This deluxe summer survey, rich with widescreen classics and recent restorations, celebrates that shimmering icon of 1950s American cinema: the Blonde, incarnated by such fair-haired lovelies as Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Lana Turner, Doris Day, Jayne Mansfield and Judy Holliday.
Following on the surveys Blonde Crazy at BFI Southbank in London, Brune/Blonde at La Cinémathèque française in Paris, and our own Icy Fire: The Hitchcock Blonde, this deluxe summer survey concentrates on the decade in which the Hollywood blonde reached her apotheosis: the fifties, arguably the greatest period of American filmmaking. Rich with widescreen classics and recent restorations, including the film that gives the series its title, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes offers a surfeit of surfeit, appropriately for that most excessive of decades.
Dumb, dizzy, ditzy, brassy, bimbo, bombshell — Hollywood never resisted a stereotype, and the invention in 1909 of a hair bleaching agent that could turn any tress blonde provided the nascent film factory with a range of glamorous possibilities. Ash to platinum, honey to champagne, from the innocent "Girl with the Golden Hair" Mary Pickford and the flaxen "Bathing Beauty" of Mack Sennett, Phyllis Haver, to the marmoreal Nordic goddess Greta Garbo and patrician nonconformist Alice Terry, silent Hollywood cinema revelled in the infinite registers of blondeness, whether natural or bottle-bought. The coming of sound only added to the catalogue of fair-haired types: the brazen blonde, cracking wise and heading for heartbreak (Jean Harlow, Glenda Farrell, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell); the elegant and impertinent vamp (Carole Lombard, Veronica Lake); and, more egregiously, the air-headed gold digger (Marilyn Monroe) and bleached, bosomy bombshell (Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren). Hitchcock's "icy blonde" and the crisp enigma of such sophisticates as Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly further complicate any attempt to reduce the Hollywood blonde to a single cohesive signifier.
Like much else about Hollywood cinema, "the blonde" reached her apogee in the fifties, as this survey attests. Not since the Renaissance, when women, and some men, dyed their hair golden to achieve an ideal of physical perfection, did the blonde become so ubiquitous. Even as brunette and raven actresses — Ava Gardner, Jane Russell, Jean Simmons, Audrey Hepburn et al — remained immensely popular, the decade of nuclear panic, Commie paranoia, consumerist abandon, and burgeoning youth rebellion seemed designed for the new CinemaScope format and the blonde who was its ideal inhabitant. (Does the tenor of our own right-wing times and the ubiquity of the blonde suggest some kind of natural concurrence?) Whether cool and aloof or hot and histrionic, the Hollywood blonde seemed to embody the retrogressive sexuality of the fifties, in which the scheming femmes fatales of film noir, the fast-talking heiresses and working girls of screwball comedy, the abused but resilient molls of gangster movies — all standards of the previous decade — gave way to the willfully dim-witted, professionally virginal, or extravagantly wanton. But as this survey confirms, the story is much more complicated than any such sexist formula implies. Cast both in and against type (Doris Day in Pillow Talk and Love Me or Leave Me) or in a range of contrasting modes and personas (Kim Novak, Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck), as an exemplar of artifice (Lana Turner) or blatancy (Jayne Mansfield), the Hollywood blonde proved to be the most ineffable of creatures in the semiotic jungle that was fifties pop culture.
— James Quandt
Special thanks to May Haduong, Academy Film Archive.