From Novel to Film pt. 30: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

"Henry said that when he looked at all of those large size diamonds he really felt that they did not have any sentiment, so he was going to give me his class ring from Amherst College instead. So then I looked at him and looked at him, but I am to full of self controle to say anything at this stage of the game, so I said it was really very sweet of him to be so full of nothing but sentiment."


Originally published 1925.

Anita Loos was inspired to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes while observing an attractive blonde woman turn her normally erudite friend H.L. Mencken into a sputtering fool. Thus was born one of the most popular novels of the Jazz Age. No less than Edith Wharton referred to it as "the great American novel," and it was praised abroad by both James Joyce (yay) and Benito Mussolini (not so yay). 

The movie (which was actually based on the musical adapted from the novel) overtook the public's perception of Loos' novel for later audiences. But it's been periodically rediscovered, and it deserves to be. Lorelei Lee, the novels' narrator and protagonist, is one of the Jazz Age's "new woman." She can vote, smoke, dance, and drink, and, except for the voting, she spends the novel doing all of it. As the Stanford Review put it, "Lorelei is the female Huck Finn of the flapper era. She is naive, shrewd and seemingly unaware as she exposes the absurdities and pretensions of boom-time capitalism (...) It's a hilarious send-up of new social dynamics, particularly the idea that women could get rich, too, through sexual manipulation."

Loos herself put it a bit differently: "I wanted Lorelei to be a symbol of the lowest possible mentality of our nation." A 2016 audience is much kinder to her, I think, since Reality TV alone has lowered mentality further than Loos could likely have imagined.

The novel featured illustrations by Ralph Barton, a highly successful illustrator of the era whose reputation is likewise being restored after being forgotten almost immediately after his suicide in the early 1930s.
Dorothy (the brunette) looks disturbingly like Tony Curtis in drag in this picture.

Lorelei, as you can see from the opening quote up there, frequently misspells words or misunderstands things, ("A girl is always hearing some talk about Louie the sexteenth who seemed to be in the anteek furniture business") but the style never overwhelms.

The plot: Lorelei is a blonde fun-loving flapper with aspirations to marry rich. To do so, she entertains the affections of a Mr. Eisman, who is funding her attempt to "become better educated." She's not sure exactly what it means, and neither is he, but they know what chasing it looks like.

Eisman, the "button king of Chicago," comes to New York for long weekends and on business trips to woo Lorelei. When artists and mobsters begin paying her too much attention, he sends her - and her brunette companion Dorothy Shaw ("not the kind of girl to meet gentlemens' mothers") - off to Europe, to continue their education.

During the crossing, Dorothy bewilders Lorelei by not being more discriminating in her company. While she spends time with a British officer, Major Falcon, and Mr. Goldmark, a wealthy movie producer, Dorothy is gallivanting with some "minor writer" named Mencken. (Good sport, that H.L. Mencken!) But more disturbing is the presence of District Attorney Bartlett, who, Lorelei tells us, was the prosecutor in her attempted murder trial back in St. Louis.

We know only two things about Lorelei's life prior to page one: 1) she was working in the Follies and the pictures until Mr. Eisman, thinking it beneath her, paid her to stop, and 2) she had to leave St. Louis because of "the scandal there." Which we learn in this crossing section had to do with attempting to murder the man who raped her.

Or maybe he only attempted to rape her. It's not made entirely clear, at least in the prose itself. But as Susan Hegeman observed, "the effect of the novel's doublespeak is to leave open to the imagination any number of possible levels of scandal." 

Same goes for all the "talking" between Lorelei and her suitors. I assumed sex was happening in-between-the-lines - F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote somewhere that sex was the between-the-lines of all Jazz Age art - but it's never explicitly mentioned.

Anyway, that the specter of rape and the victim being slut-shamed for it is raised at all is remarkable for a novel of the 20s. Lorelei ultimately forgives Mr. Bartlett for his courtroom performance but is only too happy to spy on him for Major Falcon.  

