Serialized in Harper’s Bazaar, the diary of flapper Lorelei Lee was a Jazz Age sensation. Lorelei’s spelling was as bad as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, and she began every sentence with a conjunction. But, stringing along wealthy courtiers on all-expenses-paid shopping sprees, she showed a foxy intelligence in matters of the heart—unlike her best friend, Dorothy, an unlucky-in-love brunette wiseacre modeled on Anita Loos, the silent-film scenarist who’d invented them both.
Loos’s bestseller of 1925 hit the Times Square Theater’s stage in ’26, premiered onscreen as an Astoria-shot Paramount film in ’28, and made Carol Channing a Broadway star in ’49—which brought Hollywood calling, and resulted in the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes we all know best. Film Forum gives a week-long stand to the 1953 musical-comedy revue, its spangled artifice and Technicolor fuchsia as loud as on opening night.
Director Howard Hawks hired onetime-discovery Jane Russell as Dorothy; for Lorelei, producer Daryl Zanuck cast a $1,250-a-week actress nibbling at stardom. “A girl ought to have a name that ought to express her personality,” recalled Lorelei Lee of her own invention, like the alliterative makeover that created Marilyn Monroe. This was after Norma Jean went permanently platinum for a shampoo ad with Lux flakes and peroxide, the same recipe used by her idol, Jean Harlow—who Loos had written star-making scripts for—and regularly touched up by Harlow’s own hairstylist. Just months after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened, Monroe graced the first cover of Playboy, connecting one boom-time America to another, the Ziegfeld Girl to the Bunny.
In Hawks’s Gentlemen, the flat-chested flappers illustrating Loos’s book are swept aside by not-so-little Monroe and Russell, striding out with “Just two little girls from Little Rock,” their opening bump-and-wiggle. The film situates the action largely on a transatlantic liner—nearing nostalgia by ’53—as Lorelei and Dorothy sail for Paris, leaving behind Lorelei’s milksop millionaire fiancé—whose daddy, disproving of the morganatic marriage, sets a detective after the girls.
The men on the ship are nothings: 75-year-old Charles Coburn plays diaper-ready Sir “Piggie” Beekman; George Winslow is a stern, husky-voiced tyke who’ll inherit half of Pennsylvania; Russell is supposedly romanced by oval-faced zero-charisma snoop Elliott Reid, but there’s more warmth in her fondly bemused looks at Monroe, whose friendship is a front-row ticket to the best show in town. The girls, untouched by competition, present a united front, even transferring identities—Russell does a dye-job masquerade as Lorelei—until they practically exchange vows with each other in the most ironic wedding in Hollywood history.
Another Blonde debuts across town at Anthology. Playing the namesake role in Manoel de Oliveira’s 64-minute film-novella Eccentricities of a Blonde-Hair Girl (2009) is Catarina Wallenstein. A young bookkeeper, Macário (Ricardo Trêpa), becomes infatuated with her exotic ash-blonde ringlets and Chinese fan when espied from his workplace balcony. With her cloistered life and mysterious sphinx smile, she’s Rapunzel waiting for rescue from the cold salons of haute bourgeoisie life.
Per the credits, de Oliveira has “updated” (really, transposed intact across centuries) a story by the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós, who died in 1900, 10 years before de Oliveira was born. Eccentricities is, like Gentlemen, about marriage-brokering, but its mores belong to de Queirós’s era. Macário must beg his uncle/employer’s permission to marry his blonde; the lesson he learns, recounted in the framing scene the film flashes back from, is: “Commerce doesn’t favor a sentimental accountant.” Both films deal with romance as a commodity market where blondes trade high, and both have climaxes of a sort involving jewelry stores. In Gentlemen, it’s Marilyn’s manifesto “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (“Talk to me, Harry Winston!”); in Eccentricities, it’s a scene of abrupt romantic disillusion while shopping for wedding rings, which occasions a ravishing final image of defeat.
Feminine acquisitiveness is played for burbling comedy (Gentlemen) and tragedy (Eccentricities). Though Loos downplayed her talent, later mock-sulking that her “infantile cruelty” kept her from being a “real novelist,” the superficial Blonde she begat is profound. Suiting a particularly American masterpiece, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes contains hypocritical multitudes. Such diverse economists of love as R.W. Fassbinder and Candace Bushnell have taken what they needed from it. The elegant (but decidedly minor), droll (but never funny) Eccentricities appeals to refined tastes and speaks of antique obligations, while Gentlemen‘s glittering “Get that ice or else no dice” never went off the radio.