Back Comments (3) Share:
Facebook Button
The fine folks at Twentieth Century Fox have graced us with a mostly brand new, seven-disc collection of superstar cult figure Marilyn Monroe’s best and/or most beloved motion pictures and they have entitled the set Forever Marilyn (a classy title that is almost enough to forgive the extremely flimsy box). Fox had already released MGM/UA’s Some Like it Hot and The Misfits on Blu-ray (I’ve slightly edited and included my original capsule reviews and included here) as single film discs, but had been sitting on quite a few of their own catalogue classics until now, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, River of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business and The Seven Year Itch. What follows is my best attempt to cover the qualities of all seven discs in a relatively efficient matter.

Forever Marilyn

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Marilyn Monroe is mostly remembered for her sexpot persona and legendary real-life behaviour, but she also happened to work with some of the most influential filmmakers of the 1950s and ‘60s. Her CV reads like a who’s who of period directors, including John Huston ( The Asphalt Jungle and The Misfits, see below), Joseph Mankiewicz ( All About Eve), John Sturges ( Right Cross), Fritz Lang ( Clash by Night), Otto Preminger ( River of No Return, see below), Billy Wilder ( The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot, see below), Laurence Olivier ( The Prince and the Showgirl) and George Cukor ( Let’s Make Love). Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, an early era hit, was directed by filmdom’s greatest chameleon – Howard Hawks. To get an idea exactly how incomparably eclectic Hawks’ output was one need look no further than his 1950s releases, which include sci-fi/horror classic Thing From Another World, screwball comedy prototype Monkey Business (also featuring Monroe), westerns The Big Sky and Rio Bravo, and the grand scale epic Land of the Pharaohs. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a prime example of the director’s ability to disappear into the mix and expertly craft a genre classic without drawing attention to himself and his stylistic choices. His camera movements are so intuitive that it’s difficult to notice they’re even happening, and his ability to cull performances is on full display. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes arguably features Monroe’s most extensive role of any of the seven films included here, and the achingly sexy Jane Russell stands out as her most fruitful female pairing. Monroe is genuinely sweet without the usual dopey trappings (of which there are plenty elsewhere in this collection), which is a special achievement, considering her character’s despicable personality traits. The plot and characters aren’t particularly enthralling (both cover much of the same ground seen in the superior How to Marry a Millionaire), but the charming performances and colourful musical numbers make it difficult to care.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the only 1.37:1, non-widescreen film in this collection, and is framed appropriately for this 1080p Blu-ray release. Videophiles shall fret not, however, because the film was processed in glorious Technicolor. The colour quality is this transfer’s most obvious virtue, and marks it as something of a paragon of the Technicolor process (though MGM’s Wizard of Oz Blu-ray is still the go-to disc for such matters). The lush, consistent, and sharp qualities of the hues often match those of animated films released in the format, especially the red and pink-drenched ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ musical number. Blacks are also surprisingly deep, though they still exhibit plenty of the blue elements that usually coincide with Technicolor releases. Hawks and cinematographer Robert Taylor tend to alternate between deep-set wide shots and shallow-focus close-ups, which leads to some impressive range despite a stylistic lack of harsh textures. The image is always a little soft, but complex patterns are plenty sharp. The general lack of grain and other filmic artefacts isn’t surprising, given the usual look of three-strip Technicolor, so I’m not going to accuse the transfer’s producers of any DNR shenanigans. The original single-track sound has been adjusted for this release, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track represents the single largest alteration of the source material in the collection. For the most part, the 5.1 mix sounds like a 1.0 mix, which does flatten some of the music out a bit in comparison to the 5.1 mixes elsewhere in this collection, but there’s still plenty of dynamic variance and clear instrumental separation. Generally speaking, the non-musical sound is mostly focused around dialogue, but there’s actually quite a bit of ambience throughout the track, more than some of the stereophonic blends. Again, the mono source seems to have flattened these out a bit, but there’s very little in the way of muddied sound or high-end distortion. The extras include a Movietone News preview, a trailer and a Monroe trailer reel.

