Marilyn Films (1/3)

The Good, the Bad, and the Meh
(Because Marilyn can never be “Ugly”.)

Even a raving fan, if they’re honest, will tell you Marilyn Monroe cinema is like dancing across a landmine. Unlike other Hollywood icons, such as Alfred Hitchcock or Humphrey Bogart, it’s just not wise to go to the library and pick up a random title from her catalog. The quality is all over the place. Some films, frankly–and I say this as a fan–are so awful that they may put you off to ever trying another. You can’t even count on the film’s reputation! (more on that as we go)

And that would be a shame, because when Marilyn is good, she’s really good. Unfortunately, when she’s bad….it’s not always in the good way.

And so, with TCM preparing to air every major Marilyn film this Saturday, August 4, on the 50th anniversary of her death, [as written in 2012–alas, Marilyn is conspicuously missing from the TCM Schedule in 2015] I offer my expertise on where to begin, what to avoid, and what won’t scar you but won’t impress you, either. My opinion on some of these films differ from “popular consensus” and I’ll also tell you where that’s the case.


Some Like it Hot

Arguably the very best. Marilyn shines when she has strong support and you can’t get much stronger than a Billy Wilder-written and directed film co-starring Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis. Jack and Tony are two musicians on the run from mobsters when they get a chance to join a traveling band to Florida–an all-girl band! So they man-up and channel their inner drag queen to blend in as “Geraldine” and “Daphne”, and, as they are “executive transvestites” and still dig girls, they’re attracted to and rival for the band’s lead singer, Marilyn.

Accolades and popular consensus: A smash hit when it first came out, the film is recognized on two AFI’s top 100 lists, including the #1 spot on their Top Comedies list.

“Known For” Marilyn Moments: Showcasing “I Wanna Be Loved by You”.

The Seven Year Itch

It’s no accident that Marilyn’s best comedic moments occur in Billy Wilder-directed films. Seven made Marilyn a superstar, with a lot of help from Tom Ewell as a stressed out husband and Dad who remains in Manhattan to work while the family escapes the heat of the summer (before A/C was common). He’s determined to stay focused until he gets his first look at the blonde who just moved in to the apartment upstairs.

How I see it: It’s still hysterical, even if the “edgy controversy” of its subject matter–a family man contemplating infidelity! Played for laughs! Heavens!–plays quaint today. The first ten minutes of this one are fairly insufferable–the credit sequence is meant for a VistaVision big screen and is illegible on video. And the twinky music! It takes several minutes of before the movie finds its stride, but it’s worth it.

Accolades and popular consensus: Another hit out of the box, a triumph for director Billy Wilder in his long list of triumphs.

“Known For” Marilyn Moments: The famous blowing skirt scene comes from this film, though compared to the publicity photos, the filmed version is fairly subdued.

The Misfits

Starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift, written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston.  (Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter kick ass in this, too). The Misfits is a drama scripted by famed playwright and then-husband, who wrote it for Marilyn to executive-produce. (No, Quantum Leap, she didn’t frickin’ audition for the frickin’ part, you frickin’ morons–ahem, sorry, derailed by a sidetrack). The script plays to her strengths. What I’m going to say next is strictly my opinion, but I’m sticking to it–by having the character tipsy or hung over most of the film, Miller turns Marilyn’s problematic condition onset into an advantage.  So give it up for the brilliant writer. (Yes, I went there).

Marilyn, a recent divorcee looking to escape from the city, hooks up with cowboy Clark Gable out in the country to learn all about the “the easy life.” Of course, she learns that getting away from it all is anything but. The more she tries to acclimate, the more she clashes with those around her.

The film builds to an extended sequence in which the cowboys take Marilyn on a Mustang wrangling trip–those sensitive to images of animal mistreatment be warned. As Marilyn runs around begging the cowboys to stop what they’re doing, the movie pulls no punches in showing a family of horses being taken down one at a time. [Spoiler–It all works out for the horses in the end]

Accolades and popular consensus: In spite of the mega-stardom behind and in front of the camera, the movie bombed on initial release. Gable had a massive heart attack shortly after the production wrapped, and The Misfits could not shake the stigma of being “the film that killed Rhett Butler.” In recent years, the film has been revisited and is receiving the proper credit it deserves.

“Known For” Marilyn Moments: Though she lived to see the film open, The Misfits proved to be Marilyn’s final film as well as Gable’s. She has several great moments in this film, my favorite being the screaming fit breakdown toward the end of the film.

Click here to continue to part 2.

