Unsung Marilyn

Some Like It Hot, the riotous Billy Wilder masterpiece which the American Film Institute named the best comedy Hollywood ever made, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. I’ve been writing about it for The Herald and, re-watching it for the umpteenth time, I was struck by the fact that not only does it boast Marilyn Monroe’s greatest comic performance (and she really was a genius at comedy), but it also highlights what a talented singer she was.

Monroe may have sung in more than a quarter of her films – including some of her best-loved ones – but her singing is rarely mentioned in any of the potted biogs written about her. And yet, her sultry, soulful and sumptuous vocals contributed enormously to her overall sex appeal (witness the fact that songs were shoehorned even into the western River of No Return) – it’s just that everyone has been distracted by her visual voluptuousness..

Nevertheless, her singing abilities were recognised by her employers almost from the word go. She sang various numbers in her first notable role – in Ladies of the Chorus, in 1949, and memorably crooned along to a record of Kiss in the thriller Niagara (1953).

Thereafter, Monroe gave a string of iconic musical performances. As Lorelei Lee, the archetypal gold-digging blonde, in the sparkling Howard Hawks comedy-musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she guaranteed herself a place in the pantheon of great Hollywood musical moments when she sang Diamonds Are  Girl’s Best Friend.

While Marilyn got to prance around in Schiaparelli-pink satin as debonair dancers draped diamonds on her, poor old Jane Russell (as her best pal, Dorothy) had as her featured number Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love. The song was okay, though hardly Hoagy Carmichael’s finest, but Russell had to perform it with a particularly camp-looking crew of scrawny, knobbly-kneed dancers who did not look in the slightest bit interested in her or her impressively upholstered chest.

Monroe and Russell actually made a pretty good team, both comically and musically: they duetted memorably on Hoagy Carmichael’s When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right), and Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s Bye Bye Baby and A Little Girl From Little Rock.

There’s No Business Like Showbusiness (1954) also made good use of Monroe’s singing skills – notably on the sizzling Heat Wave. But easily the most sexually charged of her musical performances were to be found in Some Like It Hot.

As Sugar Kane, the emotionally fragile yet effervescent singer with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, Monroe only sang a trio of songs (Runnin’ Wild, I Wanna Be Loved By You and I’m Through With Love) but they make an indelible impression: indeed, she pretty much ruined them for anyone else. Even those who had sung them first..

I Wanna Be Loved By You may have been associated with another Kane – Helen, the original boop-boop-a-doop girl from the 1920s (and many a Betty Boop cartoon), but from 1959 onwards, it was Marilyn’s grown-up, sensual version that first sprang to minds, and poor old Helen’s girlish boop-boop-a-doops were forgotten.

The piece de la resistance was Monroe’s I’m Through With Love, the perfect song choice for a character who’s been bruised by bad love affairs before (and now thinks she’s in love with an impotent and somewhat camp millionaire with a Cary Grant voice). It’s difficult to conceive of a more exquisite reading of that song (though Goldie Hawn’s in Everyone Says I Love You comes a very close second): Monroe was never more vulnerable or more exposed. And I’m not just talking about the fact that she’s dressed and lit so that she looks naked.

Only one more musical outing remained for the doomed star: the pretty awful Let’s Make Love (1960) which has as its redeeming factor Monroe’s often-forgotten, but utterly fab, version of Cole Porter’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

Sadly, there’s not a lot of Marilyn Monroe on compact disc  – just the afore-mentioned songs, plus a few other goodies (including a dreamy take on the Gershwins’ Do It Again which seems to have been recorded independently of any film), which are available on any number of cheap compilations. Still, they’re cheap compilations worth having.

* Some Like It Hot is showing at the GFT, Glasgow from June 19-21; my piece on the film runs in Saturday’s Herald (May 23).

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