Monday, February 13, 2017

SS United States Silver Screen Review: Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955)

Let me let you in on a little secret: Gentlemen Marry Brunettes was a pain to find. There is an online video available, but the sound starts speeding up and goes out of sync with the visuals. You can't watch a movie like that. It's available on DVD... internationally. And international DVD's are not compatible with United States' DVD Players. I asked my local library to find one in their InterLibrary Loan system. They replied they exhausted all options and couldn't find it. I did a "Request A Movie" to Turner Classic Movies to play it on their channel (still waiting to hear back on that. Judging by the website's reviews, it was last played in 2010 in a Jane Russell marathon; it's clearly a movie in high demand). I was desperate. Then, out of the blue, another video appeared online, with audio and visuals in sync. It was a miracle. Thank you to the kind soul on the interwebs. Who knew the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be so unknown and obscure!

Is it actually a sequel? Only in name. It is an entirely new story and set of characters. The only ties between Blondes and Brunettes are the movies' titles and star Jane Russell.

This story - Two brunette sisters, trying to make it big in New York, aren't. They get a letter for an offer to try to make it big in Paris. Musical numbers ensue.

First things first -- there's no way to not compare Brunettes to its superstar predecessor. And it really can't hold a candle to it. This movie gives all it can, but it really doesn't go anywhere.

The characters feel lackluster. They don't have any big personalities. The sisters' agent in Paris is first characterized as a freeloader and thief of sorts, but then these traits don't even amount to anything. He falls in love and does his best to audition the girls around town, like any other agent. Jane Russell's character is supposed to be this dumb showgirl (the picture's answer to not having Marilyn Monroe here), but she only shows that when she can't say no to men proposing to her. Otherwise, she acts fairly normal. It would have been a stronger choice to say she was in love with love, rather than dumb.

Let's talk about a little more about love. The main characters are all thrown together in Paris. After briefly meeting for the first time, everyone is singing love ballads to each other the next time they meet. There isn't any build-up. If there's an instant love connection, the audience needs to see that. The audience saw that moment every time Marilyn heard a man had money in Blondes. If there's a slow build, the characters need to have the beats and moments to show that growth. The audience wants to see those magic moments. That's what they're here for, give them what they want!!

What it boils down to is I don't care about any of these characters. Blonde's characters were big enough and had obvious foils. I felt bad for Marilyn when she got herself stuck in a porthole. I felt bad for Jane when she found out the Olympic Team she had been eyeing had to be in bed by 9pm. Brunette's characters were too vague that they didn't make me care for their struggles.

Who I do feel bad for is Jane Russell. In Blondes, she got to showcase her comedy and talent better. She had a twinkle in her eye and a smirk on her lips. She was more in her element. Brunettes felt more like she was going through the motions.

Not helping any of the characters is the plot. There's not enough drama, and what little there is doesn't have enough gas to go on for long periods of time. These characters aren't put in any truly trying situations. It just feels like a lot of annoying buzz. Why are they going to Monte Carlo? I couldn't be bothered. Who is giving them all these expensive presents? I'm sure it will all be revealed at the end, so can we get there now? Towards the end of the movie, the little bit of conflict created is mostly caused by a diabolus ex machina character entrance. This plot is downright lazy. Most of the drama is in quick shock-value moments and gimmicks. The club owner wants them to be topless/wear almost nothing? Nightmare dream sequences based on ethnic stereotypes? A musical number with actors in blackface portraying an African tribe, and the main singing star is wearing a gorilla costume? (To say the least, this movie didn't age well)

Both me and the person I was watching this with turned to each other halfway through and said we didn't care for this. We both love musicals and we're both brunettes, but we weren't fans.

This movie felt like a quick cash grab. Because it is a watered-down version of the first movie, it was never going to be as huge a success.

