story, one that doesn't involve Joe DiMaggio or being late to the set. It's from Norma Barzman's The Red and the Blacklist, which deals with Barzman's marriage to left-wing screenwriter Ben (The Boy With Green Hair, Give Us This Day, El Cid) and their subsequent blacklisting and exile. Some of this anecdote rings true, some of it not so much, but it reads well.

In a chapter candidly called "The Shit Hits the Electric Fan," Norma talks about about a sultry night in Los Angeles in 1947. She's gone out on the lawn in search of a breeze and Ben, clad in a sombrero and loud print shirt acquired on vacation in Acapulco, joins his wife. They sip gin-and-tonics and notice that cars keep slowing down in front of their house. Neighbor Groucho Marx breezes by, wearing a pith helmet and pushing daughter Melinda in a pram, and remarks to Norma that it's awfully hot: "Of course, it's doubly hot for you--with two kinds of heat. But don't ask me for anything more than ice cubes, which is as far as my sympathies go."

The Barzmans barely have time to decode this when an outdated white Cadillac convertible pulls up, top down and Monroe behind the wheel. The actress, whom they've never seen before, shimmers over to the couple and remarks that she's on her way to a party at the Minnellis and gee, the sombrero looked fun. Would somebody get her a drink?

I'd venture to say that a woman resembling Monroe could still get a gin and tonic from a random stranger at a moment's notice. Ben leaps up and fetches her the drink (the Siren imagines Marilyn responding with a variation of "Thank you, Mr. Fabian") and she starts to talk. Well, ramble mostly. About the importance in Hollywood of having a signature drink, and did they think a gin and tonic would work for her? And Murphy's Law, which Norma hasn't heard of. Monroe says her mother always told her not to be the one to bring bad news, on account of Murphy's Law.

'You were trying to make up your mind whether or not to tell us something unpleasant?' I prompted.

'Don't you know?' she asked hopefully. We shook our heads. She took a deep breath. 'There's a deputy sheriff's car with two cops at the bottom of this hill. They're stopping practically every car coming up the hill. There was this guy in front of me and the deputy stopped him so suddenly I almost hit him. I was really upset. Then I hear the deputy ask the guy where he was going? Was he going to your address by any chance?'

'Our address?' I asked incredulously.

'I heard it loud and clear. The guy said no and the cop waves him on. Then I drove up. "You stopped that guy so suddenly I almost crashed into him." The cop says in that way I hate--I seem to bring it out in most guys--"Lady, I wouldn't have stopped you," then he grins a big fat grin and says, "I sure would've, if I'd had an excuse." Well, to make a long story short, he leans over me, he's a really big guy, and says, "You don't happen to be going to 1290 Sunset Plaza Drive?"'

I gasped.

'"No, I don't,"' she said. 'That's your number, isn't it?' It was. 'What's going on? Is there a murder or something?'

The ground had slipped from under me in one of those near Los Angeles land-shifts. I guessed what was coming.

The girl went on. '"The sheriff's office is keeping an eye on the house. Subversive groups are meeting there." Well, sir, I really blew. I said, "Who the hell is this sheriff of yours? Hitler?" Gee whiz. Subversive? With that sombrero?'

I moved closer to Ben. 'You mean he's told everybody on this hill we're subversive?'

'So what did the deputy sheriff do finally?' Ben asked.

'Oh, he gave me a ticket for obstructing traffic,' the girl said. 'My mother was right. There's no percentage in being the one who brings lousy news.'


Vanwall said...

"Yipe!" said Angela.

DavidEhrenstein said...

MORE reason to love her to teeny little bits!

The Siren said...

David, I so agree. V., what's the reference?

Gloria said...

Ha... Chapeau!

Ladybug said...

We're all probably a little too hard on Miss Monroe. But anything from you, particularly if it includes a picture of Mr. Sanders, cannot be called nothin'.

X. Trapnel said...

Those of us who are too harsh have nothing whatever against poor Norma Jean (personally I think she would have been quite attractive with her natural hair color and no make up). It's the distorting cult of "Marilyn" that so annoys. That and the cultural thumbsuckers who demand that it be perpetuated unto eternity.

Yojimboen said...