Forever Marilyn

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

Perhaps the second best of the seven films included here, How to Marry a Millionaire sees Monroe often playing second fiddle to a top notch Lauren Bacall. Bacall doesn’t simply out-perform Monroe and co-star Betty Grable, her character is roughly the center point of the story, despite attempts at spreading the screen time between the three leads. If they ever release a ‘Forever Bacall’ set I’d hope this would be included. Not to imply that this isn’t among Marilyn’s better performances, though. To the contrary, Pola Debevoise is a character that plays to all of Monroe’s strengths as a bombshell ditz and a physical comedian. Poor Grable ends up being the odd girl out in this, her last major mainstream success. Modern audiences might find the narrative structure lacking and even predictable (it is admittedly among the weaker films, storywise, in this set, which is a symptom of its dual source material), but I find the film pretty timeless despite the deliciously dated fashion and production design. Even the predictably moralistic conclusion remains satisfying on subsequent viewings. This timeless quality extends to most of Monroe’s films and definitely helps keep her pop-culture legacy intact. Beyond its charming performances and dialogue, and intuitive sense of speedy editing, How to Marry a Millionaire is also notable for its expert use of the super-wide CinemaScope framing. Director Jean Negulesco was the first to use the format for a feature release (though The Robe hit theaters first) and he wastes none of the scope on major close-ups; instead creating a handsome mix of expansive cityscapes and colourful, stage-like sets. Some may argue Negulesco oversimplifies his camera movement, but his expert blocking process is a no less valid form of filmmaking. The practice is all the more refreshing in this day and age of extreme, shaky widescreen close-ups.

How to Marry a Millionaire is the first of five films in this set presented in its original 2.55:1 CinemaScope ratio, and it could be the biggest DVD-to-Blu-ray upgrade in the set. The clarity, detail and colour quality here is simply stunning. From postcard-inspired beauty shots of New York landmarks that feature nary a hint of detail lost or edge haloes (which are a huge problem for SD releases and TV versions), to expansive sets presented clearly enough to create an almost three-dimensional effect and candy=coloured costumes, this 1080p transfer is a wonderful representation of the format’s ability to make even older features appear brand new. The eye-popping (three-strip?) Technicolor format makes for some somewhat un-lifelike hues (some of the yellowed skin tones between fade-outs are especially uncanny) and bluish black levels (more blue than those of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), but the hue separation is quite sharp, and this transfer is likely the most vibrant the film will ever look outside a 35mm theatrical screening. Grain levels appear natural for the format, and signs of DNR tampering are practically nonexistent. The film was originally mixed in four-track stereophonic sound, which lends itself rather nicely to a 5.1 upgrade without too much artificial digital-release fiddling. The power of this DTS-HD 5.1 remix is immediately quite apparent as the curtain falls and Alfred Newman’s opening overture takes hold of every track in the system. The music, which includes some George Gershwin compositions, is big, bold, crisp, warm, and quite wonderful. There are some minor inconsistencies in vocal volume and clarity (echo effects bleed out awkwardly on occasion), and there isn’t a lot outside the vocals and music that fills out the soundtrack, but these are all set expectations for sound mixes from the era. Really, the score is all that matters here. The only extras on the disc area a Movietone News preview, three trailers, and a Monroe trailer reel.

Forever Marilyn

River of No Return (1954)

I’d heard the legends of River of No Return’s notoriously difficult shoot, but hadn’t actually seen the film until now, which is pretty exciting considering that its scale lends itself so well to the HD format. This film also stands apart in this set, along with The Misfits, for being a non-comedy, western melodrama, though it still has plenty of musical trappings. River of No Return was directed by Otto Preminger, who had made plenty of big movies at the time, but was best known for grim, taboo-smashing noir films like Laura, Anatomy of a Murder and The Man with the Golden Arm. This film isn’t the best sampling of his talents (he was forced to direct due to contractual obligations, and How to Marry a Millionaire director Jean Negulesco shot retakes when Preminger ditched the production and left it in the hands of editor Louis R. Loeffler), but his noirish eye gives the film a moody quality not usually seen in the widescreen westerns of the era. In addition to the heavy shadows and sweeping camera moves, Negulesco and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle fill the extra-wide, CinemaScope frame with oodles of valuable visual information, and I truly can’t imagine it working at all in a pan-and-scan format. Preminger’s efforts are especially valuable, considering Frank Fenton’s thoroughly uninspired screenplay (based on Louis Lantz’s story, which was itself ‘borrowed’ from Vittorio De Sica’s screenplay). The only excitement I can shake from Fenton’s listless story are a few lines that may have inspired similar (better stated) lines in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which was created almost entirely in homage to the American western tradition. Monroe’s performance has its flaws, but sees her flexing more natural acting muscles than usual. Sadly, we can’t say the same about her beautiful singing voice, which in this case was dubbed by Gloria Wood. Robert Mitchum’s darkly cool persona contrasts nicely against Monroe’s more traditional acting style, but more often than not he appears bored rather than stoic, and she ends up having way more chemistry with the young Tommy Rettig. All in all, the film is a mixed bag that earns its place in the collection due to its stunning images.

