Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean… the woman, the myth, the legend. The iconic actress is celebrating a birthday this June… June 1st to be exact… so it seemed like a perfect time to turn our attention to look at her entirely too short career.
Marilyn Monroe is one of those old Hollywood figures who reached an otherworldly state of stardom for entirely the wrong reason. While she glitters on-screen and is the very personification of a movie star at her most glamorous; Monroe is at the same time so fragile, relatable and entirely human. In fact, a deep dive into her career shows just how talented and versatile Marilyn Monroe was, but even 59 years since her passing, she’s often still pigeonholed as simply a sex symbol.
So with that, let’s dive into my top five favorite Marilyn Monroe movies.
5.) Monkey Business (1952)
This is one of those movies I’m always surprised isn’t spoken about more while I traipse through old-movie-dom. Monkey Business stars the immortal Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. You don’t get much better than that cast.
The movie follows Grant as a research scientist trying to find the fountain of youth. Things get a trifle… Zany… when he ends up accidentally sampling some of his work. The film takes Grant back to his Bringing Up Baby roots and is madcap fun. it should come as no surprise that Monkey Business is also directed by the legendary Howard Hawks.
The movie is a relatively early entry from Monroe who appears in a a bit of a “straight” role as secretary Lois Laurel. The young actress achieves some fun chemistry opposite Ginger Rogers while at the same time showing the comedic flair she mastered just a few years later in movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Monkey Business is available to buy, here!
4.) The Misfits (1961)
This is the newest watch for me in Monroe’s filmography. The Misfits is commonly recognized as not only the final, completed film for Monroe, but also for Clark Gable. The movie very much symbolizes the end of a cinematic era.
The Misfits follows Monroe as a recent divorcee who runs away from everything she knows in the company of an aging cowboy and an struggling rodeo rider (Montgomery Clift).
Marilyn Monroe’s comedic and musical skills are of course, well known. However, discussions of her acting ability don’t pop up quite as much. However, as I came out of The Misfits, I found myself wondering why recognition of Monroe’s acting ability has been so painfully rare. We should be talking about her flair for drama as well!
As Roslyn, Monroe puts forward a complex, deeply sensitive and arguably self-reflexive take on the character. In fact, I would personally argue that her work in this film is Oscar worthy. It’s such a tragedy that Monroe would pass away so shortly after that we never were able to see her growth continue.
The Misfits is available, here!
3.) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Of all the works on this list, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is undoubtedly the most inconic “Monroe” film on this list. Moments from the Howard Hawks directed musical comedy have transcended the decades and have been preserved as classic examples of the Hollywood musical.
Monroe co-stars with Jane Russell in the candy-colored, luminous musical about two showgirls questing for men, love and financial security… Not always in that order.
Monroe is in top form in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I mean, the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking hardly gets more iconic than “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. Her comedic sensibilities are spot on and along with Russell, they both positively shine in this essential for fans of the Hollywood musical.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is available here!
2.) There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)
There’s No Business Like Show Business was… If my memory holds out… My introduction to Marilyn Monroe’s work. The musical stars: Ethel Merman, Mitzi Gaynor, Donald O’Connor, Dan Dailey and Johnny Ray. The movie follows the decade spanning story of the Donahue family as the performers struggle through the waning days of Vaudeville.
Monroe plays Vicky Parker a feisty showgirl and performer who becomes involved with Tim Donahue (O’Connor). While Vicky is most certainly a supporting role, Monroe gives another of her most iconic musical performances in the film.
While Monroe doesn’t have much to do in There’s No Business Like Show Business, she manages to successfully walk a tricky line in her performance. In fact, Vicky is the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, a largely uncommon role in the scope of Monroe’s career. While her character could easily be unlikable… Ladies, don’t mess with Donald O’Connor… Monroe injects a sense of this woman’s story into the part. Suddenly, she’s a bit more than the stereotypical, “mean-girl”, showgirl. She’s a woman with drive and ambition who has goals of her own– and nothing will get in the way of that.
There’s No Business Like Show Business is available here!
1.) Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
In the top spot we have a movie for which (in my humble opinion) there is really no question as to its status. Don’t Bother to Knock is a bit of a deep cut and it holds the distinction of being probably the most “un Monroe” of the movies on this list. It’s yet another early work in the actress’ filmography; however, Monroe brings a tour-de-force performance. I’ve said it before in this article, but Don’t Bother to Knock is another work in which Monroe doesn’t get nearly the credit she deserves.
Don’t Bother to Knock features Monroe opposite Richard Widmark who plays a bit of a n’er-do-well who becomes involved with an intriguing young babysitter he meets while she’s working at the hotel in which he’s staying. However, as the film develops, it turns out she has… baggage.
The part of Nell in Don’t Bother to Knock is one of those which wouldn’t be the same in the hands of another actress. While this role could easily be perceived as evil and unlikable, Monroe once again finds a sense of sympathy in this woman’s troubles. It is a dark film and is most certainly a work of noir, but it is a must see for Monroe’s fans as it gives a new insight to her tremendous talent as a performer.
Don’t Bother to Knock is available, here!
2021 would have marked Marilyn Monroe’s 95th birthday. While her career was cut tragically short, her little more than a decade in the spotlight left us with some truly memorable roles. This is why her memory is still as strong today as it was during her short life.
What are your favorite Marilyn Monroe films? Let us know in the comments.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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