A lovely, sympathetic – albeit ominous - story, chère madame.
I too have been hard on MM in these pages – nothing personal, hear hear to XT’s sentiments above. The phenomenology of the lubriciously sexy blonde – (which lives on in creatures like Pamela Anderson) - isn’t limited to this side of the pond: “In Italy, a woman can have a face like a train wreck, as long as she’s blonde and has big tits.”
Federico Fellini

Karen said...

Fellini, sadly, was too right.

A lovely and scary anecdote, and one well-suited for our parlous times...

The Siren said...

Ladybug, don't you love the way Sanders is looking at her? It lends credence to the story about Zsa Zsa taking one look at Sanders having lunch with her on break and demanding that he NEVER EVER be alone with her again.

XT & Y - yeah, we shouldn't blame actors for their overblown cults. I will raise my hand and admit to doing that for years with James Dean until repeat viewings of Giant and Rebel knocked some sense into me.

Karen, it's a bit shivery, isn't it?

X. Trapnel said...

Yojimboen's comment zeroes in on what's so pernicious about the cult: its imposition of a blow-up doll/comic book ideal of female sexuality, culturally valorized (sorry) by gasbags like Norman Mailer.

Y, MM is Michele Morgan; accept no substitutes.

Arthur S. said...

Now that's a story.

I've always loved her as an actress. She's also Catherine Deneuve's favourite actress, she dyed her hair blonde in tribute to Marilyn out of love for her.

The movie of hers which really struck me was one that she didn't like making much - Preminger's ''River of No Return''.

"But please don't tread on dearest Marilyn/She's not very tough/Should have been made of iron or steel/but she was only made of flesh and blood."
- Ray Davies, ''Celluloid Heroes'',

To which I can end that she also had a soul and she was full of love to share it with audiences around the world. The less said about those miserable cowards that persecuted the Barzmans and her husband Arthur Miller, the better.

Yojimboen said...

Another sample of the wit and wisdom of Ray Davies
(Celluloid Heroes):

"If you covered him with garbage,
George Sanders would still have style,
And if you stamped on Mickey Rooney
He would still turn round and smile,
But please don't tread on dearest Marilyn
'Cos she's not very tough,
She should have been made of iron or steel,
But she was only made of flesh and blood."

Ladybug said...

Oh yes, Siren. I do love it. But are we certain Zsa Zsa won that argument? Or just the first round?

The Siren said...

Ladybug - He certainly stopped having lunch with her. ;)

Yojimboen said...

You mean DD isn't Diana Dors? Or Dorothy Dix? Denise Darcel? Doris Day? Dorothy Dandridge??

Vanwall said...

Siren - That's from MM's wonderful little role as Louis Calherns' crooked lawyer's mistress, Angela, in "The Aspahlt Jungle". One of my favorites of her work, it had more innocence than her usuals, and nailed the book's character dead on, except for hair color. I also like her calling Don Haggerty's cop a "Big Banana-head", that scene had possibly her most honest-to-Marilyn line reading ever.

X. Trapnel said...

Nay, nor Doris Dowling nor even Dora Doll. Who but Donna Douglas could ever be DD?

Trish said...

As it just so happens, yesterday I picked up a photo (thanks, doctor macro!) of Marilyn that I had enlarged to poster size and framed. She's wearing a blue suit, and sitting in front of Niagara Falls (the canadian side). It's sentimental to me because Niagara Falls is my home town, and also because both my parents saw Marilyn (and Jean Peters!) while they were there filming Niagara.

I don't like the cult of Marilyn, either, but I love her. If I were stranded on an island, I'd want all of the usual suspects and The Asphalt Jungle, but I'd especially want the 37 minute reconstruction of Something's Got to Give. Oh, what a waste - she was wonderful in that one.

Gloria said...

Arthur S.'s mention of "River of no return" reminds me the origin of our family's monicker for Marilyn: "La Chinchinjau" (pronounce "Cheencheenhaw")... That's how we understood the lyrics of "One Silver Dollar" ("Changing hands, changing hands")

“In Italy, a woman can have a face like a train wreck, as long as she’s blonde and has big tits.”
(Federico Fellini quoted by Yojimboen)

Well... Now I'm thinking of the lady tobacconist of Amarcord

Fiona said...

You can't even love her a little bit for How To Marry a Millionaire? I adore that movie, mostly because of Lauren Bacall.

The Siren said...