River of No Return is the second CinemaScope-shot film in the set and is presented here in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio. It’s also one of three films here, along with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, that utilized the Technicolor process. Beside some inconsistent grain levels (likely the result of shooting outside in the elements), and a few bouts with edge haloes/doubling (likely the result of misaligned colour strips, or some similar production issue), this picture is predominantly needle-sharp, revealing more fine and complex texture than any of the other finely remastered transfers in this collection. I imagine the dark brown background elements are turned to mush in standard definition, and that Preminger’s studied focus pulling would be all but entirely lost. The Technicolor process is, unfortunately, slightly wasted, considering the highly stylized process doesn’t really lend itself too well to darkness or natural hues. Still, the pure, rich tones are quite impressive in 1080p, regardless of their unnatural, paint-by-numbers qualities. Besides the aforementioned edge issues, the biggest with the colour is the way it bleeds browns and blues into Negulesco’s beloved blacks. The rather modest four-track sound is once again remixed into DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and the results are mostly natural and free of off-putting directional effects. The bulk of the sound, including Cyril J. Mockridge’s omnipresent score, is mostly centered, but little is muddied in the process and only a handful of high volume noises cause noticeable distortion. The extras include the trailer and a Monroe trailer reel.

Forever Marilyn

There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

There’s No Business Like Show Business is the other film in this collection I hadn’t previously seen in its entirety (I had caught it in parts on AMC over the years). Unfortunately, it is not a brand of musical I’m particularly fond of, and quite easily the least interesting film in the set. Like most Irving Berlin musicals it features gorgeous production values and a handful of catchy numbers, but its comedic aspirations usually fall flat, and its epic scope is largely wasted on a weak, threadbare storyline and uninteresting characters (I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that films based on Berlin’s music are roughly the same movie). There’s also a strong sense of ‘too much of a good thing’ going on here, as disparate musical number after disparate musical number tick by at a simply exhausting pace. By the time the story starts to kick back in I was ready for a nap. Which was actually all right, since I’d have to struggle to care less about the Donahue family’s plight. In regards to Monroe’s filmography, There’s No Business Like Show Business[I] is also the least necessary film here. Her performance is a highlight among a dull ensemble, but she doesn’t even show up until 30 minutes into the film, where she largely gets by on her natural charisma. Still, considering she didn’t even want the part in the first place (she was promised [I]The Seven Year Itch in return for appearing), her performance doesn’t even approach bad, and she rules over the film’s two best numbers, ‘After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)’ and ‘Heat Wave’. Director Walter Lang (who followed up There’s No Business Like Show Business with his best film, The King and I) makes no major errors in terms of capturing the vast scale of the colourful song and dance numbers, but always feels like he’s simply marking time between musical bits.

The final product doesn’t really garner much respect, but There’s No Business Like Show Business is among the most visually spectacular of the films in the set and makes the best use of the 2.55:1 framing. There’s just so very much going on in any given shot that I can’t imagine a DVD doing it justice without a parade of blocking effects and edge haloes. The DeLuxe brand colours are dynamic and meticulously cut with only minor bleeding effects throughout. Blacks and whites are plenty pure as well, with only minor blue and yellow interactions. Grain levels are a bit thicker than the other CinemaScope films in the set, but they’re never distressing, and appear structurally natural. There’s just one possible reason I can see to complain here. Having not ever seen the entire film in one sitting, nor any of the film in widescreen, I’m no expert, but I do notice that some of the compositions appear to skew a bit to the left. The Can-Can and ‘Heat Wave’ sequences in particular appear off-center. The original stereoscopic four-track sound is well represented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but also has the largest share of awkward stereo and surround spread moments in the collection. Irving Berlin’s songs likely haven’t sounded better in decades, but there are definitely moments where vocal performances and crowd noise is slightly off in terms of spatial representations and slightly tinny qualities. There are also a handful of instances of distortion on the highest vocal volume levels. Otherwise, this track is just as wonderful as the others in the set, and even gives the 5.1 format the most to do thanks to the sheer quantity of rich, loud music. Extras include trailers.

