Forever Marilyn: The Blu-ray CollectionOverview -
Includes 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' 'How to Marry a Millionaire,' 'River of No Return,' 'There's No Business Like Show Business,' 'The Seven Year Itch,' 'Some Like It Hot,' and 'The Misfits.'
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
It took forever, but at long last 'Forever Marilyn,' the first collection of Blu-ray films celebrating the inimitable, luminous talent of the incomparable Marilyn Monroe, has been released by Fox. Monroe fans have waited a long time to enjoy the iconic blonde's delectable body - I mean, body of work! - in high definition, and this seven-disc set, which features five films new to Blu-ray, includes some classic performances, all with beautifully restored video and audio. Unfortunately, though, a few missteps keep this set from being the dream package for which the Marilyn faithful have long been pining.
One of the most legendary stars in the annals of Hollywood, the voluptuous Marilyn dazzled audiences with her tasteful mix of sex appeal, innocence, and vulnerability, and though many don't appreciate her unique talent, there's no disputing her magnetism. Few movie stars connect with the camera more intimately than Monroe, who projects palpable electricity without seeming artificial. Sadly, most of her films are only memorable because she appeared in them, but with a kittenish smile, flip of the head, playful giggle, or wide-eyed glance she raises their stature immeasurably, making us want to return to them again and again, if only to revel in her hypnotic presence. Sex symbols come and go, with most forgotten before they make their mark, but Marilyn endures because sex is only a byproduct of her image. Warmth, accessibility, humor, and the priceless ability not to take oneself too seriously all contribute to a full-bodied (yes, the adjective is intentional) persona that transcends our basest instincts.
All that said, why didn't Fox see fit to lavish more care and attention on Monroe's Blu-ray debut? She's still as popular as ever, maybe even more so, so why not honor her in the manner she deserves? I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, because I hope Fox will continue to release a steady stream of Monroe movies in high-def, but from a packaging standpoint this set leaves a bit to be desired. Housed in a rather flimsy sleeve (mine arrived slightly bruised) are two fold-out "books" that are really just disc receptacles. One contains three discs, the other four, and aside from tinted black-and-white publicity photos on the front and back, there are no pictures of the iconic blonde or any text celebrating her career or analyzing her impact. Here we have one of the most beloved and influential personalities in cinema history, and Fox, as the studio did while she was a contract player, treats her like a commodity instead of one of its most prized assets. A more traditional box set with a commemorative book and/or full-color postcards would be a far more fitting tribute to Fox's biggest star of the 1950s.
Then there's the choice of films. Just like the first DVD collection of Monroe movies, this grouping includes 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' 'How to Marry a Millionaire,' 'There's No Business Like Show Business,' and 'The Seven Year Itch.' But instead of 'Bus Stop,' which features one of Monroe's best dramatic performances, we get the fun but cheesy outdoor adventure, 'River of No Return,' definitely a second-tier Monroe flick. Two previously released pictures new to the Fox family, 'Some Like It Hot' (arguably Monroe's finest movie and one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time) and 'The Misfits' (which contains arguably Monroe's most nuanced dramatic portrayal), are also included (for full reviews of each film, click on the respective titles), and though they are worthy additions, they penalize fans (like me) who already bought them individually. The omission of 'Bus Stop' is especially disappointing; hopefully, it will turn up in the next Monroe collection, along with the steamy thriller 'Niagara,' another Monroe gem that I also would have loved to see here.
Unfortunately, Fox didn't ask me for my input on this set, so I'll have to make due with what they've provided. And Marilyn's work speaks for itself. The best Blu-ray debut of this bunch would have to be 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Howard Hawks' sparkling adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, featuring Monroe as quintessential dumb blonde and philosophical gold-digger Lorelei Lee. It's the role that both made Marilyn a megastar and would sadly typecast her in future endeavors, but it proves her worth as a leading lady and musical dynamo. From the sexy opening number ('Two Little Girls from Little Rock') to the dazzlingly elegant and impeccably staged 'Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,' this tuneful romantic romp is a tailor-made showcase for Marilyn's comic and musical abilities. Whether trading wisecracks (or in her case, dumbcracks) with co-star Jane Russell, cooing over bumbling billionaire Tommy Noonan, or asking awkward assistance from moppet George Winslow, Monroe is charming, funny, and disarmingly alluring.
