It’s difficult to imagine a time when Marilyn Monroe’s image wasn’t a mythicised popular culture reference. More than 50 years after her death her image is still reproduced on novelty items across the world, used to flog everything from Chanel perfume to Sexy Hair products. Monroe represents an image of ‘Americanness’ that is universally understood, her image promises glamour and gratification, an allure that’s surprising considering – but is no doubt prompted by – her early death and the circumstances that surrounded it. Like Elvis and James Dean, Monroe never had time to age, she’s frozen in memory as a platinum-blonde bombshell with a breathy voice and a seductive demeanour.
But before there was ‘Marilyn’, the reappropriated cultural icon, there was Norma Jean, who played the part of Marilyn to ascend the fame ladder. Jean’s Marilyn was such a successful creation that, in some ways, she came to overshadow the roles she played. It’s not Angela Phinlay (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950), Miss Casswell (All About Eve, 1950) or Harriet (As Young As You Feel, 1951) we remember, but Marilyn; perhaps it’s nostalgia for her vitality and realness, but critics and audiences at the time seemed dazzled by her star rather than her talent. Admittedly these were small and one-dimensional roles, but they pegged Monroe as sweeter-than-sugar eye candy: associations the actress would battle against her entire life.
In the lightweight but charming comedy As Young As You Feel (directed by Harmon Jones), Monroe starred alongside Thelma Ritter, Monty Woolley and David Wayne. In the film, Monroe plays Harriet, a secretary at Acme Printing, a corporation that forces John R. Hodges (Woolley) to retire at age 65 because of ‘company policy’. In a humorous take of mistaken identity, Hodges impersonates the corporation’s president and arrives at his former workplace for an inspection. Chaos and complications ensue as the ‘real’ president learns of his imposter and the company is forced to address their retirement policies.
Monroe’s part is small but impactful: in one great scene she becomes so frustrated at her boss she sticks her tongue out. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about her performance is her voice: it lacks the breathy whispery tones for which she would become synonymous, instead it’s warm (almost husky) with a matter-of-fact edge. Although she might be a ditzy secretary, Monroe is actually a lot less ditzy that in some of her other roles, but the studio were keen to play up her bombshell role. According to promotional flyers, Monroe was ‘the azure-eyed, honey-tressed actress with the most provocative chassis to reach the screen since Jean Harlow has five wardrobe changes…described by the costuming department as: 1. Loose fitting. 2. Draping. 3. Clinging. 4. Tight, 5. Gee whizz!!!’
There’s a lot of characters and sub-plots in As Young As You Feel, but Marilyn’s wardrobe ensured that she stood out from the noise. Marilyn might have been ‘window dressing’ but Renié, the film’s costume designer, made sure she looked the part. Harriet’s wardrobe doesn’t exactly match her lowly secretary status (and, as the flyer suggests, wasn’t meant too), especially the white wool dress that had a deep neckline and appeared to be held together at the shoulders by two rhinestones pins – giving the provocative illusion that the dress really could fall down at any minute. In another scene, Harriet’s white eyelet lace dress is much more prim and pretty, but there’s no disguising Marilyn herself was a movie star in the making – it’s finished with rhinestone pins, stacked bangles and showy earrings.
Her final ‘gee whizz!’ costume – clearly a favourite as she donned it to attend several off-set parties and events – was undoubtedly the most glamorous. Intentionally or not, the dress ensured that – whilst they might not know her name – movie-goers wouldn’t forget Monroe’s face. The flattering, black satin cocktail dress was designed to impress, with a shaped bandeau neckline, a chiffon insert and a jewelled collar. A lace-up detail on the bodice and a fitted waist enhanced the actresses’ assets, whilst a sequin-encrusted chiffon wrap, bangle and short white gloves upped the glam factor. The dress is only seen a couple of times, including during a brief dinner scene, but it was all part of the cultivated image.
As Young As You Feel was an important role for Monroe, although to say that it was the role that ‘made’ her is stretching the truth. Her ascendency was the product of several similar roles and the tenacious willingness to court the press and generate her own publicity. Her close ‘friendships’ with major Hollywood players were certainly not coincidental. By all accounts, Monroe struggled through the filming of As Young As You Feel. Her trusted agent Johnny Hyde (who had secured those roles in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve) had died just a few months before filming began, and Monroe, to Jones’ frustration, kept disappearing from set and returning with swollen eyes.
But as is so often the case, fate played a hand. Producer Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller were staying in Beverly Hills, officially to work on The Hook, a film the duo were working on together. Kazan, unhappy with initial script drafts, had bought Miller to LA, hoping to distract him from the pressures of New York; surely a visit to the Fox lot was just the thing to pull the screenwriter out of his creative stupor. This was the first time Miller met Monroe. She came to greet Kazan, who she had once before through Johnny Hyde and the moment had a lasting impression on Miller.
“From where I stood, yards away,” he recounted in his autobiography Timebends, “I saw her in profile against a white light, with her hair coiled atop her head; she was weeping under a veil of black lace that she lifted now and then to dab her eyes. When we shook hands, the shock of her body’s motion sped through me.”
Monroe and Miller didn’t really get acquainted until a few days later, when he escorted her to a party thrown in his honour. The pair talked for hours, and Monroe was thrilled that he didn’t try to sleep with her and took her acting ambitions seriously, going as far to suggest theatre and actor training. Such an impact had Miller on Monroe that she convinced herself she was in love with him. Although he returned to New York, and she later recalled the impact he had on her: “I didn’t see him for about four years. I used to think he might see me in a movie and I wanted to do my best because he said I ought to act on the stage.”
A touching anecdote, albeit one given by an actress who knew how to play a story to her advantage. True or not, As Young As You Feel set certain events in motion that were to shape both Monroe and Miller’s lives and careers, proving that in Hollywood, you could never overlook serendipity.