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Marilyn Monroe As An 'All-Around' Comedian


Fifty years ago today, Hollywood lost its blonde bombshell and she's never really been replaced. Marilyn Monroe was more than her famous assets - her trademark wiggle and her baby girl voice combined to make some of the funniest films of the 20th century.


MARILYN MONROE: (as Sugar) I'm Sugar Kane.

JACK LEMMON: (as Jerry) Hi.

TONY CURTIS: (as Joe) Sugar Kane?

MONROE: Yeah, I changed it. It used to be Sugar Kowalczyk.

WERTHEIMER: That's Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's classic comedy "Some Like It Hot." It was one of Monroe's last movies. She died on August 5, 1962 at age 36. We asked film historian Murray Horwitz, or you may know as TALK OF THE NATION's favorite film buff, to help us assess Marilyn Monroe's comic legacy.

MURRAY HORWITZ: It's important to remember that in - well, actually in the 1940s when she started making films and certainly in the '50s, comedy was a little bit different proposition than it is in these, I guess, post-modern days when people often make livings in comedy by making fun of the fact that they're trying to make people laugh. Back then, you were just trying to make people laugh and you had to do a lot of different things. You had to sing. You had to maybe dance a little bit. And she was a pretty solid all-around comic performer.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that there was some kind of subtext beneath all the sort of ditzy blonde things that she did?

HORWITZ: Yeah, definitely. I mean, she was, by all accounts, very intelligent. And I think we have a couple of ways we can really tell. Early on in her career in "All About Eve," she makes a spectacular entrance at a party.


MONROE: (as Miss Casswell) Now, there's something a girl could make sacrifices for.

GARY MERRILL: (as Bill) Probably has.

MONROE: Sable.

GREGORY RATOFF: (as Max) Sable? Did you say sable or Gable?

MONROE: Either one.

HORWITZ: And she's this kind of trophy date, sex symbol, and she does it so accurately and so well, she had to know what was going on.

WERTHEIMER: She was, I think, one of the most adorable women that I've ever seen on the screen. I think men and women thought so. And her voluptuous figure - beautiful though it was - is sort of a sight gag.

HORWITZ: It's a great way of putting it. It really is. She had this vulnerability, this kind of baby doll quality that contrasted with her, had some kind of tension with the outward voluptuousness of who she appeared to be. And you always want to hug her, you know, you want to save her. It looks like she's going to fall apart at any given moment.


CURTIS: (as Joe) Sugar, you're going to get yourself into a lot of trouble. What's the matter with you anyway?

MONROE: (as Sugar) I'm not very bright, I guess.

CURTIS: (as Joe) I wouldn't say that. Careless maybe.

MONROE: (as Sugar) No, just dumb. If I had any brains, I wouldn't be on this crummy train with this crummy girl's band.

WERTHEIMER: So, you think she was using the movies, the movies weren't using her?

HORWITZ: Well, I think it was a, you know...


HORWITZ: ...symbiotic relationship. 'Cause she was a great star, I mean, arguably the greatest movie star of all time after all. And you mentioned comic legacy. She, of course, wanted to be a serious actress. You know, she's married to Arthur Miller, the great playwright.

WERTHEIMER: She did some very serious movies as well.

HORWITZ: She did some very serious movies. I think you'd have to say that her greatest movies are comedies. She made at least three classic comedies. I'd say, you know, "The Seven-Year Itch," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and maybe what some people argue is the greatest film comedy of all time, "Some Like It Hot."

WERTHEIMER: It takes some kind of a sort of release of ego to be a straight man, it seems to me, and she was.

HORWITZ: It's a very good point. And she was a generous collaborator that way. She listens as an actress, she times things well. In "Some Like It Hot," she has a scene - one of my favorites of many in the movie - when she's in an upper berth with Jack Lemmon and he has designs on her, and she, who is mildly alcoholic, is, you know, trying to get drunk. And it's a perfect little comic scene.


LEMMON: (as Jerry) This may even turn out to be a surprise party.

MONROE: (as Sugar) What surprise? Not yet. When?

LEMMON: (as Jerry) Better have a drink first.

MONROE: (as Sugar) That'll put hair on your chest.

LEMMON: (as Jerry) No fair guessing.

HORWITZ: I love that exchange. They're playing ping-pong there and she gives as good as she gets.

WERTHEIMER: You know, we have moved, as you said, into a much more ironic age, I guess, and the great blonde beauties of the scene now are cool.


WERTHEIMER: They're not like her.

HORWITZ: No. I go to somebody who's not a film star but a big star - one of the biggest in the world today - Lady Gaga, and she's nothing if not ironic, and she's nothing, if not funny. And there's clearly something that she owes to Marilyn Monroe. She plays off that.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you were, in another life, a professional circus clown. So, how do you rate her physical comedy?

HORWITZ: Oh good. I thought you were going to say her physical gifts, which is another question. But actually, there's a wonderful scene at the climax of "Some Like It Hot" when she skitters across this long pier and she yells...


MONROE: (as Sugar) Wait, wait for Sugar.

HORWITZ: She could not have not been Marilyn Monroe, and she knew how to play against that physical type for great comic effect.

WERTHEIMER: Murray Horwitz, film historian, TALK OF THE NATION's favorite film buff. He joined us in our studios in Washington. We really appreciate your coming over on such a hot day.

HORWITZ: Thanks. It was a great pleasure.


MONROE: (Singing) I couldn't aspire to anything higher, than to fill with desire to make you. I wanna be loved by you, just you and nobody else but you. I wanna be loved by you.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.