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?