'The Seven Year Itch' also spotlights Monroe's talents as a light comedienne, but this adaptation of George Axelrod's examination of the aging male libido never quite realizes its potential. Most notable for the iconic shot of Monroe's white dress billowing in the breeze as the star stands over a subway grating, this Billy Wilder-directed comedy was regarded as risqué in 1955, but seems rather tame today. Tom Ewell plays a middle-aged Manhattan husband who fantasizes about the nubile sexpot upstairs while his wife and son are away on summer vacation. Monroe plays the object of his vivid daydreams who winds up teaching him a thing or two about true love. Once again Marilyn's fresh-faced vivacity and sincerity save the day and temper Ewell's broad portrayal.
'How to Marry a Millionaire,' which was the second film, after 'The Robe,' to be shot in the brand new CinemaScope process, is a breezy, painless primer on snagging a wealthy husband, as a trio of down-to-earth beauties (Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Monroe) masquerade as members of the sophisticated elite to meet eligible men. Grable, the long-reigning queen of Fox, passed the torch to Monroe following this picture, along with her standing as the studio's top curvaceous blonde. In a clever twist on her dumb blonde image, Marilyn plays a blind-as-a-bat bombshell bookworm who fears spectacles will ruin her appeal to the opposite sex. This cute comedy also falls short of expectations, but the bright personalities of its stars manage to salvage it.
'River of No Return' is a guilty pleasure, a rough-and-tumble adventure yarn chronicling the travails of an ex-con frontiersman (Robert Mitchum), his young son (Tommy Rettig), and a saloon singer (Monroe) as they battle raging rapids, Indians, and unsavory personalities in the unspoiled Northwest. Action dominates this Otto Preminger production, which was filmed on location, yet features a few too many processed shots. Though the plot favors melodrama over realism, Monroe enjoys some potent chemistry with Mitchum and handles the role's physicality well. She also gets to sing a few songs in some skimpy chanteuse costumes.
The final new-to-Blu film in the collection, 'There's No Business Like Show Business,' only features Marilyn sporadically, but her appearances are noteworthy and really punch up this uneven, often lumbering and saccharine musical that profiles a successful vaudevillian family through the years. A flimsy excuse to string together a bumper crop of Irving Berlin tunes, the splashy production is most famous for Monroe's sultry rendition of 'Heat Wave,' but also features Marilyn singing the clever 'After You Get What You Want You Don't Want It,' and the charming 'Lazy,' flanked by co-stars Donald O'Connor and Mitzi Gaynor. The title song and several other standards are belted with irrepressible verve by Ethel Merman, but her pipes and Monroe's beauty still can't lift this generic film into the rarefied realm.
Of course, the rarefied realm is where Monroe resides, and her status as a Hollywood icon of beauty, sex, stardom, turbulence, and tragedy will never waver. These films exhibit the many facets of her fascinating persona and showcase her often underrated talents in a variety of settings, genres, and guises. Could this collection have been more thoughtfully and carefully produced? Without a doubt. But like the mediocre movies in which she so often starred, Marilyn Monroe rises above any subpar treatment, and all we see is her inimitable brilliance, unadorned and unfiltered. And in the end, that's all we really want anyway.
'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' (1953) - 4 stars
'How to Marry a Millionaire' (1953) - 3 stars
'River of No Return' (1954) - 3 stars
'There's No Business Like Show Business' (1954) - 3 stars
'The Seven Year Itch' (1955) - 3-1/2 stars
'Some Like It Hot' (1959) - 4 stars
'The Misfits' (1961) - 4-1/2 stars
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The packaging for 'Forever Marilyn' has been described above. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio for every film is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, with the exception of 'The Misfits,' which is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Full motion menus adorn all the new Fox films, and they pop up immediately once the discs are inserted into the player; no promos or previews precede them.
