Back to the Classics: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

It’s thanks to Sheree of Keeping Up with the Penguins that I picked up this little confection of the Jazz Age — her enthusiasm for it knows no bounds, especially in comparison to the contemporaneous, but far more loudly touted The Great Gatsby. I’ve nothing against Gatsby, but a fun, witty and insightful book by a woman with an eye on power and wealth inequalities between the sexes sounded great.

Well, I’m sorry, Sheree, but I can’t quite share your enthusiasm. Written as the diary of Lorelei Lee, a blonde bombshell originally from Little Rock, Arkansas and now traveling the world in search of males with unequal wealth to share with her, Gentlemen is a one-note farce with some humorous moments to offer, but no plot or character development to speak of.

Lorelei is a satire of the “dumb blonde” icon that frustrated Loos (a petite brunette screenwriter) by hogging all the masculine attention. Her diary is littered with misspellings and malapropisms and written in a breathless, repetitive style in which one can easily hear  the ditzy tones of a cinema platinum blonde. Here’s a sample, pulled at random from the chapter “Paris Is Devine”–

I mean the French gentlemen always seem to be squealing quite a lot, especially taxi drivers when they only get a small size yellow dime called a “fifty santeems” for a tip. But the good thing about French gentlemen is that everytime a French gentleman starts in to squeal, you can always stop him with five francs, no matter who he is. I mean it is so refreshing to listen to a French gentleman stop squealing, that it would really be quite a bargain even for ten francs.

It’s masterfully done, but there is, as I said, absolutely no development from beginning to end; the tone is exactly the same throughout. It’s a short novel, only 90 pages in my e-book edition, and in that Loos made a good call, I think. 90 pages of such deathless prose is plenty to give one a good dose of “Lorelei-speak,” but any more would definitely be excessive.

I concede that Lorelei is in not really as dumb as she appears. In regard to her main goal in life, getting money and jewels out of men, she is extremely clever and successful. But she has no heart and no apparent soul. She’s a highly-tuned exploitation machine. Fair enough, given that males in Lorelei’s world are generally out to exploit her for their own purposes — but the whole scenario is more sad than amusing, really.

As for “witty and insightful,” for wit and insight give me Lorelei’s friend Dorothy, who represents the “smart brunette” stereotype. Although we encounter her only through Lorelei’s clueless reportage, her remarks are always funny and to the point, like all the best one-liners — and spelled correctly, to boot.

Does Dorothy even really exist? One begins to wonder whether this is a case of a split personality, of the buried smarts that are unwanted by Lorelei’s male associates being shunted off to a shadow existence. Though Lorelei consulted “Dr Froyd” in Vienna, he didn’t give an opinion on the topic, so we’ll never know.

My verdict: glad I read it, it did make me smile in spots, and there may be some psychological resonances to ponder — but I don’t think I’ll be proclaiming it the Great American Novel. (Surely Edith Wharton was being ironic when she said that …)

The 1953 film, which I saw years ago, is a loose adaptation that has great performances by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell and musical numbers to liven up the action, along with a softening of Loos’s more cynical world view. You might find that a positive or a negative, depending on how you feel about the original Lorelei, but it’s also worth a look as a cinema classic. And so it’s a perfect choice for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you read this, or seen the movie? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Adapted Classic
Jazz Age June at Relevant Obscurity and Fanda Classiclit

8 thoughts on “Back to the Classics: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

      1. Oh, I’ve heard those jokes all my life. My family is from Arkansas and so going to Little Rock or Memphis was a trip to the Big City when I was young. It’s like how in every remake of The Out-of Towners, they’re from Ohio (and therefore rubes).
        Come to think of it, I think Harold Hill (in The Music Man) mentions Little Rock as a place he’s pulled the wool over peoples’ eyes.
        I like living in places where other folks think we’re hicks.


  1. I’ve neither read this nor seen the movie, though I keep meaning to! I love a good satire but truly it sounds like this would drive me up the wall. I have fair hair and a limited tolerance for blonde jokes. 😛


  2. Throughout your review I kept hearing Marilyn Monroe’s voice! Like Jeanne, I don’t think I realized this was a book either.

    My love for Wharton…I am making my way through Hermione Lee’s biography of her and with that comment I had to see if Loos or the book is mentioned. And it is….and she is not being ironic…yikes. Apparently, Wharton saw the book as a latter day The Custom of the Country where Undine is vindicated. And because, imo, Undine is one of the THE most unlikable protagonists I’ve come across so far, I am very curious to read Gentleman Prefer Blondes. As much as I like Wharton, I am glad this book is short, because I don’t think I’ll like it much. Still, though, intrigued!


    1. Okay, interesting perspective from Wharton. I can see a person who is fed up with opportunistic, exploitative men perceiving in Lorelei a sort of vindication. But again, it’s just so one-sided and lacking in depth. I expect more from a great novel, of whatever nationality.


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