"A gentlemen never pays for those things, but a girl always pays."

Once in England, she and Dorothy make the acquaintance of Sir Francis Beekman, whose wife keeps trying to sell them her diamond tiara. Something she acquires for free when Lorelei "saves" Sir Francis from a scandal she more or less orchestrates. Then onto Paris, which at first they like very much, but their good times are hampered when Lady Francis Beekman tracks them down and demands the tiara back. They and her husband have greatly aggrieved her dignity. ("Lady," Dorothy tells her, "if we hurt your dignity like you hurt our eyesight I hope for your sake you are a Christian science.") The detectives Lady Francis employs to retrieve her property are quickly charmed by the girls and assist them in dodging the old bag.


In Vienna, she is analyzed by "Dr. Froyd," who finds her utterly void of all inhibitions. (He tells her, not unkindly, to cultivate some and to get some sleep.) She then meets Mr. Spoffard, a "morals sensur" who is very concerned with the depravity of the flappers. Also: very enamored with them, particularly Lorelei, who warms up to him upon learning he's from a wealthy family.

The novel ends with Lorelei and Spoffard getting married. She doesn't exactly run to the altar and subsequent suburban domestic bliss, but she warms to the idea after meeting an attractive and fascinating screenwriter (Mr. Montrose) who convinces her the marriage is the perfect set-up for the two of them to work on movies together. (See above on doublespeak.) The End.  

Lots going on in this ending. Lorelei seemingly "wins" - she gets the wealthy husband she sought, she travels widely and drinks plenty of champagne, she gets to keep the diamond tiara, she even dances with the Prince of Wales – but of course, it all comes with a certain price tag. But what doesn't? Everybody pays, but perhaps blondes pay less. Right? But even the degree to which Lorelei "pays" is not spared the author's wry glance:

"Dorothy and I got up this morning and we looked out the window of our compartment and it was really quite unusual. Because it was farms, and we saw quite a lot of girls who seemed to be putting small size hay stacks onto large size hay stacks while their husbands seemed to sit at a table under quite a shady tree and smoke their pipe and watch them. So Dorothy and I looked at two girls who seemed to be ploughing up all of the ground with only the aid of a cow and Dorothy said, 'I think we girls have gone one step too far away from New York, because it begins to look to me as if the Central of Europe is no country for we girls.'"

This self-awareness (on the author's part) elevates the book from being just a critique of vapid blondes, or of the patriarchy, etc. Were it just either of those, it'd still be entertaining and insightful, but its cynicism is aimed at the same targets as The Sun Also Rises or anything by Dorothy Parker.

There's a great intro by Candace Bushnell of Sex and the City fame in the edition of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes I read. Not being a particular fan of Sex and the City, I almost skipped it but am glad I didn't, good stuff. (She does not namecheck either Story of My Life by Jay McInerney or Glamourama by Bret Easton Ellis in her list of Loos' novel's progeny, but those two came to mind as such for me.) There's also an intro Loos wrote herself to an earlier edition, which touches on how the book was perceived elsewhere:

"The book was embraced by Soviet authorities as evidence of the exploitation of helpless female blondes by predatory magnates of the Capitalistic system. (They) stripped the book of all its fun and the plot which they uncovered was dire. It concerns early rape of its idiot heroine, an attempt by her to commit murder (only unsuccessful because she is clumsy with a gun), the heroine's being cast adrift in the gangster-infested New York of Prohibition days, her relentless pursuit by predatory males (the foremost of whom tries to pay her off at bargain rates), her renunciation of the only man who ever stirred her inner soul of a woman, her nauseous connection with a male who is repulsive to her physically, mentally, and emotionally, and her final engulfment in the grim monotony of suburban Philadelphia."

Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the Modern Authors class I had as an undergrad presented the book, unironically, in the same light. Long Live the Party, Tovarisch!