The packaging and film selection of 'Forever Marilyn' might leave something to be desired, but the video transfers do not. Fox has done a superior job honoring Monroe with excellent restorations across the board that make these 50+-year-old films look like they were produced yesterday. I know all these movies intimately, and I can say without question they have never looked better on home video. The biggest revelation is the oldest film, 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.' From the instant Monroe and Jane Russell emerge from the curtains in their sparkling red sequin gowns in the movie's opening shot, the exceptional video quality is instantly and jaw-droppingly apparent. From bold primaries to delicate pastels, colors are spectacularly rich and vibrant, yet never seem artificially pushed. Accents, such as red fingernails and lipstick, as well as Monroe's blonde hair and the shock of yellow on Russell's poolside attire, burst forth, while deep blacks and solid whites enhance the impact of various costumes. Fleshtones look surprisingly natural for a Technicolor film, with Monroe's creamy complexion and Russell's bronze skin appearing fresh and well modulated. Brilliant contrast and clarity, sensational razor sharp close-ups, and pleasingly crisp background elements combine with just the faintest touch of grain to create an almost perfect picture. ('Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend' is a videophile's dream come true.) No specks, marks, or age-related imperfections of any kind mar the image, and no digital enhancements or anomalies disrupt the integrity of this fantastic rendering.
None of the other films can match 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' but 'River of No Return' and 'The Seven Year Itch' come close. In 'River,' the natural beauty of the Canadian Rockies, where much of the movie was shot, is beautifully captured, and the wide CinemaScope canvas provides some stunning vistas and expansive landscapes. Jagged mountain peaks and the river's foamy, turbulent rapids possess marvelous definition, and even the rear projection work blends seamlessly into the film's fabric. Once again, colors and clarity are top notch, costume details pop, and the texture of the rugged wilderness is so palpable we almost feel like we're a part of the action. The pristine print shows no signs of wear, and though the difference between studio shot scenes and those captured on location is noticeable, the shifts are never jarring.
'The Seven Year Itch' is also amazingly crisp and vibrant, though the use of single-strip color lends hues a paler, less intense appearance. Still, detail in both background elements and close-ups is superb, and not a nick or scratch of any sort sullies the antiseptically clean print. Both 'How to Marry a Millionaire' and 'There's No Business Like Show Business' look great, too, although it's obvious not quite as much care went into their renovation. Grain is slightly more pronounced and clarity seems a hair under the bar of the other two films. The transfers are still stellar, outclassing many other classic movie offerings, but they fall just short of the standard Fox set with the Monroe movies described above.
In short, if you're a Marilyn fanatic, these delectable transfers will thrill you beyond belief. They exceeded my expectations and fuel my desire for more Monroe Blu-rays in the future. I'm no psychic, but I'm sure somewhere, Marilyn is smiling. (For complete, individual video transfer reviews of 'Some Like It Hot' and 'The Misfits,' click the respective title of each film.)
'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' (1953) - 5 stars
'How to Marry a Millionaire' (1953) - 4 stars
'River of No Return' (1954) - 4-1/2 stars
'There's No Business Like Show Business' (1954) - 4 stars
'The Seven Year Itch' (1955) - 5 stars
'Some Like It Hot' (1959) - 3-1/2 stars
'The Misfits' (1961) - 4 stars
All the films feature brand new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks, and the results are quite good. Though surround activity is practically non-existent, some nice stereo bleed across the front channels widens the sound field somewhat. Nuances and accents are more apparent and pronounced than ever before, and subtle atmospherics, such as the ocean current in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' and gentle mountain breezes in 'River of No Return,' add vital and heretofore unheard aural texture to the films.