Forever Marilyn

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Seven Year Itch features Monroe’s most iconic role, or at least her most iconic image (standing over a subway grate), but more importantly it marks her first pairing with Billy Wilder. The Seven Year Itch isn’t as utterly perfect as their second collaboration, Some Like it Hot (see below), but comparing great to greater is a bit of a fool’s game. Monroe is once again treated as a secondary character, but thanks to the film’s use of fantasy sequences she’s given a chance to play both the loveable ditz and an over-the-top minx. Her fantasy persona during the piano dream may be my favourite character in her not entirely vast repertoire. The comedy dates itself a bit more than the other straight comedies in this collection, made almost immediately apparent through tongue-in-cheek narration and Tom Ewell’s constant self-talk (this style of comedy always reminds me of Disney’s Goofy-starring ‘How To’ cartoon shorts), but the absurdist approach to dialogue and not-so-thinly-veiled sexual innuendos still elicit a series of solid belly laughs. More importantly, the basic themes of George Axelrod’s original play are timeless, and fit nicely in Wilder’s pantheon of films that deal with the malaise and angst of the middle aged American male. The Seven Year Itch is also a somewhat ahead of its time in terms of self-awareness. Wilder never fully breaks the fourth wall Marx Brothers style, but the characters make references to other films, the CinemaScope and stereophonic formats, and Marilyn Monroe as a celebrity persona.

The Seven Year Itch was also shot in CinemaScope, with stereophonic sound, and this Blu-ray features the full 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Yet again, this 1080p transfer is absolutely gorgeous. Viewers may notice some blurry edges which are not the result of a faulty transfer, but Wilder and cinematographer Milton R. Krasner’s choice in anamorphic lenses (there’s often a bit of a fisheye effect as well). Detail levels are quite sharp overall, and the CinemaScope image leads to very little detail loss between the foreground and background elements. Grain levels are natural and only slightly smudge some of the finer textures. These increase rather obviously when Wilder implements special effects and dissolves. There’s also very little in the way of obvious DNR enhancement, CRT or other digital noise artefacts. The DeLuxe color is a touch less vibrant than the Technicolor releases, but it features more natural overall hues and more solid, deep blacks. The original four-track audio has been gracefully remixed into 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and once again, Alfred Newman’s vivacious music is given the full run of the channels. Outside the music, which throbs out of the mix with relative regularity, everything else remains perfectly clear. Sound effects remain minimal and largely centered, and volume levels are consistent. Some of the lip-sync, especially Marilyn’s, seems a bit off, but this might just be a case of imperfect ADR (Monroe was in a bad place and notoriously had problems remembering her lines) or the actress’ trademark breathy voice getting the best of her. The extras include a commentary with Wilder biographer Kevin Lally, an isolated score, a Hays Code PiP ‘sexual innuendo meter,’ Marilyn Monroe Interactive Timeline, Monroe and Wilder: An Intersection of Genius (25:30, HD), Fox Movie Channel Presents: Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman (17:20, SD), two deleted scenes (3:30, SD), Hollywood Backstories: The Seven Year Itch (24:20, SD), Fox Movietone News preview, two trailers, and two image galleries.

Forever Marilyn

Some Like It Hot (1959)

And so we come to Monroe’s second collaboration with Billy Wilder, and arguably the single best movie she was ever a part of, which is quite an achievement considering the overall quality of her filmography. Voted by the AFI as the single ‘Greatest American Comedy of All Time’ (a spot I’d reserve for Dr. Strangelove myself), Some Like It Hot is a truly special case – a movie that gets funnier with each subsequent viewing. I’m guessing that most uninitiated viewers (likely Millennials that I hear don’t like old movies) take one look at the poster/DVD/Blu-ray artwork and say something snide about ‘Marilyn Monroe, some dudes in drag, and outdated cross-dressing jokes.’ Well, there are some outdated cross-dressing jokes, yes, but besides the fact that the vast majority of the humour has aged incredibly well (save some of Joe E. Brown’s shtick), Some Like It Hot is actually one of the better gangster movies of its era. There’s a really rough edge to the violence that never ceases to surprise given the year it was released and its screwball/romantic comedy-based intentions. Okay, it is mostly cross-dressing jokes, but this is ground zero for most of the tropes, and still features plenty of healthy belly laughs. Wilder is often credited for his sharp wit and remembered for his intimate portrayals of lovable losers, but the gangland side of Some Like it Hot helps to remind us that he’s also the man that directed Double Indemnity and Stalag 17. Wilder is comparable to Howard Hawks, John Ford and even Alfred Hitchcock in his innate ability to point his audience’s attention in very specific places without being too obvious about it, and this film is a fine example of a falsely modest technical achievement (the opening car chase is near auteur-level action filmmaking). Both Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have been better (just barely), but this is another of Monroe’s better performances and another perfect arena for her specific talents.