Howard Hawks' 1958 version of the novel is based on the 1949 stage musical. It was adapted twice in the 20s, as well, for the stage in 1926 and as a silent film in 1928, since lost. Famed flapper Louise Brooks almost starred as Dorothy Shaw in the latter, as evidenced by the pic on the left, below, but she flubbed her reading. 

Loos was so unimpressed that she allegedly told her "If I ever write a part for a cigar-store Indian, you'll get it.

Reviewing the film for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote:  

"A sideline exchange of conversation, tossed off early in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (between) one bug-eyed fellow to another as the Misses Russell and Monroe do a languid parade up the gangplank of the Le Havre-bound Ile de France: "If this ship hit an iceberg and sank, which one would you save?" To which his admiring companion gurgles: "Those girls couldn't drown."

Whatever there was of Miss Loos' memorable Lorelei Lee, the blonde whose hobby was money back in the easy-salad days, is lost, strayed or possibly stolen in the foolish stunts set for Miss Monroe. And the gags pulled out for Miss Russell are devoid of character or charm. And yet, there is that about Miss Russell and also about Miss Monroe that keeps you looking at them even when they have little or nothing to do. Call it inherent magnetism. Call it luxurious coquetry. Call it whatever you fancy. It's what makes this a—well, a buoyant show."

Crowther is certainly correct, if a bit boorish, in suggesting that the charms of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe survive the limitations of the script. And I agree that Lorelei, at least, comes across far better in the novel than she does in the film. But I agree more with this later take on the movie by Christian Blauvelt from Slant:

"This is no mere cheesecake spectacle served up for a horny male audience. Even at their most glamorous, in the opening number or during the iconic 'Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend' centerpiece of the film, Monroe and Russell always look directly into the camera, the gazed gazing back, fully aware of their power over the men in the film and in the audience." 

"In fact, if there’s a single film that could shatter Laura Mulvey’s theory of the 'male gaze' it’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

"The camera’s point of view in much of Hollywood cinema may be a male one, regarding women with fetishistic fascination, but Hawks shows how it can be easily hijacked by gals smart enough to control—and manipulate—what it is that their drooling dude audience is seeing."

There are few things I enjoy less than listening to people discuss "the male gaze," but I'm actually happy to have been tortured with such things as an undergrad because understanding the theory improved my enjoyment of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Blauvelt - which, come on, it's obviously Ernst Blofeld - is absolutely correct.

"Of course, Hawks portrays the whole male race through the absurd trinity of a bespectacled milquetoast, an aged letch, and a fastidiously intellectual 12-year-old boy—"

"not to mention the anonymous, interchangeable hard bodies of the U.S. Olympic team, the entirety of which Dorothy intends to romance." 

I don't think "romance" is what Dorothy intends to do to them, but you say tomato.

"Not since Mae West purred to Cary Grant to come up and see her sometime has a woman so successfully objectified men as in Russell’s rendition of 'Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?' Russell parades in an androgynous black leotard through a crowd of unnamed, shirtless dancers and acrobats—sexualized, yet marginalized, the way female backup dancers usually are—belting lyrics like "I like big muscles and red corpuscles/I like a beautiful hunk of man." Since today we’re so unaccustomed to seeing men reduced to anonymous sexual spectacle, one’s kneejerk reaction to this number is its homoeroticism—I suppose just like how Lady Gaga’s overt expressions of her sexuality must mean she has a dick."

"Or is it that Hawks actually provides for a female gaze? In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, at least, he does."

Dorothy's forward-thinking horniness aside, the review also notes that "the nascent 1920s feminism is at odds with the conservative 1950s milieu of the film itself, clashing almost as violently as Hawks’s out-of-control color palette." Also true and is most noticeable in the changes from the page to screen.

First up, Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei.

Monroe is such an icon of Classic Hollywood that it's almost impossible to evaluate her on individual terms, such as how she played any particular role, without making overly broad comments about women in film, women of the twentieth century, etc. I'll try not to, here, but I'll get my bias out of the way up-front - her vocal delivery (that ditzy, always-gasping affectation, also shared by Jackie O) is always hard to take for me. That and she always seems to be doing exaggerated things with her mouth. 

