The Magazine

Funny Girls

The case for devouring two modern comic classics.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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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).

Photo from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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”:

A gentleman friend and I were dining at the Ritz last evening and he said that if I took a pencil and a paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book. This almost made me smile as what it would really make would be a whole row of encyclopediacs. I mean I seem to be thinking practically all of the time. I mean it is my favorite recreation and sometimes I sit for hours and do not seem to do anything else
but think.

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:

So Mr. Jennings helped me quite a lot and I stayed in his office about a year when I found out he was not the kind of gentleman that a young girl is safe with. I mean one evening when I went to pay a call on him at his apartment, I found a girl there who really was famous all over Little Rock for not being nice. So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of hysterics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings.

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.