Top Ten Marilyn Monroe Films
Marilyn Monroe is easily one of the most famous figures of the studio era, as well as one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. An iconic sex symbol that managed to be adored by both men and women, she continues to attract fans with her unique combination of sensuality and innocence. Her face and name remain well known even to those who have never seen any of her films. But to ignore her work would be a tragedy, for Marilyn Monroe was more than just a pretty face.
A graduate of the famed Actor’s Studio in NYC, Marilyn was only rarely given the chance to show her dramatic chops due to the great popularity of her comedies. Onscreen, she glows with a radiance, warmth, and vulnerability completely unique to her. In her personal life, she was famously plagued with both psychological and substance abuse problems and that genuine fragility comes through in many of her characterizations. If you have yet to witness the magic of the real Marilyn Monroe onscreen, it’s about time we change that.
Keep in mind that I chose the order of the top ten films by considering their importance in Marilyn's overall career, as well as, the size/importance of her role in them. I, also, took into account their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Marilyn Monroe Films
- The Seven Year Itch
- Some Like It Hot
- The Misfits
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
- How to Marry a Millionaire
- Don't Bother to Knock
- The Prince and the Showgirl
- Monkey Business
- Bus Stop
1. "The Seven Year Itch" (1955)
Featuring Marilyn in one of her most iconic roles, The Seven Year Itch crystallizes her popular screen persona as the sexy, yet naïve, blonde. Based on the play by George Axelrod (and adapted by him and director Billy Wilder for the screen), the film revolves around the exploits of Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), an ordinary New York businessman left behind in the hot city to work while his wife and son are vacationing in the country for the summer. Although Richard is determined to be well-behaved while his wife and son are gone, his overactive imagination and looming midlife crisis are making that difficult. Then, when a beautiful actress (Marilyn) moves in upstairs, Richard’s willpower (and conscience) will be tested like never before. Without question, the most famous scene in The Seven Year Itch is the one featuring Marilyn in her iconic white dress standing over a subway grate. The scene was actually shot in two takes: one in the studio and the other on Lexington Avenue in New York. The famous publicity picture featuring Marilyn's skirt flying over her head was taken during the NYC shoot and it quickly became one of the most memorable images of her entire career. Although Marilyn was everyone’s first choice to play Richard Sherman’s dream girl, Billy Wilder originally wanted Walter Matthau to play the role of Richard. However, Matthau was still an unknown at the time and, as such, 20th Century Fox refused to hire him in such a large role. The role was given instead to the Tony-winning Tom Ewell, who had originated the role on Broadway. Those familiar with the play will notice that a lot of changes were made in adapting the story to the screen. Many of them were done to appease the Hays Office (who seemed to watch the film particularly closely) but, luckily, very few of the changes truly hurt the movie's humor. The Seven Year Itch still remains one of Marilyn’s best comedies and one of Billy Wilder’s most beloved films.
2. "Some Like It Hot" (1959)
Reuniting Marilyn with director Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot is often cited as one of the greatest comedies ever made. Set in the 1920s, the film stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as Joe and Jerry, two jazz musicians on the run from the mob after seeing something they shouldn’t have. To escape, the men disguise themselves as female musicians and join Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, a traveling all-girl jazz band. Marilyn plays Sugar, the band’s lead vocalist and ukulele player, whom both Joe and Jerry are immediately attracted to. But the boys need to remember to keep their hormones in check if they are to maintain their charade and save their skins. Loosely based on the French film Fanfare of Love, this hilarious cross-dressing comedy features pitch-perfect performances from all three main actors (Jack Lemmon in particular gives a genius comedic performance as Jerry.) The film also features Marilyn performing her iconic rendition of the 1920s Helen Kane song, I Wanna Be Loved By You, a song that would quickly become her trademark. Largely shot on location at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, the film had its fair share of difficulties while shooting; most of them connected to Marilyn. Both pregnant and suffering from an ever-worsening addiction to pills, she had trouble concentrating for much of the filming and often required multiple takes for even the simplest line readings. Even though she proved difficult to work with, Wilder would later state that he knew it would all be worth it in order to get her irreplaceable performance as the adorably clueless Sugar.