I get why she was doing it. But still.

More importantly, Lorelei's story in the film is nowhere near as compelling as it is in the book. Removed entirely are her other romances, "Dr. Froyd," and the whole St. Louis/ rape-murder-trial plot. (This speaks to the conservative-50s vs. roaring-20s aspect, perhaps.) And there's a crudity to her gold-digging in the film that is not just absent in the novel but at odds with it. 

The various triangles of the novel are replaced by a single throughline of Dorothy stringing along her sugar daddy, Mr. Eisman, and her struggle to marry into his family over the objections of his father:

A compartmentalization of the Eisman and Spoffard plotlines of the book.

In the plot invented for the film, Mr. Eisman, Sr. has hired a private detective to follow her around to prove she is an unworthy wife for his son. More on the private detective in a bit, but of course, it doesn't take him long to come up with incriminating evidence of her dalliance with Sir Francis the diamond-guy.

The above photo, taken through the porthole of Lorelei's and Dorothy's cabin, allegedly shows Lorelei "pretending to be a goat while Piggy (aka Sir Francis), pretends to be a python while demonstrating how pythons encircle their prey." As with the novel, I assume this is the closest they could get to implying they were doing something more compromising

Granted, Lorelei strings both Mr. Eisman and Sir Francis along in the book, as well, but the film actually ends with Eisman and Lorelei marrying. And, creepily, only after it's strongly implied she bangs the senior Mr. Eisman to seal the deal!

"Just give me five minutes alone with Daddy."
"Yes, dear."
Awkward. (And gross.)

Marilyn's big musical number ('Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend,' a song originally written for Lederer's musical) remains, like everything Monroe did it seems, some kind of necessary ritual to publicly perform for any woman aspiring to be the alpha female of her generation, from Madonna in the 80s to Rihanna nowadays to whomever comes next. 

Unlike Lorelei, Dorothy is a considerably better-realized character than the Dorothy of the novel, thanks to Jane Russell's performance. It's odd that audiences of the time - and hell, probably still now - considered Monroe the real star of the show. She is overshadowed in every way possible by Jane Russell's Dorothy Shaw. And this is odd, as Dorothy is very much the secondary in their relationship in the novel. Granted the story is told by Lorelei in first person, but Dorothy is much less impulsive and superficial in the movie. She is clearly the leader and Lorelei the follower.

Her romance with Ernie Malone, the private detective assigned to follow Lorelei is slightly less convincing, but that's mainly because the guys are pretty overmatched throughout.

True, some of her best lines (like the one delivered to Lady Beekman, aforementioned) are cut out, but she comes across much more honestly. And whereas Marilyn's sex appeal, while undeniable, is somewhat dated, or reliant on a manipulation of her era's more rigid gender roles, Jane Russell almost seems like a time traveler from our own era in this movie, particularly when she impersonates Dorothy's ditzy demeanor in the French courtroom sequence. 

The impersonation aside, Dorothy's fierce devotion to her friend comes through quite well. The specifically-female comradery of the book ("There's nothing so wonderful as when two girls stand up for each other and help each other a whole lot") transitions well to the screen, and apparently Jane Russell went to great lengths to help and protect Marilyn (notoriously insecure and something of a production nightmare) on set and in the press.

Their friendship extended past their time on set. Here they put their hand and foot prints outside Grauman's Chinese, a great honor for the time.

The film ends with a double wedding: Lorelei and Gus Eisman and Dorothy and Ernie Malone. As it lacks the ironic set-up of Dorothy's nuptials from the novel - and as it adds the implication that she had to get off with Gus' father for him to agree with the wedding - it seems an odd fit to everything we've seen, though certainly not to audiences of its era, who expected such things.

