Dare I say I’ve found a Marilyn Monroe movie from the early 1950s I actually enjoyed? Yes, I can say it with all confidence because Let’s Make It Legal is a fun film with some great actors in spite of the fact that Marilyn, again, isn’t in the film for long. In comparison to something like Home Town Story or Love Nest, the contrived plot of Let’s Make It Legal was filled with heart, charm, and subject matter I was shocked to see discussed in a film like this (divorce).
The film follows the Halsworth, Miriam (Claudette Colbert) and Hugh (Macdonald Carey) whose divorce is set to be final at midnight. Hugh doesn’t want to give up his beloved rose garden but has an issue with gambling. Miriam is stuck living with her daughter Barbara (Barbara Bates) and Barbara’s husband Jerry (Robert Wagner). When Miriam’s high school sweetheart Victor (Zachary Scott) comes into town, he sets his sights on getting Miriam back once and for all.
I’ve only see Colbert in It Happened One Night but she still has the cherubic, innocent face from that 1930s film, remarkable considering she was pushing 50 by the time this film came out. She’s not a typical 1950s woman in this film, she proclaims she’s happy without a husband and doesn’t seek to get a new one. Sure Victor comes in with his charm and attempts to woo her, but she’s rational and tells him they shouldn’t get married because she doesn’t want to. Sure the ending becomes cliché and silly but it works because throughout it all Miriam holds her ground. Her sparring with soon-to-be ex-husband Hugh are realistic and I would say shocking for the time. I don’t know much about how early divorce was portrayed in films post-WWII but here you understand fully why they aren’t going to stay married. As a child of divorce I have heard many an argument like theirs, albeit this is a tad cleaner and less tawdry.
The film also doesn’t seek to make a villain out of Hugh, the way I expected. Most films try hard to make the ex-husband an ass but here he’s just a man with a weakness for playing the ponies. In any other film he’d probably become bankrupt and selling himself behind an alley, but no he’s just a guy trying to figure out a way to not waste his small allowance on horses.
Let’s get to Marilyn before I give my one rant on the most annoying character I had to suffer through during this film. Marilyn plays “model” Joyce Mannering and she’s only in about 3-4 scenes but boy does she make you blush. The script, again by Love Nest scribe, I.A.L. Diamond, gives some racy lines to Ms. Monroe. She enters her first scene in a bathing suit, calling Hugh “Hughie” and pretty much blowing his daughter Barbara off (although I would too considering). Then she says that Hugh’s so nice to her she wants to “start calling him Daddy.” Wow….wow that’s a line from the 50’s? She does get some cheesier lines, mostly involving metaphors comparing arousal to a car engine, but she’s sweet and her character is one that knows she’s gorgeous (they mention she’s a beauty queen) and is using it to get ahead. This is a more self-aware role for Marilyn in my opinion, and far more diverse than playing another secretary role. I was also surprised that they didn’t make her a more pronounced love interest/foil for Hugh, but again this film doesn’t go the easy way for the most part.
Now on to Barbara aka that bitch I wanted to slap throughout the film. Now Barbara is the Halsworth’s daughter whose about 21, married to an extremely young Robert Wagner as Jerry (every time he opened his mouth it reminded me of his role as #2 in Austin Powers…he really needed an eye patch) and raising an infant. The film opens with Barbara lying in bed saying her mother is going to do everything. Her mother raises the baby, her mother makes her breakfast, her mother wipes her…well you know what I mean, poor Miriam is stuck doing everything that she should have just married Jerry! It does make you chuckle when Jerry constantly refers to Barbara as an idiot or something similar, but then you wonder why he married her? I’m assuming he knocked her up and was forced into it! Anyway, I know it’s understandable for a child to not want their parents to split, but Barbara is an adult and is CONSTANTLY whining about how Miriam isn’t being fair to her father! She complains that Miriam shouldn’t date and even goes so far as to let Hugh keep his clothes and stuff in Miriam’s house because she thought no one would mind?! First of all, where does she get the authority and second of all, way to piss on your mom. Not only is her house apparently not her own, her own kid is mooching off her like a sponge. There’s a hilarious line where Barbara says “If he’s good enough to be my father, he’s good enough to be her husband!” Um sweetie, you don’t care about your mother’s happiness?! Anyone can be a father in about 2 minutes, doesn’t mean they’re worth marrying you STUPID IDIOT! Sorry, bit of a rage attack there. By the end I just wanted Jerry to take the kid and leave, I’m sure he’d have legal advantage I mean as soon as the judge had her open her mouth she’d be stripped of custody.
The rest of the plot moves quickly and becomes a bit silly with Victor and Miriam deciding on marriage and Victor’s career getting in the way. Even then the movie didn’t bother me because of the sweetness of Colbert and the witty banter between her and Carey. This is one of the highlights of the Marilyn collection I’ve seen so far! Although is it just the studio or were there only like 2 ways to present opening credits? These opening credits looked like the exact same ones from Love Nest. Also for classic film buffs the theme of this song is the instrumental for “You Were Meant for Me” from Broadway Melody of 1929 and Singin’ in the Rain. Took me about 30 minutes of humming before I realized it was the song Gene Kelly sang to Debbie Reynolds.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.