Okay, let's flip this discussion. Does Brunettes do anything better than Blondes? Well, they had a bigger budget. Blondes went to "Paris," but their Paris was limited to interior locations that were on sound stages. Brunettes made sure you knew they were shooting outside, inside, on location in France. They shoot at a museum, they shoot by the Seine, they even have a scene on the Eiffel Tower!

Another thing Brunettes did better than Blondes? They used an actual ocean liner for their shots... the SS United States!

This is the second film the SS United States ever appeared in, but the first one on the list in color! GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR AND CINEMASCOPE!!

The ship is mentioned early-on in the movie as the liner the sisters take from New York to France. At the end of the film, the girls are sailing back on, what else? The SS United States. Their lovers run aboard before it leaves port to proclaim their love to the sisters, or something.

The path the gentlemen take to find the ladies doesn't make sense ship-wise. They get on the ship midway down the port side. They then come out on the starboard aft side of the Sun Deck and head forward.

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955).
A silver stern cargo davit can be seen on the far left.
Pretty cloudy day.

In their next shot, they are mid-ship on the starboard side coming downstairs to the Sun Deck again and find the girls.

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955).
Going down to the Sun Deck... again? Aft funnel cameo.

Then, there's the case of the mystery stairs. The men come down the stairs after the sisters. They pass a smaller staircase, which is facing the longer stairs they just came down from.

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955).
Oh look, the sun came out!

To the right of these two stairs is a vent, where the main confrontation takes place:

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955)

So far, everything is fine and dandy. Mimi, their sisters' mother, is also there. She has a separate shot from her daughters:

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955)
Awkward shot to try to get most of the architectural details.

Mimi is situated between two staircases; one long, one short, both going down the same direction. These staircases are not near the sisters' shot. I have been looking at aerial/drone videos of the ship, and I cannot find where these stairs could be. It is possible one of these stairs were removed at some point. I have ruled out the shot was flipped to reuse the gentlemen's previously-passed stairs; the shorter staircase is facing the other way.

Finally, the movie ends with a beautiful shot that pans up from the water to the stern sailing away. I wish this movie was more accessible just for this shot to be seen by more people.

SS United States' stern in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955)
And it's completely cloudy again. Weird weather we're having.

So let's tally it up. We have establishing shots of the ship at the pier, shots of actors running towards her at the pier, a shot of her leaving said pier, shots of actors running around the Sun Deck, and a beautiful panning shot of the stern sailing away. There was a lot of filming going on!


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes mostly takes place on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. In the 1920's book which the movie is based off of, their ship is the RMS Majestic. By the 1950's, the Majestic was long gone. Although all the scenes were filmed on sound stages, a ship still had to be cast as the 'only way to cross.' Which one would they choose? Depends where you stop the movie.

The first ship you see is a model of the RMS Queen Mary, but look closely:

Model of the RMS Queen Mary in Gentlemen
Prefer Blondes

The ship is outfitted with the Mary's name, stacks, vents, and other details. But her body is unmistakably the RMS Titanic. It's a nice money-saving idea to reuse a model, and creates a very... interesting ship.

When they dock in France, the following shot is briefly shown:

SS Conte Di Savoia in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The SS Conte di Savoia, back from the grave?! This ocean liner was bombed in 1943 and sank in shallow waters. In 1945, her burned hull was raised in the hopes of restoring her to some sailing use. When repairs were deemed too costly, she was scrapped in 1950 (source). How is she here then? Probably some stock footage from the late 30's/early 40's was used. Still, weird.

In the next shot, the movie fades to a black-topped smokestack whistling its steam horns. Didn't we just see the funnels were red on top?? Later, when the the ladies sail back to the States, a shot of the RMS Titan Mary appears again. These shots are shown very briefly and [mostly] spaced far apart from each other, which helps to overlook their inconsistencies while watching the movie.


The Movie: I still prefer blondes. 1.5/4
SS United States: Great technicolor shots and a climactic scene on the Sun Deck. 3/4

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