Marilyn at Fox: The Beginning and the End

JUNE IS TWILIGHT TIME MONTH

Arguably the greatest American female movie icon to come out of the Fifties, Marilyn Monroe was largely defined by the studio that re-invented Norma Jeane Mortenson (aka Baker), 20th Century-Fox.

They signed her in the late 1940s, and she instantly stood out from the other starlet eye candy.  Soon her “human prop” work inched up to walk-ons, then bits, and even lines.

Fox, realizing they had something potentially special here, worried if she could actually emote.  So they (uncharacteristically in the waning Big Studio days) gave her a full-length feature test, a 1952 B-plus noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK.  It didn’t get a whole lot of play, but what buzz it generated was enough.  And the smoking sex bomb became a star.

Her difficulties with users, pushers, and general Hollywood scum fucked her up royally throughout the decade, and yet she managed to make an array of truly great movies.  Striving for independence, yearning to stretch, she balked the system and enrolled in Manhattan’s Actor’s Studio; she also started her own production company, and turned down projects any other contract performer would have killed for.

The off and on love affair with Fox seesawed into the early 1960s.  The new decade began for Monroe with LET’S MAKE LOVE, a frothy musical comedy, helmed by famed women’s specialist George Cukor.  It would be her final completed Fox project.

Both of the above-mentioned titles, pivotal to the Marilyn Monroe legend, are now available in (very) limited edition Blu-Rays from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  Fans should swarm down with a vengeance, and grab ’em before they’re quickly gone, like their star.

 

The morality tale/warning of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is one that any noirista worth his/her salt can grasp blindfolded:  never hire any relative of Elisha Cook, Jr.  In the pic, Cook is a veteran bellboy at a posh big city hotel holding a mammoth convention.  One of the guests of honor needs a babysitter for his young daughter, so Cook (aka Eddie Forbes) volunteers Nell, his unemployed twentysomething niece.  All well and good, ‘cept she’s a dangerously unbalanced individual – a one-time picture of serenity, traumatized by the death of her fiancé in the Korean War.

As the couple hand over their child to the seemingly agreeable woman, other stories are unfolding in this kinda Grand Hotel of noir.  Downstairs, in the main ballroom, newly hired chanteuse Lyn Lesley is having her own problems.  Wowing the crowds and sopping up the acclaim has put a damper in her love life, even though Jed Towers, her smart but shiftless pilot paramour, has temporarily relocated to the metropolis.  Jed sees the relationship going nowhere, that Lyn is more concerned with her career (which she doesn’t totally deny), so it’s a kiss-off.

Getting ready to split, he notices the hottie blonde across the way.  Why not?  It’s over between him and Lyn.  The lady is – yep – Nell, just finishing terrorizing and torturing Bunny, the urchin she’s supposed to be caring for (the child is presently bound and gagged in the bedroom).  Towers, as indicated, is no fool and their liaison for a drink, immediately sets off alarm bells; he quickly discerns that there’s something terribly wrong.  Fortunately, Jed also has a decency streak, and soon he, Lyn, Eddie and others do an eggshell walk, locating the girl’s parents, the authorities and the adolescent herself – hopefully before it’s too late.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is a tight 76-minute (stunningly photographed, by Lucien Ballard) film noir, expertly directed (by newly hired Brit import Roy Baker, later to be known as Roy Ward Baker) and superbly scripted (by From Here to Eternity’s Daniel Taradash, from a chilling short story by Charlotte Armstrong).  While the pic was greenlit to ignite Monroe, Fox still needed a name to get wider interest throughout their distribution network.  They asked A-lister Richard Widmark if he’d accept the role of Jed Towers.  He readily agreed, knowing what a break can mean for an up-and-comer (it worked for him in Kiss of Death); he had previously done the same favor two years earlier for Sidney Poitier and Ossie Davis in No Way Out, Poitier becoming a lifelong friend (I met Widmark once, and can honestly say that he was one of the nicest guys I ever had the pleasure to hang out with).  But the pic was a debut for another recently signed actress, Anne Bancroft, who makes the most of the secondary role of Lyn.  Other wonderful appearances in the movie are from Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle (as the parents), Donna Corcoran (Bunny), and Jeanne Cagney, Verna Felton, Willis Bouchey, Emmett Vogan, Gloria Blondell, Robert Foulk, Olan Soule, Vic Perrin and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers.  A fine Fox medley score orchestrated by Earle Hagen, Lionel Newman and Bernard Mayers appends the piece, along with some nicely reprised Harry Warren/Mack Gordon songs (some by Bancroft’s character), all available as an IST.

The truly cool thing about DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK isn’t the expected take-her-down ending, but a rather poignant (and progressive) climax that intelligently and actually quite delicately deals with mental illness.  Monroe is extraordinarily good in the role of Nell; as often is the case, the wags who trash her performance as quasi-trance-like, simply do not get the point.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK looks and sounds swell; some nifty extras make this platter even more tempting: a pair of A&E Network Biography episodes, one on Monroe, the other on Widmark.

The fortuitous casting of Monroe, Widmark and Bancroft assured the KNOCK nearly non-stop TV play during the late 1960s-early 1970s.  In 1952, it did merely what it was supposed to do – underline the fact that Marilyn Monroe was more than just a bod.  Perhaps the most expensive screen-test ever, DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK subsequently paid off handsomely; the following year, Fox had a trifecta of Monroe blockbusters in theaters across the nation: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Niagara and How to Marry a Millionaire.  The legend, so quickly born, almost as quickly began to unravel.

