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Blu-ray Review: Forever Marilyn

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Some of the greatest films from the larger-than-life career of Marilyn Monroe are represented in Forever Marilyn, a new seven-disc Blu-ray set that includes five films from Monroe’s prime making their Blu-ray debuts alongside the previously released Some Like it Hot and The Misfits. Each film is also available on Blu-ray separately. The five new-to-Blu-ray films were produced consecutively between 1953 and 1955 for Twentieth Century Fox, and strong high-def transfers for the lot make this set an excellent upgrade from their respective DVD versions.

Forever MarilynGentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is an extraordinary musical directed by Howard Hawks, co-starring Monroe and Jane Russell as singers aboard a ship to Paris. Russell’s Dorothy Shaw is fairly down-to-earth, but Monroe’s Lorelei Lee is a straight-up gold-digger who’s hit the jackpot with wealthy nebbish Gus Esmond Jr. (Tommy Noonan). With Esmond unable to join them, Dorothy and Lorelei make the trip to Paris alone, and Lorelei’s eye wanders toward a wealthy old diamond miner (Charles Coburn). Little does she know, her fidelity is being tracked by an onboard spy.

Hawks directs the film’s musical numbers with uncommon energy and verve — Russell’s “Anyone Here for Love” deserves to be as iconic as Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” — and the chemistry with Russell offers Monroe one of her best on-screen foils/companions of her career. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was produced right before CinemaScope took hold, and its full-frame transfer here is superb. Colors are tight and vibrant, fine detail is abundant and damage is very minor. Extras are sparse — only a brief archival snippet from Monroe and Russell’s handprint ceremony and trailers.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) is an entertaining bit of fluff with an ensemble cast that gives Monroe the shortest end of the stick. Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall star as three Manhattan models determined to attract a higher class of men. They pool all their resources into securing a lavish penthouse apartment and begin the search for wealthy eligible bachelors. They have little trouble finding some, but infatuations with other, poorer suitors may be the downfall to their plan.

The film keeps the exploits of its three leads fairly cloistered, and it’s Bacall who gets the best part here, both in screen time and witty one-liners. Director Jean Negulesco isn’t nearly as successful as Hawks at portraying gold-digging characters without sliding into some implicit misogyny, but it’s not like anyone was expecting anything too progressive here, right? Technically, the film was quite progressive though, as this was Fox’s first CinemaScope film produced (although not the first released). The new technology isn’t quite at its best in this decent transfer — colors aren’t exceptionally stable and opticals display a half-second major image degradation before it clicks back in to normal. Overall, the increased clarity and detail makes for a solid improvement over DVD. Extras include trailers and a brief newsreel piece on the film’s premiere.

River of No Return (1954) features an atypical role for Monroe as a saloon hall singer, but she shows some good range, guided by the capable directorial hand of Otto Preminger. Preminger achieves some striking visual imagery here in this tale of peaceful farmer Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) forced to navigate a treacherous river by a reckless gambler (Rory Calhoun) and his reluctant wife, Kay (Monroe). While the film’s musical numbers are fairly lackluster, Preminger evokes a real sense of danger once the river rafting begins, hemming in the characters with raging water on all sides.

Another CinemaScope production for Fox, River of No Return gets an excellent transfer, with none of the stability issues of Millionaire. Colors are a bit dusty and muted, but seem true, and the image is consistently clear and sharp. Trailers are the only extras.

There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) features Monroe shoehorned into a supporting role alongside the top-billed Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor in this Irving Berlin catalog musical. A major flop when it was released, Show Business doesn’t really work as a whole, but there are enough memorable individual numbers to counteract the slog of the ultra-generic storyline.

Merman and Dan Dailey star as Molly and Terry Donahue, a long-running vaudeville act that includes their three children, Tim, Katy and Steve (O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor and Johnnie Ray). Various successes and failures make up the inconsequential plot, which features Monroe as an up-and-coming singing star who catches Tim’s eye. There’s barely a hint of integration between the plot and the numbers, but Monroe’s sexy “Heat Wave,” O’Connor’s dance with fountain statues that come to life and Merman’s belting of the title tune are nice standalone pieces.

The widescreen transfer of Show Business is solid, despite some optical image degradation that’s not nearly as pervasive as in Millionaire. Colors are generally bold and consistent, and the untouched film grain gives the transfer a nice celluloid-like look. The only special features here are trailers.

The Seven Year Itch (1955) was Monroe’s reward for doing Show Business, giving her the opportunity to work with the great Billy Wilder on his adaptation of the George Axelrod play. Missing much of the salacious humor of the stage original and lacking the sparkling wit of frequent Wilder collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, The Seven Year Itch is lesser Wilder for sure, but it might just feature Monroe at her most confident and most iconic — the breathy voice, the naïve innocence, the effortless sex appeal. It’s really no surprise the film contains the most recognizable image of Monroe ever — standing on the subway grate, her white dress blowing up above her knees. This is the Marilyn Monroe that’s etched into the popular consciousness.

Elsewhere, the film is an amusing but forgettable trifle, with Tom Ewell starring as the hapless publishing executive who tries to resist Monroe’s charms when his wife and son leave Manhattan to escape the summer heat. The film’s thin membrane between reality and fantasy occasionally yields excellent comedic bounty, but the film’s inescapable staginess and the bowdlerized humor lessen the impact.

The Blu-ray transfer of the film’s widescreen CinemaScope image is strong, easily besting the DVD in clarity, sharpness and fine detail. There’s a little pulsating in the image, causing some color inconsistencies, but it’s a good-looking transfer overall. The disc is also the only one in the set to feature new extras — a commentary by Wilder biographer Arthur Kevin Lally, a featurette on Wilder and Monroe and a picture-in-picture track about the film’s self-censorship alongside a previously included making-of, deleted scenes and trailers.

Rounding out the set are Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) and John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), with identical discs from their earlier releases included. Both are excellent films, and the transfer for The Misfits is especially stunning. For more on these titles, you can see my full reviews of Some Like it Hot and The Misfits.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.