Final Verdict: The film is a fine example of a 1950s Hollywood musical. Big production, gorgeous technicolor, big production numbers, big star quality. It's a poor adaptation of the novel, though, which probably should be counted as one of the most representative works of the Jazz Age.



  1. As I was reading the section of this review devoted to the novel (which sounds fascinating), I found myself thinking that there was no way on Earth the movie had managed to capture it.

    Sounds as if I was correct about that. And yet, the movie has a certain amount of cachet even now, half a century and more later.

    The politics and philosophies of adaptation have been on my mind a lot lately (thanks to "11.22.63"), and I find myself wondering if it's a lost cause to even hope for a faithful adaptation of anything. Like, even in a pie-in-the-sky sense of things. Is it better to simply abandon all hope of fidelity and be content with whatever comes vomiting down the chute?

    Clearly not. I mean, sure, it might prevent a bit of frustration; but it also makes one complicit if, as a fan of that source material, one simply rolls over and takes it.

    With that in mind, do you suppose there were huge fans of this novel who went to see the movie and walked out disgusted by what they'd seen? Did they meet with other fans at the lunch-counter at Woolworth's and complain about the minutiae of how Loos' vision had been compromised by egotistic hucksters?

    I kind of hope so.

    1. The Charles Lederer musical was a huge hit, and the movie was based on it, so I bet there were more disgruntled fans discussing the former than the latter, or perhaps the release of the movie brought them all together.

      As for adaptations, I don't know if it's bleak as a vomit chute, though it sometimes seems like one. I wish there were more Kubricks or John Hustons out there, who understood different kinds of art forms equally well, or at least far beyond the interest of most everyone else, or Roman Polanskis, who - at least he used to - took pains to faithfully transcribe the novels they adapted. And hit the right beats.

  2. I'll never be able to unsee that Tony Curtis thing.

    'I think we girls have gone one step too far away from New York, because it begins to look to me as if the Central of Europe is no country for we girls.' -- I know your distaste for all things Lena Dunham, but this quotation almost seems like something that could have come from "Girls," her tv show. (I rather like that show, by the way; its characters are almost entirely despicable, and I'm only sometimes certain that the people making the show are aware of it. But I think they mostly are, and they often come to rather crushing observations of them. Plus, last night's episode feature "New York Groove," always a thumbs-up.)

    Regarding the male gaze: I can see how it would be considered distasteful by some in most of its guises. However, as long as it's depicted honestly, I don't see it as being inherently problematic. After all, most men walk through life with the male gaze permanently informing their thoughts. I assume most women walk through life with the female gaze doing the same. Let's give more women the opportunity to express their own feelings and it'll all even out eventually. Or something like that, I dunno. But pretending men don't enjoy looking at things with a sexuality filter laid over their eyes is unrealistic.

    1. Yeah, she bugs me. Plenty of smart people watch the show, though, so I'm sure it's well done and all. I applaud its use of "New York Groove," to be sure.

      I think the male gaze is not an inherently silly topic, but its lent itself to some silly navel-gazing and misinterpretations. What hasn't, though! Hell, I'm one to talk. That's probably 85% of what I do around these parts.

  3. I know very little about Marilyn Monroe's films. I've only seen "Niagra," believe it or not. It's one of those truths that slows me down somewhat every time I consider claiming myself to be knowledge about Movies (in the grand-scheme, spell-it-with-a-capital-letter sense of things).

    I had a sense that the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" sequence was what informed the "Material World" video, but I don't think I had any notion that it had come from this specific movie. And indeed, I'd have to admit that it's the Madonna version that seems like the real thing to me.

    Funny when references become the primary statement for some people. But I guarantee you I'm not the only person to whom it happened with this specific sequence. It's a natural part of the echo-chamber that is media consumption: we can't all experience everything, after all.

    1. Which came first, the reference or the referenced? It's not as cut-and-dried an issue when you really think about it, isn't it?

      That's probably the other 15% of what I do around these parts, re: my other comment.