Fox returns to a beloved icon’s body of work
In May 2001, Fox Home Video gave us a very nice collection of five Marilyn Monroe films plus an extra disc documenting Marilyn’s last days and the available footage from her final, but uncompleted film. The collection was called Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection. I devoted the Precedents Column of June 12, 2001 to that release. One year later, Fox has now followed that up with another set of Marilyn’s films entitled Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection #2 and I am delighted once again to give over an edition of the Precedents Column to the new box set.
Of the five films in the new set, four are from the 1952-1954 period (Don’t Bother to Knock, Monkey Business, Niagara, River of No Return) while the fifth film (Let’s Make Love) is from 1960. With the appearance of these five films from Fox (and the release of The Prince and the Showgirl by WB earlier this year), Marilyn’s final 14 films are now all available on DVD. While only a couple of her earlier 15 films are so far available (see last year’s Precedents Column), the only really key films of Marilyn’s missing on DVD now are The Asphalt Jungle (1950, an MGM film for which WB now holds the video rights) and Clash By Night (1952, an RKO film for which WB also holds the rights).
The 1951-1954 period was one during which Marilyn progressed from an important supporting player to full star. Late in 1951, Darryl Zanuck (the head of Twentieth Century-Fox) was considering Marilyn for her first starring role as a psychotic baby sitter in Don’t Bother to Knock, but insisted on a screen test. Marilyn was working with acting coach Natasha Lytess and with her assistance was able to complete the test successfully. She wanted to have Lytess on the film set with her, but Zanuck refused permission citing potential conflict with the film’s director Roy Baker. Monroe complied, but spent all her off-camera time conferring with Lytess by telephone. Finally, with a good chunk of the filming completed, Monroe pressured Zanuck into allowing Lytess on the set by refusing to work any more unless he agreed. He finally did so, but the results led to predictable conflicts on the set. The film, however, was finally completed and released in early 1952, and turned out quite well although box office receipts were disappointing.
With this artistic success, Zanuck began to keep his eyes open for another appropriate starring role for Marilyn. In the meantime, she was assigned several more minor roles at Fox, including one in Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business. Hawks had been impressed with Marilyn’s work in The Asphalt Jungle and felt her future success lay in determining the most appropriate casting for her and therefore the best way to build up her star quality. Monkey Business proved to be another Hawks success although it didn’t do much to advance Marilyn’s career. Indeed, it was more the off-the-set activities during the February-to-March 1952 period that made headlines, including an attack of appendicitis, her first date with future husband Joe Dimaggio, and the revelation of her posing nude for a calendar that was widely available across the United States.
By April 1952, Zanuck had found the new dramatic role for Monroe that he had been looking for. The film would be Niagara, to be directed by veteran action director Henry Hathaway and filmed on location at Niagara Falls. Preparations for shooting began in late May, with location work to follow in June and July. Post-production work at the studio in the fall seemed to suggest that her role as a murderess in Niagara would be a break-through performance for Marilyn. This was confirmed when the film opened in January 1953 and went on to gross more than $6 million as compared to costs of $1.25 million. Marilyn’s status as a major box office star was confirmed later that year when she appeared in Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a film that also revealed her ability to handle comedy.
With Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and her first Cinemascope picture — How To Marry A Millionaire — under her belt, Marilyn was then scheduled to appear in the outdoor drama River of No Return. The film would be directed by Otto Preminger and be filmed in Alberta in the summer of 1953. Preminger had agreed to do the film only because he owed Fox one more film under his contract. He wasn’t too happy to have to deal with Marilyn and her acting coach Natasha Lytess on the set, complaining that Lytess’s influence was making Marilyn’s performance unnatural and unfilmable. At the same time, Marilyn was wrangling with the studio over her contract and her next role, so all in all, the film shoot was not a particularly happy experience. When the film finally opened in early 1954, it was to mixed reviews, some of which suggested that Marilyn should stick to musicals and comedies, which were more clearly her forte.
