Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes. Left and right: Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell).

With her glamorous brunette co-star Jane Russell, there was the Blond Actress blowing kisses and waving into spotlights, her eyes animated now and her rouged cheeks glowing. [. . .] As the two lavishly dressed glamour girls stood on the platform beaming and waving at the crowd, both stitched into straitjacket low-cut gowns, both breathing in small measured gasps, the Blond Actress said out of the corner of her lipstick mouth, “Jane! Us two could cause a riot, guess how?” Jane giggled. “Strip?” The Blond Actress gave her a sidelong flirty look and jagged her, lightly, just below her enormous jutting breast. “No, baby. Kiss.” —Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde

“IT DIDN’T HAVE NORMAL SEX,” Howard Hawks once said of his great 1953 musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the only film that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell made together—and one of the few Hollywood musicals that feature women as the two leads. Molly Haskell, continuing the emphasis on aberrant behavior, praised the director for “creating a whole world which revolves on a principle of unnatural sexuality.”

Not normal, unnatural: code for lesbian? Whatever Hawks and Haskell meant, their cryptic, open-ended terms resonate profoundly for certain fans of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which will screen at Film Forum in New York in a new 35-mm restoration August 6 through 12. Perhaps unwittingly, their adjectives underscore the movie’s intense sapphic appeal, leading some same-sexing viewers, while watching Monroe and Russell, to drift off into erotic reveries like those found in Oates’s novel. Though the musical has long been considered the cultural bailiwick of gay men, daughters of darkness can claim GPB as one of cinema’s greatest celebrations of a brunette butch–blonde femme coupling.

GPB chronicles the adventures of two voluptuous showgirls, best friends Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell), first aboard an ocean liner en route to France and then in Paris. On the surface, GPB concerns itself with hetero pursuits. But in Hawks’s film—based on the 1949 Broadway musical co-written by Anita Loos, adapting her own 1925 novel—the men, frequently enfeebled, insignificant characters, are all but superfluous. Lorelei’s boyfriend, Gus (Tommy Noonan), is a nebbishy, bespectacled millionaire unable to stand up to his own father. Dorothy’s hot for Malone, a private detective partial to pipes and sweater-vests, and played by null presence Elliott Reid. (“If we could have got a great big strong hunk of manhood, we probably would have used him, but we couldn’t get one and we had to make the movie,” Hawks said of Reid’s casting.) A jowly, elderly diamond magnate, Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), who goes by “Piggy,” flirts with Lorelei until his domineering missus shows up. In Russell’s solo number, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?,” meant to show off Dorothy’s lust for the entire US Olympic team, she sings to a highly indifferent group of muscle queens more interested in wrestling each other than in doing anything with her. Perhaps the most libidinal male aboard the SS ╬le de France is seven-year-old Henry Spofford III (George Winslow), who responds to Lorelei’s “animal magnetism.”

The real couple of GPB is Dorothy and Lorelei, the only characters who sing, dance, and harmonize together. During the film’s opening number, “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” the duo are inextricably linked through sartorial excess (feathered hats, flaming orange-red sequined dresses), curves, wiggles, and shakes. During this song, Dorothy frequently touches Lorelei, who coyly gazes into her partner’s eyes and coos suggestively, “I learned an awful lot in Little Rock.” Surely Lorelei’s sentimental education in Arkansas included a tutorial in the love that dared not speak its name.

Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. “Two Little Girls From Little Rock,” Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell).

Every frame of Hawks’s musical focuses on the “creamy overflow” (to borrow a phrase from a celebrity columnist writing at the time of the film’s release) of Monroe’s and Russell’s bodies; in his 1973 biography Marilyn, Norman Mailer notes that his subject will never “appear so fucky again” as she does in GPB. The physiques of Jane/Dorothy and Marilyn/Lorelei are defined by ripened mouths, breasts, hips—ample pulchritude that sometimes exceeds the spectacle of the musical numbers they perform together. Uncontainable and unclassifiable, the sexual energy they exude dominates every scene the two women share—a fucky force constantly reciprocated between them. As Lorelei shimmies during the “When Love Goes Wrong” number in the film’s final third, Dorothy, her eyes transfixed on her friend, shouts, “Do it, honey, do it!” before letting out a mellifluous, orgasmic howl. Later, to protect her, Dorothy will stand trial in Paris night court as Lorelei, a highly charged episode of infatuation in which identities dissolve. Even in the final scene, during what is supposed to be a double wedding between Gus/Lorelei and Malone/Dorothy, the grooms are extraneous; the film ends on a two-shot of the women essentially marrying each other.

If the onscreen rapport between the two actresses invites blue fantasies by lavender ladies, what was it like when the cameras stopped rolling? “We were both Geminis and really complimented [sic] each other,” Russell remembers in her autobiography, Jane Russell: My Path & My Detours (1985). Monroe, not yet a major star, received second billing to Russell, and $500 a week to her colleague’s $200,000 total. And without Russell, Monroe might never have been able to complete the film that changed her career forever; wracked with insecurities on set, Monroe was finally assuaged by Russell’s tough love: “I’d stand in her doorway and say, ‘Come on, Blondl, let’s go . . .’ ” Russell recalls the rehearsals for the dance numbers as “hard, sweaty work.” Or, if you prefer, fucky.

Melissa Anderson

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes runs at Film Forum in New York August 6–12. For more details, click here.