 

I have to admit I’m flummoxed.  To this day, I don’t quite understand why so many responsible movie folk detest 1960’s LET’S MAKE LOVE.  I loved it when I was a kid (my late, great pal Ric Menello was a fan as well); in adulthood, I just went along with the rhubarb that it was a deadly misfire.  Then, I saw the new Twilight Time Blu-Ray, and scratched my head innumerable times.  I laughed out loud frequently (the script by Norman Krasna, with additional material by Hal Kanter, was nominated for a WGA), the use of scope by d.p. Daniel L. Fapp was excellent, as was George Cukor’s direction (his third of four musicals, following A Star is Born and Les Girls and preceding My Fair Lady; okay, granted, LOVE is the least of the quartet).  Have to say – and I hope I don’t lose any longtime movie compadres – I had a really good time.

The plot is very 1960 risqué, and commences with a brief prologue concerning the life and times of the mega-wealthy French Clement family.  A poor 18th-century farmer, the first rapscallion Clement discovered a pot of buried coins on his property; in the several hundred years since, the Clements, all womanizing entrepreneurs (many dying from “balloon accidents,” coded language for sex with buxom femme fatales), have parlayed that rusty pot into a nearly billion dollar empire.

CUT to 1960 Manhattan.  An off-Broadway revue (like the later National Lampoon Lemmings series) is doing a parody of current culture icons, including “horndog” Jean-Marc Clement (a smooth and likeable Yves Montand, imported from France).  Jean-Marc’s publicity man and business associate apprise him of this travesty, and beseech the playboy to shut the show down.  So he sneaks into a rehearsal.

Ever hear the story of Charlie Chaplin entering a Chaplin Look-a-like Contest, and losing?  It happened, and no doubt spurred the LET’S MAKE LOVE writing team.  Except this time, the real McCoy’s mistaken for an actor auditioning for the Clement role.  He’s about to smack ’em down when he spies what could be the greatest balloon accident in his family’s history: female lead Amanda Dell, doing a red-hot rendition of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”  And from here on in, the movie is owned by Monroe, making perhaps the sexiest character debut in Hollywood history (donned in black tights, legs spread, she clingingly descends down what we today call a stripper pole – a CinemaScope close-up of her sliding crotch before the full-shot).  Clement (and most viewers) are dog-tongued on the floor; so, of course, he auditions for the part, and, unlike Chaplin, aces it.

Jean-Marc’s attempts to woo and seduce Amanda turn to genuine affection, and, to this aim, he uproariously attempts to win over the lady by hiring Milton Berle to teach him comedy, Bing Crosby to sing and Gene Kelly to dance (a trio of unbilled guest appearances).  Clement, we learn must compete with show star Tony Danton (who also doubles as Dell’s lover).  This unfortunate casting is another import, Britain’s Frankie Vaughan – a goofy, genial entertainer, displaying no chemistry whatsoever with Monroe (imagine a singing and dancing Bobby Cannavale or Brad Garrett).

You can figure out how it all ends up within the first half hour, but, as they say, getting there is half (if not all) the fun.  And it is fun.  Monroe (again, I was listening to years of the pic’s detractors) was criticized for phoning it in, for being so zonked on drugs that it often looked as if she didn’t know where she was.  Au contraire, in Cukor’s hands, she appears (and likely felt) relaxed and comfortable.  She’s also quite funny – and looks like she’s really enjoying herself.  And the scene between her and Montand in an elevator is super steamy (Cukor would be on-board to direct the next Fox/Monroe title, the uncompleted Something’s Got to Give).

LET’S MAKE LOVE is certainly the peak of the strange Fox deal Yves Montand signed on for (the tail end being Tony Richardson’s downright weird adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, with Montand as the villainous rapey Candyman).  A famed singer as well as actor, he and MM (unlike her and Vaughan) set off romantic spontaneous combustion; apparently, this spilled over off-screen, as the pair engaged in a torrid affair, much to the discern of Monroe’s then-spouse Arthur Miller (who contributed some uncredited script revisions) and Montand’s wife, actress Simone Signoret (who had initially friended and bonded with the Some Like it Hot star).

The supporting cast is great for Mad Men era fans, and includes Tony Randall, Wilfrid Hyde-White, David Burns, Dennis King, Jr., Mara Lynn, Michael David, Joe Besser, Joan Banks and Madge Kennedy; ditto, the movie’s songlist – with original ditties by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn (featuring the title tune and “Specialization,” which I, frankly, couldn’t stop humming; it’s all accessible as an IST).  Special note must be given to the other celeb parodies in the pic:  Maria Callas (Marian Manners), Van Cliburn (Richard Fowler) and Elvis Presley (the great Dick Dale).

The High Definition Blu-Ray of LET’S MAKE LOVE looks exactly like the better DeLuxe Color CinemaScope movies I remember from the early 1960s; the original stereo soundtrack is accessible in either 5.1 or 2.0 surround.  Is it a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Seven Year Itch or Some Like It Hot?  No.  But is it worth visiting on an air-conditioned summer night?  Sure.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK.  Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition] 1.0 DTS-HD MA.

LET’S MAKE LOVE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95@

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment www.screenarchives.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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