The case for devouring two modern comic classics.
Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
They wouldn’t have much to say to each other at a dinner party, but there are few more delightful young women in modern literature than Miss Lorelei Lee and Miss Flora Poste, the indomitable, and conniving, heroines of two of the best comic novels of all time, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) and Cold Comfort Farm (1932).
Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953)
Some people, I suspect, may only know these two masterpieces by the films made from them. I recently checked out a VHS tape from the local library of Cold Comfort Farm, directed by John Schlesinger from a screenplay by Malcolm Bradbury and starring a radiant Kate Beckinsale. Before I’d even handed over my library card, a middle-aged stranger approached and said that this was one of her favorite movies and she watched it over and over. I asked if she’d ever read the book. No. Yet for all the pleasures of the film, the novel is ten times as good. This is true, too, of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was turned into a musical comedy directed by Howard Hawks with delicious performances by Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and Charles Coburn. In it the divine Miss M even sings her classic showstopper, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Still, if you’ve never read the novels, you’re really missing out on much of the comedy, for both Anita Loos (1888-1981) and Stella Gibbons (1902-1989) are irresistible prose stylists. Lorelei Lee’s wide-eyed ditziness is nothing less than a joy forever. Take just the opening sentences from this “illuminating diary of a professional lady”:
From the very first, Anita Loos’s novel was a hit, almost a craze, and won the fervent admiration of some of the most unlikely people, including Edith Wharton (who said it was the best thing of its kind since Manon Lescaut), the future Duke of Windsor, who bought multiple copies, and the formidable critic-poet William Empson, who composed a villanelle entitled “Reflections on Anita Loos.” To this day, Lorelei Lee remains a source of worldly wisdom that even Lord Chesterfield would envy: “I mean I always seem to think that when a girl really enjoys being with a gentleman, it puts her to quite a disadvantage and no real good can come of it.”
Her reputation notwithstanding, Lorelei never views herself as a gold digger; she’s simply “one of the kind of girls that things happen to.” Consider how she came to leave Little Rock, Arkansas. While taking a stenography course, the young blonde attracted the eye of a lawyer named Mr. Jennings, who quickly offered her a job:
Pages go by before Lorelei reveals whether Jennings survived the shooting or not.
Now living in New York, the former stenographer and actress has become the special friend of Gus Eisman, the Button King. Lorelei resides in an apartment with her black maid Lulu, spends a lot of time with her girlfriend Dorothy, and dines regularly at the Ritz. She has a passion for shopping and expensive jewelry. As she memorably observes during a trip abroad, “I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.” It’s hard not to hear Marilyn Monroe’s little girl voice pouting that sentence.