For the most part, that’s what she did for the rest of the decade and although the films came out fairly regularly, her difficulties in her private life intruded even more upon her acting and she became notorious for appearing late or not at all for many days of her films’ shooting schedules. In mid-1959, producer Jerry Wald and Fox agreed on a deal to develop a film known as “The Billionaire,” a story of mistaken identity in which a man who can’t sing or dance has to impersonate a song-and-dance man. Gregory Peck was signed to star and Marilyn was lined up as the co-star. A nine-month saga then began which involved script rewrites; the withdrawal of Peck and his replacement by Yves Montand; shooting which continually started, stopped, and restarted again, partly due to a Screen Actors Guild strike; and Marilyn’s constant late and/or non-arrivals on the set daily, not to mention the pressure to wrap the film up because Marilyn had another commitment to do The Misfits for United Artists. Shooting was finally concluded in mid-July 1960, but the film — now retitled Let’s Make Love — looked like it might be an albatross around Fox’s neck. It premiered at the end of the summer, and surprisingly turned out to have a little more life than expected.
The Diamond Collection #2
Of the five films in this latest DVD collection then, the three earliest ones are quite interesting. Marilyn is not bad undertaking dramatic roles in two of them (Don’t Bother to Knock, Niagara), while she does a pleasing comedic supporting turn in the other (Monkey Business). Strong overall casts help immensely in each case. Of the two widescreen films, River of No Return is the lesser, mainly due to a mediocre script. The other, Let’s Make Love, is an enjoyable time-passer with a surprisingly effective cast. Fox has carried out needed restoration work on each film, thus giving them the attention they merit. The final results range from somewhat above average to excellent. Supplementary material overall is less than I would have hoped for. For example, it would have been nice to have a commentary on at least one of the films. At least, however, it’s not all as bare-bones as just a theatrical trailer. The box set as a whole is recommended as are all the individual films, with the exception of River of No Return. More detailed comments follow.
Don’t Bother To Knock
Marilyn has a substantial role in this drama where she plays Nell Forbes, a psychotic young woman suffering mentally from the death of her boyfriend — a young pilot involved in a airplane crash. She has moved to New York to live with her uncle Eddie after a period in a rehabilitation center out west. She takes on an evening baby-sitting job for a couple staying in a room at the hotel where Eddie works. Meanwhile, Jed Towers has come to the same hotel to find out why his girl, Lyn Lesley, wants to dump him. After an unsuccessful meeting with Lyn, Jed returns to his room where he sees Nell through the window in the room across the courtyard where she is babysitting. She invites him over, but rather than having an uncomplicated fling, Jed soon finds himself involved in Nell’s delusions that Jed (who is a pilot himself) is her dead boyfriend.
The film is a tightly constructed yarn that, even if a little unbelievable overall and too pat in its ending, keeps you involved and maintains suspense throughout. All the actors deliver their roles with sincerity and naturalness. Richard Widmark who was a Fox contract player at the time has the lead as Jed and does his usual fine work, providing a bit of an edge to a part that could easily have just been sloughed off as a standard leading-man-loses-girl/struggles-with-adversity/gets-girl exercise. Marilyn shows real promise as a dramatic actress as she transforms from shy uncertainty to unpleasant envy and ultimately troubled irrationality. Her mental state deteriorates visibly the more time she spends with Jed, but the really scary part is the way she deals with her young babysitting charge — the 7-year-old girl, Bunny. Able support to the two leads comes from Elisha Cook, Jr. as Eddie, Donna Corcoran as Bunny, and in her film debut, Anne Bancroft as Lyn. Familiar face Willis Bouchey plays the bartender (named Joe, what else).