The instrumental music scores, thanks to a wide dynamic scale, possess marvelous presence and tonal depth, while the songs from all the musicals sound bright, clear, and bold. Monroe's honey-toned vocals caress the listener, and you won't miss a word of her breathy dialogue. Conversations are nicely prioritized and bass is well integrated into the whole, adding gentle weight without overpowering the mix. Distortion is never an issue, and any age-related defects, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been meticulously erased, leaving clean, crystal clear tracks that are a joy to listen to.
Fox has treated the audio of these films with just as much care as the video, which makes for a complete - and completely wonderful - cinematic experience. (For individual audio transfer reviews of 'Some Like It Hot' and 'The Misfits,' click the respective title of each film.)
'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' (1953) - 4 stars
'How to Marry a Millionaire' (1953) - 4 stars
'River of No Return' (1954) - 4 stars
'There's No Business Like Show Business' (1954) - 4 stars
'The Seven Year Itch' (1955) - 4 stars
'Some Like It Hot' (1959) - 3-1/2 stars
'The Misfits' (1961) - 3-1/2 stars
Here's another area where this set is a bit lacking. With the exception of 'The Seven Year Itch' and the previously MGM-released 'Some Like It Hot' (for a full review of those extras, click here), each disc is severely compromised with regard to supplements. Marilyn trailers and a pair of minute-long newsreel clips (one on 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' the other on 'How to Marry a Millionaire') are the only special features offered. Not all of the films deserve the red carpet treatment, but more context regarding 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' especially - a watershed film in Monroe's career - would have been nice, along with maybe a brief featurette examining the production and impact of each film in the collection. Some of the material included on 'The Seven Year Itch' disc is repetitive, but the different presentations still make it interesting.
- Audio Commentary – Billy Wilder biographer Kevin Lally sits down for a perceptive, involving, and informative commentary for 'The Seven Year Itch,' making one wish each of the Monroe films in this collection could have had a similar discussion attached to it. Lally knows his stuff, and speaks in a relaxed, articulate manner that makes the time fly by. Topics include the Saul Bass title sequence, Wilder's personal history and Hollywood career, casting, censorship issues that affected the adaptation of 'The Seven Year Itch,' the background of the original stage play, the myriad problems that afflicted Monroe during shooting, and Wilder's cinematic technique. Lally also quotes from interviews he conducted with Wilder in the 1990s, lending this commentary an intimate angle that makes it more involving. Lally's intelligent remarks provide essential context and perspective for 'The Seven Year Itch,' making this commentary a must-listen for both Monroe and classics aficionados alike.
- Isolated Music Track – Alfred Newman's score for 'The Seven Year Itch' can be more fully enjoyed and appreciated through this isolated track, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround.
- Picture-in-Picture Track (HD) – Another 'Seven Year Itch' supplement, this interesting track charts the history, influence, and guidelines of the motion picture production code from its inception in the early 1930s to the beginning of its decline in the mid-1950s, and shows how director Billy Wilder and 'The Seven Year Itch' both complied and finagled around the code's requirements. Actual quotes from the code accompany various scenes and a cheesy Sexual Innuendo Meter pops up occasionally to rate the level of titillation on screen. Publisher Hugh Hefner and other entertainment experts contribute comments in this informative but far too sporadic picture-in-picture track.
- Marilyn Monroe Timeline (HD) – This handy feature on 'The Seven Year Itch' disc chronicles Monroe's film career from her first job as a bit player through her apprenticeship and later superstardom. It's a great reference for fans and newbies alike. Click on each of Marilyn's movies to find either brief text-based descriptions and analyses of each production or short video featurettes with film clips and commentary by Monroe biographer Lois Banner. Video essays are available for 'Don't Bother to Knock,' 'Monkey Business,' 'Niagara,' 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' 'How to Marry a Millionaire,' and 'The Seven Year Itch.'