Overall this 1.66:1, 1080p transfer is solid, but being a black and white feature, it lacks the ‘wow’ factor of the Technicolor and DeLuxe color images. Details are hit and miss, and grain and digital artefact thickness comes and goes (occasionally shuttering to genuinely upsetting levels during outdoor shots), but there are only a few minor hunks of print damage, and a hint of edge enhancement. Everything is a bit darker than I’d prefer, but not so much that it becomes a real issue. Funnily enough the sharp details give away all the super soft focus shots of Monroe, which, in my opinion, only adds to the charm. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound is more impressive than expected, especially considering the source material’s modest roots. Music is, yet again, an important element, and gets the most attention in the surround remix, while the rest of the soundtrack remains pretty much centered. The only substantial error is a brief digital sound ‘flip out’ around the 66:00 mark. Extras include a commentary track made up of cast and crew interviews, The Making of Some Like It Hot (25:00, SD), a solid little behind-the-scenes featurette, The Legacy of Some Like It Hot (20:20, SD), a more retrospective continuation of the first featurette, Nostalgic Look Back (31:10, SD), featuring Leonard Maltin and Tony Curtis, Memories from the Sweet Sues (12:00, SD), interviews with the women that filled out the backing band in the film, a virtual hall of memories, and the original theatrical trailer.

Forever Marilyn

The Misfits

The Misfits – John Huston and Arthur Miller’s ultra-melodramatic tale of a disillusioned divorcee (Marilyn Monroe) and her adventures in the company of an aging horse wrangler (Clark Gable), a slightly dimwitted rodeo rider (Montgomery Cliff), and a lovesick, widowed mechanic (Eli Wallach) – is a difficult movie to recommend. The entire film is manhandled with heavy hands, highlights aggressive and outdated social metaphors, and often devolves into droning emotional repetition, but it’s somehow still an entertaining, even occasionally moving experience. Overall, this exploration of midlife crises and overstated subtext is a beautiful mess that shines all the brighter in the context of its painful birth. There’s no single famously tortured film production that can be directly compared to The Misfits – it’s more of a mishmash of failure, accidents, bad choices, and all other manner of tribulation. Most notable was a bit of life imitating art that culminated in the dissolving of Marilyn Monroe and screenwriter Arthur Miller’s marriage, which itself was another symptom of Monroe’s spiraling depression and drug abuse. Clark Gable, who would die of a heart attack 10 days after filming completed, was consistently uncomfortable around the rest of the cast, and insisted on doing his own stunts out of boredom. The film went way over budget (it’s usually considered the most expensive black and white film of all time), and was released to disappointing box office receipts (though it did garner enough of a cult following over the years, and was immortalized when the name became the inspiration for an awesome ‘80s punk band). The real tragedy of the entire piece is Eli Wallach’s overlooked performance. Wallach isn’t even featured on much of the film’s production artwork, including this Blu-ray’s cover. Rumors state that Monroe herself noticed how incredibly good Wallach was and conspired to have some of his scenes cut for fear of being upstaged.

I happened to have caught an MGMHD channel showing of The Misfits a few days before this Blu-ray arrived, and once I got past the rather dull opening titles was generally impressed with the detail and contrast levels. This 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer follows suit, but doesn’t feature the same digital compression problems the TV airing did. This transfer is slightly more impressive than Some Like it Hot, featuring a cleaner and more consistent image from scene to scene, and purer black and white levels. There’s plenty of grain and a few minor artefacts (most of the dirt and print damage is delegated to wide exteriors), but the majority of the shortcomings are inherit in the film, like rough exterior lighting (Huston goes for a very natural look, and without colour the desert just kind of looks grey and flat), and the awkward soft focus used for most of Monroe’s shots (she had just been released from the hospital for drug issues). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is just fine considering the film’s flat aural landscape. The majority of the sound is based around dialogue and minor set recorded audio, with a few bits of Alex North’s score slipped in for good measure. My only problem has to do with the compression, which leads to a generally quiet experience. The disc is free of extras save a trailer. I’m disappointed, considering the rich behind the scenes tapestry, but there is a PBS documentary called Making the Misfits that can be found free on the internet, so it’s not the end of the world.