Fox presents Don’t Bother to Knock full frame in accord with its original aspect ratio. The black and white transfer looks very good with deep blacks, clean whites and a pleasing gray scale range. Shadow detail is very good and edge enhancement is not an issue. As a basis for the DVD transfer, Fox developed a new master positive print from the original negative, which was in good shape except for a missing reel that required use of a studio duplicate negative. Digital clean-up was applied to remove scratches and speckles from the final video master.
We get both stereo and mono Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, but there’s essentially no difference of significance between the two. Aside from the songs that Anne Bancroft’s character sings (which sound velvety smooth), this is a dialogue-driven film. Both tracks deliver that dialogue clearly with no age-related hiss or distortion. English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The supplements include a restoration demonstration that briefly explains the process involved and then shows side-by-side examples of the pre- and post-restoration material. There is a gallery of 26 stills and the original theatrical trailer. Trailers are also included for the other films in the box set, plus a promo for last year’s Diamond Collection #1.
Marilyn has a small supporting role as an ornamental secretary (her boss relies on her not to do his typing, but to find someone else to do it) in this Howard Hawks film about a research chemist who appears to have discovered a formula for regaining youth. This is strictly a star vehicle for Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers with able support from old pro Charles Coburn. Grant and Rogers both get to take a sample of the formula and act like giddy adolescents. There are also a chimp, a lawyer who nearly gets scalped, Cary with a buzz-cut, and grown men attacking each other with seltzer bottles.
Monkey Business is very much in the tradition of two other Hawks comedy masterpieces — Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), but like 1949’s I Was a Male War Bride, it fails to hit the mark completely. The script isn’t quite as witty and the reliance on more physical comedy as a substitute just doesn’t provide quite as funny a result. Second-rank Hawks is still better than many other directors’ first-rank comedies, so you won’t be disappointed in this one, however. Cary Grant is in fine form throughout playing chemist Barnaby Fulton and Ginger Rogers’s work (she’s Barnaby’s wife, Edwina) where she has to revert to a younger age is pleasantly reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942) wherein she had to act like a schoolgirl. Hugh Marlowe does well as interfering lawyer Hank Entwhistle. A tip of the hat also to young George Winslow who at age 7 had an unusually low voice which he uses to very comedic effect during a sequence involving Cary Grant with some children playing cowboys and Indians.
Marilyn is strictly window dressing in this film, playing the dumb blonde, Miss Laurel. Her scenes with Cary Grant display a bit of chemistry between the two and are smoothly done, however, and we get a good laugh out of several of their sequences, one for example where she displays a shapely leg wearing the latest acetate-based synthetic stocking resulting from Barnaby’s research, only to be interrupted by Barnaby’s boss — to whom Barnaby then has to explain that she was just showing him her acetates.
The DVD is another full frame effort, again in accord with the original aspect ratio. The black and white transfer is not quite as good as that of Don’t Bet on Blondes, being a little on the dark side at times. There is also considerable visible grain, particularly in the early part of the film. That said, this is still an above-average effort, reflecting the fact that the source material was in pretty decent condition. Scratches and speckles were removed using digital cleanup.
Stereo and mono Dolby Digital 2.0 English audio tracks that do a satisfactory job of conveying this dialogue-driven film are provided. There is little distinguishable difference between the effectiveness of the two tracks. A French mono track is also included as are English and Spanish sub-titles.
The supplements include a brief restoration demonstration, a gallery of 19 stills, a theatrical trailer, trailers for the other films in the box set, and a promo for the Diamond Collection #1.
In perhaps her finest dramatic work on film, Marilyn plays scheming wife Rose Loomis who conspires with a boyfriend to kill her husband George (Joseph Cotton) while the two of them are vacationing at Niagara Falls. The plan goes awry, however, when George manages to turn the tables on the boyfriend and then sets out to stalk Rose in revenge. Increasingly involved in the plot at every turn are a young couple (Polly and Ray Cutler, played by Jean Peters and Max Showalter respectively) on a belated honeymoon.
