Thursday, January 21, 2010

Vintage Novels {Gentlemen Prefer Blondes}

How could I not do Anita Loos month without including her most popular work. First serialized by Harper's Bazar in 1925 and published that same year, it sold literally millions of copies. I have the movie edition and according to it, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady was first published in November 1925 and my copy was printed in October 1926 and it was the seventeenth printing! In less than a year! I've never seen that with any single book published in the Noughties, not even with Harry Potter (but correct me if I'm wrong). When it came out, it was such a massive hit. Everyone from James Joyce down to housewives and businessmen read it. Edith Wharton even dubbed it to be "the great American novel". It's been turned into a play, a musical and two films (one now lost). Miss Loos said that the meaning of the title came to her in 1923 when she was travelling on the train from New York to LA with Fairbanks, her husband and other important movie people, including the leading lady for the new Fairbanks picture. Now, Miss Loos was not even five feet tall and weighted about ninety pounds, but she was a brunette. The leading lady was several inches taller and weighted a lot more than Miss Loos, but she was a blonde. As a result, Miss Loos was allowed to lug her suitcases up and down from the luggage racks, but as soon as the leading lady dropped her books a half dozen men jumped up to retrieve it. No one else had ever before realized just how significant hair colour was in terms of how women were treated. Naturally, she wrote a book about it.

If you think you know the plot of the novel from the movie, then you're somewhat wrong. Yes it is about Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw being sent to Europe and Miss Lee does deliberately try to con expensive gifts out of men. However, Lorelei is not a showgirl and Gus is not a milquetoast (he's actually the Button King). We are never told exactly what Lorelei's profession is, but I think that she's along the lines of a kept woman, but an extremely smart one. The novel is actually her diary, written just after stuff happens and told with the poor spelling that she brought with her from Little Rock (where she accidentally shot a man). Lorelei has decided that she would like to become an authoress and to do so she must improve her mind and keep a diary, which she is very devoted, so devoted in fact that she often gives up dinner or a party in order to write up her day's adventures. Now, Gus Eisman is worried that she might be attracting the wrong sort of man while he's out of town, so he sends her to Europe for an education and Lorelei brings her friend Dorothy along. Dorothy is not the chaperone that Jane Russell played; she is unrefined, rather daring and not as concerned with her career as Lorelei is. The girls do get into lots of adventures during their Grand Tour, but they never get abandoned and have to work in a night club. And Lorelei does meet a nice, rich young man and gets married in the end.

Let us now compare it to that other "great American novel" of the Twenties, The Great Gatsby, which was not a best seller when it was first published. Both GPB and Gatsby can be seen as the literary representation of the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties. Both Lorelei and Daisy desire security from men through the proof of material possessions. Daisy does love Gatsby, but she only really becomes interested in him when she sees the beautiful, expensive shirts he has in his mansion. However, Daisy does stay with Tom, because his income is secure and she will always be able to afford the lifestyle to which she has lived all her life. Whereas, Lorelei is just a pretty little girl with nothing but her charm and she is able to raise herself up in society so that she is able to have a live-in maid, meet the Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor) and marry a millionaire. But in the mean time, Lorelei is concered with accumulating as much as she can from rich, older men, not by directly asking for it, but by hinting and suggesting that she was meant to own that tiara or that the nice thing to do for a girl is to send her a dozen orchids every morning. Unlike Daisy, however, Lorelei followers her belief that "kissing your hand might feel very good, but a diamond bracelet lasts forever". She knows that she wont be young and pretty forever and so she might as well be as successful as she can now and ensure that she will be able to be independent later on, if need be.
I'm sure that you've all had to read Gatsby in school as an example of the "great American novel" and as a showcase of what the Jazz Age was really like. Since I read GPB before I read Gatsby, I've always disagreed with that. Not to say anything against Gatsby, I think it's one of his finest novels and very important in the literary canon. But GPB is a better record of the Jazz Age and it's excesses. Not only does it show the changing fashions (it's also illustrated), music, parties and theatre, but it also shows the cultural differences. Miss Loos really shows her cutting wit though how society ladies and their husbands treat Lorelei and Dorothy and their obvious motivations. But one also gets to see how American, British and French gentlemen treated a pretty girl in an age when credit was king and what they expected from her in return, which was as a plutonic companion as far as Lorelei was concerned. I think that part of one of Louise Brooks' essays explained the rules behind having a male "shopper" friend. Lorelei is also sweet, she genuinely listens to the troubles of different waiters and bellhops, and terribly smart (not the dumb blonde that Marilyn played). She's also a believable character and one can identify more with her and her role in life (what else could one do at that time in order to earn a living without having any practical skills) rather than with Daisy Bunchanan. However, because GPB is a comedic novel and great fun to read (and it has pictures, remember what Alice thought of books without pictures) it will never be seriously taught in most universities, let alone in any high school. I think that this is a good thing, because if it were to become part of the curriculum, then it would have to be analyzed, subject to close reading and generally over thought. This is one of those books which cannot be over thought, because then it would become work to have to read it and then it would loose it's charm.

As for adaptations, there has never been a true to the novel adaptation (though I can't speak for the 1926 play or film). You can however, occasionally see clips of Carol Channing singing her songs from the 1949 musical on YouTube, along with clips from the 1953 musical film. The first film version has, unfortunately been lost and from the pictures it looked like it was a fun movie. However, Ruth Taylor, who played Lorelei, took the message of GPB to heart as she married a millionaire, quit the picture business and became the mother of Buck Henry.
GPB should be quite easy to find and it has never been out of print.

No comments: