To mark the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death, TCM rolls out a full 24-hour marathon of Monroe films on August 4 as part of the month long "Summer Under the Stars" festival. The lineup reflects Monroe's versatility and depth as an actress, including her trademark naughty-nice comedic turns ("Some Like It Hot," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes") and more anguished roles that communicated her underlying sadness ("River of No Return," "Niagara").
The programming kicks off with John Huston's brilliant heist tragedy "The Asphalt Jungle." Monroe plays Louis Calhern's kept mistress, periodically bobbing up from a couch to purr "Uncle Lon!" and then returning to her catnap. Though small, her part in Huston's film looks ahead to a type of role she would revisit throughout her career -- the ditzy, unassuming golddigger.
She perfected this could-be thankless stereotype in Howard Hawks' glittering, feisty "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," in which she plays the blonde, diamond-oggling yin to Jane Russell's brunette, salty yang. Monroe's comedic chops are on fine display here, particularly in a sequence where she gets stuck attempting to pass her derriere through a ship's porthole and must enlist a nine-year-old millionaire for help.
"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
(Less successful in Monroe's golddigger subgenre is Jean Negulesco's "How to Marry a Millionaire," which sags under the weight of its own star wattage -- Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and William Powell -- and finds Marilyn's dumb-as-a-Tiffany's-rock character insecure about her need to wear glasses. As if the men wouldn't make passes.)
Monroe's most famous comedic turn is in Billy Wilder's cross-dressing romp "Some Like It Hot" (which recently made Sight and Sound's 50 Best Films of All Time poll). She's a ukulele-playing Chicago gal who's always getting the "fuzzy end of the lollipop," on a crosscountry train with an all-girls band (or, at least, almost all girls). More than 50 years after its release, the film is still subversive in its gut-busting approach to gender and sexual fluidity, bolstered by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis' brilliant he-she duo. And it's naughty. Monroe complains about the morning after romantic entanglements with saxophone players: "Guy's gone, saxophone's gone… All that's left is a pair of socks and a tube of toothpaste, all squeezed out."
Wilder's other Monroe film in the TCM lineup, "The Seven Year Itch," hasn't aged as well. The horny middle-aged man bit comes off as stale, though Wilder finds a recurring visual that works: Breeze! It's a scorching New York summer, and Monroe situates herself near vents of all sorts, most often next to Tom Ewell's air conditioner, and most famously over a sidewalk grate that gives her skirt a lift.