Fi, so good to see you! I love that movie too. It's my favorite of hers, but Grable steals it.

Yojimboen said...

I’m not entirely anti-Ms Monroe, while I find most of her performances mannered beyond words, she did some decent work when encouraged by decent directors: Huston, notably; Negulesco; Joe Mankiewicz, some of the time; Wilder, sadly and I think cold-bloodedly, treated her like a punch-line.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I disagree Yojimboen. Marilyn is what makes Some Like It Hot work. And the reasosn why is that while everything around her is frantic beyond words she's the film's calm center. Next time you watch it notice how everything slows down for her. And the best part is that while everyone else is conning each other Marilyn genuinely eblieves in love. And she gets it. Even though it's with a saxaphone player.

Her lateness and insecurity drove Wilder wild. But being the great filmmaker he was he knew that the proof was in the pudding and the pudding Marilyn provided for him was indescribably delicious.

I've always been taken by the scene where she sings "I Want To Be Loved By " with the spotlight mving up and down that incredibly body of hers ina disaphronous gown that looks as if Orry-Kelly had it sprayed on her.

I also recall her saying of Monty Clift after workign with him on The Misfits that she adored him and marvelled tha he was "more messed up than I am."

She knew she set the bar.

There was a great show done a numberof years back on the non-making of . Among other things it established quite clearly that her death wasn't a suicide but an accident. She was takeing all manner of pills to sleep and pills to wake up, and she'd forget how many of which. In fact she'd nearly died from an accidental O.D. before the picture began. But her doctor called, realized she was at hime and not answering, rushed over and saved her life. The next time no one remembered to look in on her and that was that.

That's why when Heath Ledger died my first thought was "Very Marilyn Monroe."

The Siren said...

As far as Some Like It Hot, I have to agree with David. Great movie.

Yojimboen said...

I don’t disagree about her role in the success of SLIH, but by that time her schtick was on cruise-control, and with one of the funniest scripts ever written (“We was wit’ you at Rigoletto’s!”), it was hard to fuck up. But they almost did. Wilder said he could barely get a complete useable take from Marilyn on any scene, and he saw very early he would have to cobble together her performance in the editing room. And he did. (As an ex-editor I can see the hard work.)

I’ve always had the hardest time discussing Marilyn; it’s easy to be dismissive, and I have been, but I feel no antipathy towards her; quite the reverse. As XT says above, early images of Norma-Jean are quite sweet and innocent; a lovely, vulnerable young girl you just want take care of. Problem was, too many men did. No mistake, I admire the girl who slapped Harry Cohn when he tried to cop a feel in the Columbia corridor. It got her fired but Cohn paid mightily for his brutishness when she went back to Fox and stardom.

It's the mythology of Marilyn Monroe that just leaves me unmoved.

Her acting style – the wide-eyed breathy enunciation always struck me as that of an enthusiastic amateur. In an odd way, her early success may have based on that amateur style; certainly Nunnally Johnson saw in her the perfect Pola Debevoise and Negulesco polished her into an adorable naïf. The naïf style meshed perfectly as Anita Loos’s Lorelei and Hawks drove it home in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I think you know as well as I, David, that (then as now), much of what is judged as “good acting” is in reality good casting.

And for the record, I believe Marilyn was murdered.

Arthur S. said...

Well the point of ''Gentleman Prefer Blondes'' is that she turns out to be less of a naif than Jane Russell's straight-lady. She's the tough one.

With MM, what always amazed me was her essential sweetness. Despite the farcical plots, cliche'd shticks they forced her to, she always managed to maintain her self. In SLIH, as David E. notes she is the film's calm centre.

I've actually read about her recently. Elia Kazan's Autobiography has a lot of insight into her and Kazan feels that Lee Strasberg and Arthur Miller unnecessarily affected her acting style, made it even more self-conscious than it was needed. (But then Kazan is highly scathing towards Strasberg in the book). In an interview with Bogdanovich, available in his collection of profiles on actors(''Who The Hell's In It''), Miller also blames Strasberg.

As for the mythology of Marilyn Monroe, well why not? We grant myths to tyrants, saints, politicians. Why not Marilyn Monroe?

Karen said...