3. "The Misfits" (1961)
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (Marilyn’s husband at the time), The Misfits would turn out to be Monroe's very last completed film (and her co-star Clark Gable's last, as well). Directed by John Huston, the movie features an amazing ensemble cast, including Actors Studio alumni Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. Monroe stars as Roslyn Tabor, a woman who has traveled to Reno, Nevada in order to get a quick divorce from her husband. Now a bit lost about what to do next, she ends up meeting aging cowboy Gay Langland (Gable), as well as his friends, Guido (Wallach) and Perce (Clift). Roslyn is entranced by the independent lifestyle of these cowboys and before she knows it, she’s falling for Gay and living with him in Guido’s old house. But as she spends more time with these men, she starts to realize that they might be just as lost and broken as she is. Filmed on location in Nevada, this beautiful character piece features subtle and layered performances from all of the major players (Monroe and Gable in particular do some of the best work of their careers.) Behind the scenes, the production was plagued by problems, the least of which was the unbearable heat of the Nevada desert (often reaching as high as 108 degrees). By the time production started, Marilyn and Arthur Miller were in the middle of divorce proceedings, which seemed to exacerbate her substance abuse problems. At one point, Huston even shut down production so she could be sent to the hospital to detox. On top of that, Montgomery Clift was suffering from severe substance abuse problems of his own, necessitating a doctor to be on call 24 hours a day to care for the two fragile actors. Clark Gable, for his part, treated Marilyn with a gentle kindness and protectiveness that she appreciated, which translates to an easy chemistry between the two onscreen. Gable would pass away only 12 days after filming was completed and, in many ways, The Misfits is a perfect swan song for these two legendary actors. The film’s climax does not even include the usual "The End" placard, just a simple shot of the stars as it gently fades to black.
4. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953)
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name (which is itself based on the novel by Anita Loos), this fun musical comedy features Marilyn in one of her most iconic roles, that of lovable gold digger Lorelei Lee. Lorelei is a professional showgirl whose main goal in life is to land a rich husband (or otherwise acquire vast amounts of money and diamonds). Lorelei’s best friend and fellow showgirl, Dorothy (Jane Russell), is not nearly as interested in men’s bank accounts; a fact that completely baffles Lorelei. Recently, Lorelei has gotten engaged to the rich man of her dreams, a mousy little millionaire named Gus. They plan to get married in France, so Lorelei and Dorothy travel by passenger ship to Paris with the understanding that Gus will meet them there later. But, unbeknownst to anybody, Gus’ suspicious father has hired a private detective named Ernie Malone to spy on Lorelei throughout the voyage, hoping to catch her in some misdeed to prevent the marriage. But while Malone is keeping his eye on Lorelei, he finds himself beginning to fall for the more down-to-earth Dorothy. Directed by Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a fun romp with perfect comedic performances from both Monroe and Jane Russell. Behind the scenes, Broadway star Gwen Verdon was brought in to coach Marilyn and Russell on their dancing and sashaying "showgirl walk". Allegedly, she was asked to help Monroe tone done the “sex” in her movements and help Russell ramp it up. To further prepare for her role, Marilyn studied Carol Channing’s performance as Lorelei in the original Broadway production (going so far as to attend the show every night for over a month). Her preparations paid off, as one of the movie’s major highlights is her definitive rendition of Lorelei’s signature number, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.
5. "How To Marry A Millionaire" (1953)
Inspired by the plays The Greeks Had A Word For It by Zoe Akins and Loco by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert, this light comedy stars Monroe alongside Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall as three fashion models that have taken it upon themselves to land millionaire husbands. To accomplish this, they pool their resources to rent a high-priced apartment they can barely afford in order to be surrounded by (and attract) men with large bank accounts. But will this plan actually work? Although Marilyn received star billing for this film, the real star of How To Marry A Millionaire is Lauren Bacall as Schatze, the brains of the operation. Despite the fact that both Monroe and Betty Grable have less screen time than Bacall, Monroe easily steals the show, hitting the perfect comedic notes in her role as Pola. Poor Pola is blind as a bat, yet refuses to wear glasses in public for fear that they might repel potential husbands. Watching the hopelessly near-sighted Pola try to get by without her glasses is one of the major highlights of the film. Behind the scenes, Bacall and Grable made a conscious effort to be friendly towards the chronically insecure Marilyn in order to make the process as easy as possible for her. Bacall would later admit, however, that Marilyn’s dependence on her acting coach did get irritating, as it often led to lots of extra takes in each scene.
