Author Tara Hanks writes on British Pathé’s footage of Marilyn Monroe and the story behind it…
Marilyn Monroe was one of the most-photographed women of the last century. Beyond her acting roles, however, footage of the legendary star is fairly thin on the ground. During the 1950s, when her career soared, television was still a new medium. Her occasional public appearances, at press conferences and glittering premieres, were chronicled by newsreel-makers like Pathé, and shown in cinemas worldwide.
‘Marilyn Monroe in Korea’ was filmed in March 1954, near the end of the four-year conflict. Monroe interrupted her honeymoon in Japan with Joe DiMaggio to entertain US troops. Standing on an outdoor stage before 10,000 fellow Americans, she quipped, ‘I never saw so many men in my whole life!’ ‘Film Fanfare’ featured the celebrity news of the day, though its reverential tone is world away from today’s gossip websites. Monroe’s arrival in Britain in the summer of 1956, to film The Prince and the Showgirl, with Sir Laurence Olivier, provoked intense media coverage.
Though some found Monroe too ‘aloof’, Pathé gave her a warm welcome. ‘We were delighted by the quickness and the mind and her intelligence,’ reporter John Parsons commented after a press conference at London’s Savoy Hotel. He was filmed in conversation with Marilyn, but unfortunately, the footage is mute. The fanfare surrounding Marilyn’s stay in Britain took Bob Stanage, publicity director for Warner Brothers, by storm. She attracted huge crowds wherever she went, adding a touch of authentic Hollywood glamour to a country steeped in a post-war ‘age of austerity.’
Earl Wilson, an American columnist who first encountered Marilyn in 1949, also attended the meeting at the Savoy. Interviewed by Parsons, he noted the formality of the British press, in contrast to the USA. In England, Marilyn was seated apart from journalists and politely applauded. Her co-star, Olivier, had been startled by the rowdiness of a previous events in New York. He asked Marilyn, ‘Are they always like this?’, to which she replied wryly, ‘Well, this is a little quieter than some of them.’ As part of the build-up to The Prince and the Showgirl – produced by Marilyn’s newly-formed, independent company – Hollywood mogul Jack Warner gave her the keys to his studio.
Despite her apparent mastery of publicity, Earl Wilson remembered the younger Marilyn as ‘shy’, even ‘wooden’, but he soon warmed to her ‘honest, direct’ manner. Recalling a trip to a bookstore frequented by Marilyn, Wilson said the manageress had observed, ‘You can never tell what’s under a head, just because it’s bleached.’
Monroe had flown to England with her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller. ‘A marriage of brains and beauty,’ a narrator remarked as they arrived at London Airport. ‘But don’t let anyone tell you Arthur’s got all the brains!’
Weeks before, the newlyweds had been filmed at Miller’s farmhouse in Connecticut. During the rush to the countryside, one journalist had been killed in a car crash. Understandably, Marilyn seemed pale and nervous that day, clinging to Arthur and seeking his approval as she answered questions about their honeymoon plans.
During her time in Britain, Monroe met Queen Elizabeth II at a Royal Command Performance. Both women had celebrated their thirtieth birthdays in 1956, and together they seem to epitomise different ideals of femininity. In a tribute reel made after Marilyn’s death, a narrator comments, ‘She was a queen in her own realm…the world lost something radiant when she took her leave of us.’
Monroe’s impact can also be felt in other Pathé newsreels, including ‘This Light Must Not Go Out,’ a public information short from 1957, urging Anthony Eden’s government to reduce taxation on the film industry.
In later years, Marilyn would be glimpsed at other events, both public and personal: whether shaking hands with a security guard before being introduced to President Khrushchev, during his visit to Hollywood in 1959: or attending the christening of John Clark Gable in 1961, clad in black – in memory of the baby’s father, and ‘King of Hollywood’, Clark Gable – who had died months earlier, after starring with Monroe in The Misfits, which would also be her final appearance on the big screen.
Monroe memorabilia is now a lucrative industry. Rumoured ‘sex tapes’ have repeatedly been discredited, but last year a short clip of Monroe sharing a cigarette with friends became an internet sensation, leading to speculation that she was smoking a ‘joint’ – although closer examination may suggest otherwise.
But the rarest films of all have resurfaced via the auction circuit – a star off-duty, playing golf, shopping in New York, sightseeing in Mexico. Or else the young, brunette Norma Jeane, performing cartwheels on a Californian beach. These shaky home movies, made in colour, remind us of a lovely, eternally young woman behind the dazzling façade.