Speaking of Some Like It Hot, here's a slideshow of a dozen recently discovered on-set photos:

I love the look on Joe E Brown's face as he talks to Marilyn, and the shot of Curtis on the bench, in drag.

The Siren said...

Karen, I can't believe that dress passed the Breen office. It's daring even by today's standards. In certain shots even in the movie she looks half-naked.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I always found it paradoxical that Marilyn studied with Strasberg -- the great purveyors of "realism" -- as she was (like all great stars) a completely artificial construct.

Marilyn was Sex-as-Glamour with a wonderful sweetness to her to put it over. That was what we saw on-screen. Off was another story.

Mr.Cukor said: "There's been an awful lot of crapwritten about Marilyn Monroe, and there may be an exact psychiatric terms for what was wrong with her, I don't know -- but truth to tell I think she was quit emad. The mother was mad, and poor Marilyn was mad. I know people who say, 'Hollywood broke her heart,' and all that, but I don't believe it. She was very observant and tough-minded and appealling, but she had this bad judgement about things. She adored and trusted the wrong people. She was very courageous -- you know the book, Twelve Against The Gods ? Marilyn was like that, she had to challenge the gods at every turn, and eventually she lost."

X. Trapnel said...

I recall a horrid male weepie some years back called Wonder Boys (the title itself should send chills, likewise the fact that Michael Chabon is the original author) in which R. Downey, Jr. is waxing poetic about "Marilyn"(again, let's keep Norma Jean out of it), her fragility, innocence, etc. He might as well have been talking about Jon Benet Ramsay. It's on the same continuum as the Salinger cult, Spielbergian infantilism, and everything in our popular culture that excludes intelligence sophistication, charm, beauty, wit, grace, depth. It is alarming that in the popular mind "Marilyn" now stands for "classic" film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh I rather liked Wonder Boys, X. Marilyn Sentimentality aside there's a great scene where Downey and Michael Douglas are trying to track down Toby Maguire in the latter's huge family manse, and Downey identifies his locale when he hears a Rodgers and Hart song coming from a nearby window.

Arthur S. said...

According to Kazan, Strasberg's teaching practises often involved masochistic acting preperations that made the actor entirely dependant on their teacher's whims. As Kazan saw it, Marilyn was his perfect "slave"(his word, not mine) because she was insecure and felt that learning from Strasberg was a honour while he found someone who never challenged or doubted her. Kazan says that this was a danger or occupational hazards of acting teachers.

I think ultimately, the "mythology" of Marilyn Monroe is about the tragedy of performance art in the media age. Hollywood is in essence all about that. Acting is essentially about love(as per Cassavetes), about giving oneself entirely to the audience and the risks and pressures and the loneliness has never been really understood by people obsessed with stardom and fame and success. It's a subject that's central to cinema, Cukor's A Double Life, A Star is Born, Renoir's The Golden Coach, Scorsese's The King of Comedy and of course All About Eve and Cassavetes' Opening Night.

Marilyn is of course the most public and most famous of them all.

X. Trapnel said...


At least we both like Rogers and Hart.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here you go X!

X. Trapnel said...


Lovely rendition, just the thing for a gloomy morning. THANK YOU!

Vanwall said...

Jesus to Jesus, and eight hands around! Those "Some Like it Hot" pics are wonderful! Oh, what pity that it hadn't been filmed in color! It stands the historical depictions of the past as shades of black and gray, or drab, or washed in a brown tint right on their heads. Life was certainly vibrant and colorful, I miss that in films set in the past.

Vanwall said...

Poor Marilyn - yes, I mean it in this case - and the whole Strasberg fambly is an interesting study in sado-masochism, especially if we throw Richard Burton into the mix. Gives me the shivers.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're more than welcome X!

Gloria said...

"Challenge the gods at every turn"... Sounds an enticing activity to engage in

Trish said...

Marilyn says: I wanna be loved by you....

gmoke said...

I think she grew as an actress. There's something new and real in her work in "The Misfits."

In some ways, it must be hell to be an attractive woman. I have a couple of impolite aphorisms about that but the language is a little too raw to present here.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Indeed there is, gmoke. Back in the day THIS was considered incredibly scandalous. The Catholic Church had a cow.

Of course they were probably more upset by those Jack Cole chorus boys than they were by Marilyn, but still.

Today her sexuality in that number (and many of the other pieces of sexy by-play that were her stock in trade) would be considered charming and playful.