6. "Don't Bother To Knock" (1952)
Based on the novel Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong, this suspenseful drama stars Marilyn opposite Richard Widmark and a young Anne Bancroft (in her film debut). Widmark plays the role of Jed Towers, an airline pilot staying at the NYC hotel where his newly ex-girlfriend, Lyn (Bancroft), works as a lounge singer. Upset about the recent breakup, Jed decides to distract himself by flirting with Nell Forbes (Marilyn), the pretty girl staying in the hotel room whose window directly faces his. However, unbeknownst to Jed, Nell isn’t really a guest at all. She’s actually the niece of one of the hotel’s elevator operators, who has been hired to babysit the daughter of one of the hotel’s guests. As Jed starts to spend more time with Nell, he quickly comes to realize that she is not what she seems and is probably the last girl he should have tried to flirt with. Monroe is brilliantly cast as the fragile and troubled Nell. Marilyn, herself, considered it to be one of her best performances and, indeed, it's arguably one of the most layered and vulnerable performances of her entire career. Ironically, in the original novel, Nell’s last name was, actually, Munro. Understandably, as soon as Marilyn was cast in the film adaptation, Nell’s last name was changed to Forbes in order to avoid confusion.
7. "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957)
Based on the play The Sleeping Prince by Terence Rattigan (and adapted by him for the screen), this charming romantic-comedy stars Marilyn opposite the legendary Laurence Olivier (who acted as director, star, and producer of this film). Set in 1911, the movie stars Olivier as Charles, the Prince Regent of Carpathia, who has just arrived in London with his young son, King Nicholas VIII, to attend the coronation of England’s King George V. After attending a musical called The Coconut Girl (and proceeding to meet the cast backstage), the Prince Regent sends a formal invitation to one of the actresses in the show to join him at the Carpathian embassy for supper. The actress in question is Elsie Marina (Marilyn), the lone American in the musical’s cast. As soon as Elsie arrives at the embassy, she realizes that the Prince Regent intends to seduce her. But it turns out Elsie is not going to be nearly as predictable as Charles expects. Filmed on location in London, this British/American co-production was the first non-Shakespearean film Olivier ever directed and the only international film Monroe ever made. Olivier had originated the role of the Prince Regent on the West End, opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh. Despite Olivier’s distinguished reputation, Monroe easily steals this movie out from under him, giving one of her best comedic performances as the likable Elsie. Unfortunately, she proved to be difficult and unpredictable during production, leading to a highly contemptuous relationship between her and Olivier. Olivier was particularly angered by her dependence on the advice of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, who was a constant presence on the set. Although a modest success in the States, The Prince and the Showgirl proved to be much more popular in England and was even nominated for a number of BAFTAS (British Academy Film Awards).
8. "Monkey Business" (1952)
This fun screwball comedy marks Marilyn’s first time working with director Howard Hawks (who would later direct her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the following year). Monkey Business features Marilyn in a smaller role this time around, as the film really belongs to her co-stars, Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. Grant plays the role of Dr. Barnaby Fulton, a middle-aged research chemist who has been working on developing a rejuvenating youth serum for the Oxley Chemical Company. So far, things have been slow going. That is until one of the lab’s chimpanzees gets loose and mixes up a much more effective version of the formula. Unbeknownst to anyone else, this new formula ends up in the lab’s water cooler and it doesn’t take long before both Barnaby and his wife, Edwina (Rogers), start to feel the effects of this unique “fountain of youth”. Marilyn plays the role of Miss Laurel, the young secretary of Barnaby’s boss who gets pulled into Barnaby's antics once he starts to feel like he’s 20 again. Both Grant and Rogers give hilarious performances as the ever more childlike Barnaby and Edwina. Without a doubt, Monkey Business is a movie that features such an absolutely outlandish concept that it depends entirely on the talent of those involved to pull it off. Luckily, this is a film with an A+ cast that delivers in spades.