Review: Cinema of Shadows

Cinema of Shadows
Michael West
Cover and interior illustrations by Matthew Perry
©2011 Seventh Star Press

9/10 Arjays—because there’s nothing cooler than an Arjay

For the last several months, every review site on the web has taken a moment to heap praises upon Michael West’s Cinema of Shadows, his second novel and his first release through Seventh Star Press. Now it’s my turn. Cinema is a triumph—incredibly satisfying, offering the scares you hope for with an attention to detail, history, and a set of characters you like and root for, even knowing not everyone makes it through to the end.

And the movies. The book is a celebration of Michael’s love of movies.

The book begins with a couple of prologues, first about our main character Kim Saunders, then with a significant flashback within the Woodfield—the movie palace in which the bulk of the story takes place.

Michael takes us back to Harmony, Indiana, the setting of The Wide Game (which I awarded the coveted 10/10 Arjays, see review here). He’s taking us from high school to college, where follow Ms. Kim Saunders and her group of friends—her roommate Tashima, and Joss and Kevin. The four have been grouped into a “team” of wanna-be investigators all trying to earn a semester’s credit of paranormal research under the leadership of the infamous and very British Professor Geoffrey Burke.

Kim is chosen to communicate with the spirits. It’s clear from the start she has a talent in finding rapport with the other side. When she addresses them, things “happen.” Her friends don’t know (but the reader is let in) of her mysterious past and the encounters that have allowed this to happen.

Following a partly botched haunted house episode, Kim is taken to the emergency room and treated by Doctor Tyler Bachman. It’s hardly five minutes later that “Doctor Bachman” has discharged her, asks her out, and he becomes “Tyler” for the rest of the novel, and the budding romance falls into place.

Professor Burke has been offered the unique opportunity to investigate the soon-to-be-demolished Woodview Movie Palace for the weekend, and he recruits the student team most aggressively to join him. Everything clicks into place pretty fast, and soon the team is setting up at the movie palace, learning its ghastly history, uncovering its secrets, upsetting the spirits, and getting into all sorts of trouble.

At 278 pages the book moves fast, yet never feels rushed. For me, comparisons to The Wide Game are inevitable, so, compared to The Wide Game, the situation is simpler, more straightforward. While The Wide Game protracted the reveal, Cinema is about getting to the scares and whipping the plot along.

The book, about a movie palace, shows a distinct love for movies, and “unspools” like a movie. Lines that will read as throwaway detail to some will have film students nodding their head at the in-joke. For example, when Kim and Tyler take a late-night stroll, Michael makes a point to mention that the sidewalk glistened wet from a recent rain. Those familiar with cinema techniques know that cement photographs better when wet and is often hosed down prior to filming.

Much has been said about the scares in other reviews, and I won’t go on about that except to confirm that if that’s what you’re looking for, Cinema is full of scares, surprise reveals and action sequences. I want to take a moment to praise Michael on his characters and his ability make the reader care and root for each one, even the throwaway ones. (The stripper, Michael—how could you do that to the stripper? Like her life wasn’t tough enough?)

I’d like to also mention the Catholic Christian emphasis in both Cinema and The Wide Game. For several decades it seems to have become out of vogue to create horror stories in which the power of God and the name of Jesus Christ can affect the outcome of supernatural encounters. (The crucifix, in modern vampire fiction, is waved around more like a can of mace than a symbol of spiritual presence). Modern American spirituality tends to be removed or minimized from “mainstream” horror fiction and only handled (or mishandled in my opinion) in “Christian horror” fiction. Not so in Michael’s work.

Cinema offers us a group of sexually experimenting college kids, prone to use “bad” language, but some of which have a strong faith, and fall back on that faith in hopes to affect the outcome of the tale. As a result, Cinema becomes one of a few unacknowledged Christian Fiction horror novels, with Christian characters most American Christians would understand and relate to, but will never be found in  a Christian Bookstore. For me, and I suspect for others, Cinema and The Wide Game fill a gap in secular storytelling, and I applaud Michael and Seventh Star Press for making that stand.

Now I hear Michael screaming “why didn’t it get ten Arjays?” A rating of 9 should tell everyone that I loved Cinema of Shadows, but I related to The Wide Game on a personal level in a way that no author can control. And so, I preferred The Wide Game,  by a “smidge”, and had to rate the story in a way that reflected how each book affected me, the reviewer, personally.

Bottom line: Highly recommended for those who love action-oriented cinematic paranormal fiction.

See my interview with Michael West around the time of the release of Cinema of Shadows here.