The Siren said...

Just a few notes: I liked Wonder Boys a lot, certainly more than I liked the book. Douglas was as good as I've ever seen.

Second all the Asphalt Jungle love. Great example of what Marilyn could do with a small, not terribly substantial part.

Also, I do think she was growing as an actress. Saw that documentary and reconstruction of Something's Got to Give and she was wonderfully funny and never more beautiful. Heartbreaking, especially since the documentary said she was worried about encroaching age.

Back in my own acting school days I knew several at Strasberg and based on their experiences, I have just about nothing good to say. The techniques and teaching methods did young psyches no good at all, in my view. But please note that in addition to this being only my opinion, these stories were from some time ago and things may well have changed for the better. That is all.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I love how you say you "got nothin'" Siren, and then pull out this fascinating post. Love the anecdote.

I've always been a Marilyn Monroe fan - and actually think she's a bit underrated. hahaha With the cult around her, how is that possible?? I still think so. In Don't Bother to Knock, she turns in a sensitive and powerful performance that really shows her chops - yes, her neurosis, too - it's sometimes too much to bear - but that just puts her in the continuum of Brando and Clift and all the other "sensitives". I've written about her on my site a bit and the "fans" who flock to the posts sometimes are a bit frightening - say one thing about her shortcomings and they viciously tear you to shreds. Like, peeps, lighten up. I am trying to look at her as an ACTRESS, not a MYTH.

My favorite moment of hers in All About Eve - it makes me laugh every time I see it - is when she's sitting on the steps, with Sanders hovering over her (he has that dry line, "You have a point. An idiotic point, but a point) - and she says, "Well, I can't yell out 'Butler', can I? Maybe somebody's name is Butler." There's something about the way she says it, the sincerity of it - she is truly WORRIED that someone's name might be Butler - it's a comedic slamdunk, that moment!

Yojimboen said...

I sort of agree, Mme Sirene, I don’t mind Wonder Boys that much; M Douglas was, for him, quite interesting to watch. (Though I’m more than a little afraid to see the new improved Gordon Gekko in the Wall Street sequel; I suspect O Stone’s righteous indignation is by now an idea whose time has come, and gone.)

Tobey Maguire held his own against Douglas and R Downey Jr., who acted throughout as if between rehab visits (he was); and couldn’t wait for the director to call ‘cut’ and race back to his trailer. I go back and forth on young Bob, sometimes amazed he has survived this long (I knew his parents, recreational substances were omnipresent in his childhood); I’m delighted he seems to have conquered his personal demons for the nonce. I thought Iron Man was terrific fun. (Now, if only someone can convince him to stop trying English accents, I’ll be ecstatic.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Tobey Maguire -- moments before he hit it big.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Downey -- just out of the slammer.

Yojimboen said...

Ere I forget X., "...horrid male weepie" doesn't cut the Poupon.

If you can't be fair be accurate; the proper name for a film in that category is 'dickflick'.

I thank you.

cgeye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cgeye said...

Monroe in That Dress provides periodic proof that there is a God, and that He/She/They like the Pretty.

Her love scene with Curtis is further proof that even if man doesn't know what heaven is like, he can certainly act like he does.

The Siren said...

Sheila, I am always tickled to death when one of my posts gets you to de-lurk. Yes, I adore that moment, so much that for a few years it was on me & my roommates' answering machine instead "please wait for the beep." Another phrase I have used so often it's second nature: "I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink." Rarely if ever does anyone get it, though.

Yojimboen said...

"I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink." I actually saw that as a bumper sticker in L.A. on the back of a Dodge pickup. Face it, Madame, your pensées are conquering the world!

My favourite bumper sticker/fridge magnet of the moment is:
“Paddle faster, I hear banjos.”

Karen said...

JUUUUST realized what "Subversive? With that sombrero?" reminded me of, and it's entirely apropos:

That wonderful scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, after Lorelei and Dorothy have been detained in the Paris hotel, and Piggy's wife comes to claim her tiara. Stodgy Lady Piggy, played by the fabulous Norma Varden, storms empty-handed from the hotel manager's office, exclaiming, "You'll find I mean business!"

Dorothy (Jane Russell) responds, "Oh really? Then why are you wearing that hat?"