- Featurette: "Monroe & Wilder: An Intersection of Genius" (HD, 26 minutes) – This new, slickly produced and probing featurette gets under the skin of 'The Seven Year Itch,' analyzing both this tale of "vice and virtue" as well as Monroe's complex personality and working relationship with her demanding director. A host of interviewees talk about Marilyn's screen presence, impeccable timing, and how she overcame a horrific childhood and crippling emotional issues to build and sustain a legendary career. Censorship issues facing the film and various production details are also examined in this highly worthwhile piece.
- Featurette: "Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman" (SD, 17 minutes) – The president of Fox provides some background on 'The Seven Year Itch,' Hollywood censorship, and director Billy Wilder, and discusses the appeal and personal difficulties of Monroe. Much of the information is repeated in the AMC Backstories episode (described below), but Rothman has an engaging, no-nonsense style that maintains interest, and his articulate comments are worth checking out.
- Deleted Scenes (SD, 4 minutes) – Two brief deleted scenes from 'The Seven Year Itch' include some risqué elements deemed unsuitable for public consumption by the censors. One is a comic bit featuring Marilyn in a bubble bath and the other is an elongated version of the subway grating sequence.
- Featurette: "Hollywood Backstories: 'The Seven Year Itch'" (SD, 24 minutes) – This 2000 installment of the popular AMC series focuses on the background, production, censorship issues, and ultimate blockbuster success of 'The Seven Year Itch.' Interviews with playwright George Axelrod, director Billy Wilder, and others outline the turbulent shooting of this famous movie. Clips from a screen test by a then-unknown Walter Matthau are included, as well as discussions about Monroe's erratic behavior during filming, and how intense press coverage contributed to the demise of Monroe's marriage to Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio.
- Newsreel Footage (SD) – Three brief newsreel snippets are included on various discs. Monroe and Jane Russell put their hand and heel prints in cement in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theater in one clip (on the 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' disc), while a parade of celebrities, including Rock Hudson, Shelley Winters, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Monroe are all smiles at the premiere of 'How to Marry a Millionaire' in another. A sneak preview of 'The Seven Year Itch' is briefly captured in the final clip, and shows Marilyn attending the event with ex-husband and Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio.
- Still Galleries (HD) – Two galleries feature a wealth of rare photos from 'The Seven Year Itch.' The Publicity gallery includes 10 shots of posters and promotional material in both black-and-white and color, while the Behind-the-Scenes gallery displays 31 black-and-white production pictures, ranging from costume tests to on-set candids. We see Wilder directing Monroe and Ewell, Marilyn conferring with her acting coach, and several shots from the famous subway grating scene.
- Theatrical Trailers (SD) – Previews for each of the seven Monroe films in this collection are included. Two different trailers for 'There's No Business Like Show Business' can be accessed, as well as a Portuguese preview for the film; an Italian and German trailer are also included on the 'How to Marry a Millionaire' disc, in addition to that film's original preview, which is oddly in black-and-white; and a Spanish trailer is part of 'The Seven Year Itch' extras package. All these trailers, none of which have been restored, make us appreciate all the more the video makeovers Fox has given these movies.
Marilyn Monroe is forever alluring, beguiling, warm, sensual, playful, innocent, funny, sensitive, and heartbreaking, and 'Forever Marilyn' showcases all those facets with a solid, varied, seven-disc collection of the icon's work in spectacular 1080p. Though some may quibble with the titles selected (I did), carp about the flimsy, plain-Jane packaging (I did), and bemoan the paucity of supplements (I did), one can't argue that it's high time Monroe was feted on Blu-ray, and Fox has put its money where it really counts, producing video and audio restorations of the highest caliber and completely befitting one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history. If you haven't yet experienced Monroe's magnetism, then by all means do so now. And if you're already a seasoned fan, let me tell you, Marilyn is even more mesmerizing in high-def, where her often underrated gifts shine more brightly than ever before. The films themselves run the gamut from excellent to mediocre, yet like truly great stars, Marilyn meets the demands of the fine ones and rises above any substandard material. Blondes come and go, but there's only one Marilyn - now and, like the title of this essential collection says, forever. Highly recommended.
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