Many people point to Marilyn’s work in later films like Bus Stop or The Misfits as representing the high point of her dramatic acting career, but I’ve always felt that her work in Niagara was the most natural dramatic acting she ever did. Her sexuality always seemed to get in the way of making those later efforts completely believable and her increasing tendency to over-accentuate the poor innocent taken advantage of because of her looks also worked against her. In Niagara, she’s pure evil and all her body language emphasizes it. She’s an extremely attractive woman; she knows it; and she’ll do whatever’s necessary to get her way. The only time her emotionless shell shows any sign of cracking occurs when she realizes her plans have gone astray, and that’s only because of what it all may mean to her, not about what may have happened to someone else. Marilyn also benefits from strong supporting performances by Joseph Cotton and Jean Peters. Veteran action director Henry Hathaway keeps it all moving along briskly.
The other key player in this tale is Niagara Falls itself. Location shooting has been skillfully integrated into the plot so that even though we manage to visit pretty well all of the area’s key attractions (Maid of the Mist, the walkways by the falls, the Rainbow Bridge, and so on), we never feel we’re just experiencing a travelogue. One of the nicest features of it all is seeing these places uncluttered with thousands of tourists. It makes the most jaded Niagara visitor want to go and see it all again. Fox has utilized three-strip Technicolor for the film and it shows off Niagara Falls to perfection.
Fox gives us an excellent-looking full frame transfer of the film on DVD, in accord with the original aspect ratio. The source material was apparently in pretty good shape and with the restoration work and digital cleanup that Fox has applied, the results are wonderful. The whole film looks sharp and clean. Colours are bright and vibrant, with deep blacks and glossy whites. Shadow detail is very good. Edge enhancement is minimal. This is the best-looking of all five films in the box set.
Sound is much on a par with the other films. Both stereo and mono Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks are provided. There is little discernible difference between the two. Dialogue is clear and free of age-related hiss or distortion. A French mono track is also included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
The supplements include a brief restoration demonstration, a gallery of 21 stills, a theatrical trailer, trailers for the other films in the box set, and a promo for the Diamond Collection #1.
River Of No Return
Marilyn plays Kay who sings in saloons for a living. She’s currently working at a frontier gold rush town in the Pacific Northwest. Matt Calder, who is trying to build up a farm nearby after spending several years in prison, has sent for his 10-year old son Mark to join him. Kay has taken up with a gambler named Harry Weston who wins a valuable claim in a card game. Eager to file the claim at Council City, the only avenue open is to take a raft down the treacherous river connecting the two towns. After experiencing difficulties with the raft, the two are saved by Matt, but his help is repaid with treachery when Weston knocks him out, steals his horse and rifle, and rides off to file the gold claim. Kay stays behind to nurse Matt, but when Indians attack them, Matt, Mark and Kay are forced to take to the raft as both a means of escape and also the only way to pursue Weston. But there is only a slim chance of surviving the dangerous rapids downstream.
River of No Return is one of Fox’s early Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound epics, and as with most of them, the emphasis was more on showing off the processes rather than delivering a solid story. The film was shot mainly in Alberta, and provided generous panoramas of the province’s mountainous vistas. The river of the title also looked very impressive in Cinemascope. Unfortunately, that’s where the film’s good points ended. Rear projection usage for some of the raft scenes involving Matt, Mark and Kay are painfully obvious and reduce the impact of the white water sequences substantially. Then there’s the issue of the script. The story itself is slight and it ends in a hokey fashion, and the action sequences in it — particularly the Indian attacks — are handled with little vitality. I actually remember when this film was first announced for showing on network television and advertised as something special. Without the advantage of a widescreen image, I was somewhat disappointed then and I’m little more impressed now.