9. "Bus Stop" (1956)
One of my favorite Marilyn Monroe movies, Bus Stop is also the first film she appeared in after studying at the Actor’s Studio. Based on the successful play by William Inge, this comedy-drama revolves around the unusual relationship between Bo (Don Murray) and Cherie (Marilyn). Bo is a naïve Montana cowboy who has traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to compete in a rodeo. Cherie is a singer at a local Phoenix saloon, hoping to eventually make her way to Hollywood to become a star. Bo has zero experience with romance, but as soon as he sets his eyes on Cherie, he knows he’s found the "angel" he’s been looking for. Cherie likes Bo too, but when he starts talking about getting married right after their first kiss, she immediately attempts to put the brakes on the relationship. Unfortunately, Bo has never been taught to take no for an answer. Monroe gives one of her most transformative performances as Cherie with her classic persona practically disappearing within the uncultured Ozark native. One of the movie’s major highlights is Cherie’s hilariously bad performance of That Old Black Magic. Behind the scenes, director Joshua Logan was very sensitive to Marilyn’s personal insecurities and neuroses. Observing that saying "Cut!" would often upset her, he would instead keep the camera rolling and gently talk her back into her scenes. He would later refer to her as the most constantly exciting actress he ever worked with. Both hilarious and thoughtful, Bus Stop is probably best described as a comedy that slowly morphs into a character drama, with the two lead characters each going through their own coming-of-age journey.
10. "Niagara" (1953)
Often considered to be her breakout role, this brightly-colored noir marks the very first time Marilyn was ever given star billing. The film follows young couple Ray and Polly Cutler (played by Max Showalter and Jean Peters) as they arrive at Niagara Falls for a belated honeymoon. Once there, they immediately become acquainted with another couple who are also vacationing at the Falls, George and Rose Loomis (played by Joseph Cotten and Marilyn). Unlike the Cutlers, the Loomis’ marriage is very troubled. Still recovering from his time serving in the Korean War, George has become increasingly possessive and prone to jealous rages regarding his beautiful wife. But the Cutlers soon discover that George has a reason to be jealous, for Rose really does have another lover on the side. But Rose’s endgame might actually turn out to be much more insidious than just simply leaving her husband. Shot on location at the real Niagara Falls, Niagara features Marilyn at her most seductive in one of her darkest roles. Originally, the film was intended to star Anne Baxter in the role of Polly Cutler. But when Baxter had to back out, the film was reworked to give more focus to Rose, turning the film into a perfect vehicle for Marilyn. Highly successful when it was first released, Niagara might have led Monroe to more femme fatale roles, if it hadn’t been followed so closely afterwards by the even bigger successes of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (all released in 1953). The combination of these three films shot her to A-list Hollywood fame and helped solidify her unique onscreen persona.
Honorable Mention: "Ladies of the Chorus" (1948)
For my honorable mention this time around, I decided to choose the movie that would give Marilyn her very first starring role, the little-known Ladies of the Chorus. This cute B-movie musical stars Monroe as Peggy, a second-generation burlesque chorus girl. Her overprotective mother, Mae (Adele Jenkins), used to be a burlesque star, but now works in the chorus alongside Peggy. When the star of their current show suddenly quits, Mae is asked to perform in her place. Instead, she suggests they try giving the number to Peggy. Of course, Peggy is a big hit and immediately becomes the show’s new star. One night, while performing, she happens to catch the eye of Randy Carroll, a nice society boy who has been dragged to the show by his friends. At first, Randy simply shows his affection by regularly sending Peggy anonymous orchids after her performances. But eventually (after Peggy manages to track him down through his florist), the two meet in person and immediately hit it off. And that’s when the protective Mae starts to get nervous. She knows from experience what high society families can be like and she’s desperate to save her overly optimistic daughter from making the same mistakes she did. At the time Ladies of the Chorus was made, Adele Jerkins was a much bigger star than Marilyn and you’ll notice she's given slightly more screen time than her younger co-star. In reality, Jerkins was only slightly older than Monroe, but was aged up for the role of Mae so that she could be believable in the film’s extended flashback sequence (set when Mae was around Peggy’s age). Shot in only 10 days, Ladies of the Chorus offers a rare chance to see Marilyn before her full Hollywood makeover was complete and before her iconic film persona had been fully established. It would actually end up being the only movie she ever made for Columbia Pictures. The studio dropped her contract shortly after the film was made and it would eventually be at 20th Century Fox where she was given a greater chance to show her talents and find lasting success.
If you would like to learn more about the iconic Marilyn Monroe, I highly recommend her own autobiography, My Story, and The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborrelli.
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