One of the most hauntingly glamorous talents in movie history would have turned 92 today. For what turned out to be her next-to-last completed theatrical feature, the emotionally fragile Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) would be in the care of one of one of Hollywood’s most tasteful and attentive directors, George Cukor. Of course he’d done solids for Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954), the terrific trio of Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg in Les Girls (1957), and Sophia Loren in Heller in Pink Tights (1960) in terms of lovely female stars headlining glittery show business-background tales that balanced serious moments, playful humor and a rich visual style attuned by his semi-regular consultant in color design, fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene. These resources would be brought to bear on a lightweight but promising project by award-winning screenwriter Norman Krasna (supplemented by additions from fellow comedy veteran Hal Kanter) initially called The Billionaire, but later rechristened Let’s Make Love (1960) after the title of one of four new songs penned for the Cinemascope affair by the team of composer James Van Heusen and lyricist Sammy Cahn, who’d won an Oscar® for the tune All the Way (from 1957’s The Joker Is Wild) and would look forward to a couple more with High Hopes (from 1959’s A Hole in the Head) and Call Me Irresponsible (from 1963’s Papa’s Delicate Condition). Innovative choreographer Jack Cole had previously supplied stylish dance numbers for Monroe (1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,1954’s There’s No Business like Show Business and 1959’s Some Like It Hot) and Cukor (Les Girls). In sum, the bonafides for wit, elegance, melody and movement, and romantic charm were present.
Opposite Monroe’s empathetically open and intellectually striving showgirl, the leading lady of an off-Broadway satirical revue presenting satirical depictions of current media personalities – including a womanizing billionaire whose romantic liaisons are legion, and who takes exception to being lampooned but ends up joining the cast when he is attracted to the shapely songbird, the plan was to cast, at least in Krasna’s view according to George Cukor: A Double Life biographer Patrick McGilligan, “an actor with the audience image of a ‘shit-kicker’…so that his wooden inability to perform would be all the funnier. In that vein, Gregory Peck was cast…before either Monroe or Cukor was on the film. Peck bowed out when he learned that Monroe had demanded script changes to make it more of an ‘evenhanded co-starring vehicle,’ in Kanter’s words. Cukor and [producer Jerry] Wald settled on Rock Hudson, who could play comedy, but that ideal casting hit a snag when Universal refused to release Hudson to Fox. That was fine to Monroe, who much preferred someone else, the masculine continental (Italian-born, French-bred) star with a music-hall background, Yves Montand. So Montand, no ‘shit-kicker’ he, got the part,” triggering even more rewrites. Thankfully, sultry Monroe and suave Montand played off each other quite well. George Cukor: Master of Elegance author Emanuel Levy recounts: “The first couple of weeks were ‘lovey-dovey,’ and Cukor hoped it would continue that way. Then Monroe came down with the flu – 80 percent flu and 20 percent terror, Cukor told a friend, or maybe it was the other way around. Realizing how insecure Monroe was, Cukor forced himself to be extremely gentle. Cukor’s special treatment was appreciated, for during the shoot he received a letter from Arthur Miller, Monroe’s husband at the time. The picture was important to her, wrote Miller, but immeasurably more important were the precious weeks of her life, which Cukor’s patience and skill and understanding had made humanely meaningful for her. Miller had never known his wife to be so happy at work, so hopeful, so prepared to cast away her worst doubts.”
For evidence of her vivacious personality once she got down to work, one need only look at her initial appearance here, as Time’s critic describes in admiring detail: “Let’s Make Love brings Marilyn Monroe on screen with an entrance that should make historians of the drama forget all of Bernhardt’s exits. The viewer sees the stage of a Greenwich Village theater, and in its center, a shiny fire pole. Clinging to it as if to her last shred of resistance before an engulfing passion is Marilyn, rigged out in black tights. Languorously she slides down the pole, uncoils, arranges her lips in Schlitz position and murmurs, ‘My name is Lolita. And I’m not supposed to. Play. With boys.’ Then she begins to sing [Cole Porter’s] My Heart Belongs to Daddy. There is a lot of Marilyn to admire these days, but it is still in fine fettle; at 34, she makes 21 look ridiculous. The smile that reassures nervous males (‘It’s all right, I’m not real.’) has never been more dazzling. And the comic counterpoint of fleshy grandeur and early Shirley Temple manner is better than ever.” Suffice to say that Montand is not the only one gobsmacked and game for amour by this sight-and-sound spectacle as captured by the camera of overall seven-time Oscar® nominee – and soon-to-be West Side Story (1961) Oscar® winner – Daniel L. Fapp. Also starring Tony Randall, Frankie Vaughan, Wilfrid Hyde White, David Burns and cameo guest stars Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly as Montand’s comedy/song/dance “tutors,” Let’s Make Love makes its merry way onto Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray – in lovely 5.1 audio and showcasing its Oscar®-nominated adaptation score (arranged by Lionel Newman and Earle H. Hagen) on an Isolated Music Track – June 19, joining another choice vehicle for today’s birthday honoree, Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), in the TT fold as smashing evidence of an enduring cinema icon. Preorders open June 6.