Marilyn does well what she does best — sing four songs, but the rest of the time, despite how easy she is on the eyes, you just don’t find her believable. Her normal, breathless voice just doesn’t convey the depth of character that one would expect in a woman capable of attracting the attentions of a man like Matt. For much of the film also, she looks too well-groomed for the situations she’s involved in. It is another example of mis-casting that just doesn’t capitalize on Marilyn’s romantic, comedic strengths. Her co-star, Robert Mitchum playing Matt, is adequate playing a role that doesn’t tax his considerable abilities very much. Rory Calhoun, playing Weston, is also adequate, but then that was always about the extent of his abilities. Tommy Rettig is excellent as Mark.
Fox has done a fine job with its DVD transfer. It provides an anamorphic image with a screen ratio listed at 2.55:1 on the package. Actually it measures out as slightly wider than that, which tends to support my feeling while watching that the framing was a little tight on the bottom. The Technicolor image does look very vibrant, capturing the scenery very well. It’s bright and clean, and for the most part sharply focused.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround track that sounds quite good. Marilyn’s songs and the title song (which is quite catchy) all sound nice and mellow. The track is fairly expansive and there are some effective directional dialogue effects. The surrounds, however, are only really active during the river sequences. There is nothing in the way of effective low frequency effects. A French Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is included as are English and Spanish sub-titles.
The supplements include a brief restoration demonstration, a gallery of 20 stills, a theatrical trailer, trailers for the other films in the box set, and a promo for the Diamond Collection #1. The restoration demo is quite striking in its comparison of the 1988 and 1995 laser source material and then the newly restored DVD master.
Let’s Make Love
Marilyn has a part in this film that suits her quite well. She plays Amanda, a young woman who has a leading song and dance part in an off-Broadway review that’s currently in rehearsal. Part of the show will parody well-known billionaire Jean-Marc Clement. When Clement hears of this, he goes to observe the rehearsals and ends up landing a part in the show playing himself. He soon falls in love with Amanda, but she does not return his affection. Trying to win her over, he engages several famous comedy, song, and dance men to coach him. When that fails, he decides that telling the truth about himself may be the only way to gain Amanda’s love, but even that may not be enough.
With all the behind-the-scenes tribulations that Let’s Make Love suffered through during its protracted shooting schedule, it’s amazing to be able to report that the finished film is quite an enjoyable experience. It is a bit long, sagging somewhat in the middle, but it benefits from a fine performance by Marilyn in a role that plays to her strengths (although she does look out of shape). The rest of the cast complements Marilyn’s work with generally relaxed and enthusiastic work of their own. The musical numbers are well-staged and performed by all (particularly Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen’s “Specialization”). Among the cast, the work of Tony Randall as a publicity man working for Clement, Wilfrid Hyde-White as Clement’s right-hand man, and David Burns as the show’s producer are noteworthy. Joe Besser (one of the latter-day Three Stooges) has a small part as a joke writer. Really adding to the film’s appeal during the second half are unbilled cameos by Milton Berle, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly as Clement’s exasperated comedy, song, and dance teachers. Yves Montand as Clement is mediocre at best.
Direction is smoothly and unobtrusively handled by veteran woman’s director George Cukor, who would also sign on for Marilyn’s last, unfinished film Something’s Got to Give.
Fox presents this film in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks crisp, colourful, and clear for the most part. There are a number of dark scenes in the film that are well rendered with velvety blacks and reasonable shadow detail. On the other hand, a few daytime scenes appear a little dark to me and there is some modest edge enhancement (the most noticeable of any of the films in the box set) evident at times. The overall effect is very pleasing, however, particularly considering how faded the original source elements apparently had become before Fox’s restoration.
A Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround sound track is provided. In accord with the film’s original stereo track, this produces some nice separation effects in the front speakers. The surrounds only become at all noticeable with the musical numbers, making them more dynamic sounding by virtue of the enhanced ambient effect. Dialogue sounds clear and is free of age-related noise. A French Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is also included as are English and Spanish subtitles.
The supplements include a brief restoration demonstration, a gallery of 20 stills, a theatrical trailer, trailers for the other films in the box set, and a promo for the Diamond Collection #1.