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Marilyn Monroe Movies: A Brief Guide to Her Classic Roles

Updated on March 31, 2012

She is, of course, the yardstick against whom all other sex symbols are compared. Norma Jeane Mortenson, better known as Marilyn Monroe.

She had the look. She had the hair. She had the body. She had the little-girl pout and the sultry voice. Yet above all, she was an actress -- or at least she tried to be. She had professional training, having attended the Actor's Studio in New York under the direction of Lee Strasberg and having had a number of acting coaches. That she was sexy is a given. She could also be funny or serious or charming depending on the venue. And there were quite a few.

Her career spanned fifteen years, from 1947 to her death on August 4, 1962. Here is a guide to her classic films, which were released from 1953 onward when she was at the height of her popularity.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Arguably the film in which Marilyn is at her most Marilyn, Monroe stars opposite Jane Russell as Lorelei Lee, a role originated on Broadway by Carol Channing after the protagonist of a 1925 novel by Anita Loos. The film follows Lorelei and her friend Dorothy Shaw (Russell) as they sail to Europe and have various misadventures.

Monroe was an accomplished singer and this film is a musical. Its most memorable number (and the one most often imitated) is "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", where Monroe, dressed in a pink strapless gown and pink gloves, and wearing tons of bling, lists the advantages of jewelry over men. But she has some other good numbers, too, such as "Bye, Bye, Baby" and "Two Little Girls from Little Rock," the latter of which she sings with Russell.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

This film has Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall playing three single women sharing a fabulous New York penthouse as they set out to meet the men of their dreams -- namely men with money. They have varying degrees of success because not everyone who seems to be loaded actually is. Monroe is hilarious as the beautiful (correction, stunning) yet blind-as-a-bat Pola Debevoise, who is equally funny with and without her glasses, which she refuses to wear because of that whole Dorothy Parker thing. (The scene where the elegantly-dressed Pola walks straight into a wall as she leaves the room is priceless.)

There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

Though she has several musical numbers, Monroe is but one of the stars in this classic backstage tale whose cast also includes Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Johnny Ray, Mitzi Gaynor and Donald O'Connor as the Five Donahues, a show business family. As hat-check girl Victoria Hoffman (later rechristened Vicky Parker as she pursues her own show business career), Monroe engages in an onscreen romance with Tim Donahue (O'Connor) over his family's objections. Everything turns out okay and in the end Monroe joins the family to sing the title song, which Merman first sang on Broadway as part of Irving Berlin's classic musical Annie Get Your Gun.

The Seven-Year Itch (1955)

Next to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, perhaps the most iconic of Monroe's films. Billed simply as The Girl (although at one point it dawns on co-star Tom Ewell that "Maybe she's Marilyn Monroe"), she is best known for the scene where she stands over a subway grating in a white dress and lets the wind blow where it will. Supposedly Joe DiMaggio, her husband at the time, was incensed at the idea of his wife flashing everyone from the waist down in the middle of Manhattan during the filming, but Marilyn had taken the precaution of wearing not one but two pairs of panties that night. (Normally she didn't wear any.)

Itch tells the story of married man Richard (Ewell) whose wife and family are vacationing in Maine while he stays home and discovers The Girl is renting an apartment nearby. After seven years of marriage the itch to stray supposedly kicks in, and the film deals with how well Richard deals with his itch.

Bus Stop (1956)

Marilyn had a lot riding on this film because it was her chance to demonstrate that she was a serious actress by taking on a straight dramatic role. By and large she was taken seriously, though she had her detractors. (One wag proposed changing the tagline to "Monroe Acts!")

In the film Monroe plays Cherie, a self-described "chantoozie" on her way to Hollywood hoping to get her big break. But Beau, a rodeo cowboy played by Don Murray, has other ideas. He's become quite taken with her and intends to bring her back to Montana with him as his bride. The film was based on two plays by William Inge, Bus Stop and People in the Wind. Monroe gives an excellent performance complete with Southern accent.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

A classic film in every sense of the word (the American Film Institute voted it the best comedy film of all time in 2000), Some Like It Hot is as much about Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as it is about Marilyn. Musicians Jerry (Lemmon) and Joe (Curtis) inadvertently witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago and try to escape the Mob's wrath by posing as women and joining an all-girl band on its way to Florida. Naturally, hilarity ensues. Monroe is cast as singer and ukulele player Sugar Kowalczyk, aka Sugar Kane, who makes it hard for Joe and Jerry to maintain their female guises.

Joe eventually doffs his, posing instead as Junior, the supposed heir to the Shell Oil fortune. (His love scene with Monroe is what sparked the comment "Kissing her is like kissing Hitler," upon hearing which Monroe was understandably outraged. Curtis later said he was only kidding.) The film is also known for its amusing final line and for the fact that part of it was filmed at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego. Monroe received a Golden Globe for her performance in this film.

The Misfits (1961)

This film is notable primarily because it was the last film for both Marilyn and Clark Gable, who had never worked with her before and who had a heart attack two days after shooting was completed. (He died ten days later.) That working with Marilyn precipitated the heart attack is the stuff of legend. More likely, it was the result of the 59-year-old Gable insisting on doing his own stunts in 108-degree heat.

The Misfits tells the story of new divorcee Rosyln Taber (Marilyn) who hooks up with cowboy Gay (Gable) on the fringes of Reno's divorce colony. The film was adapted from a short story written with Marilyn in mind by her third husband, Arthur Miller, who had some experience in the colony after having spent a few weeks there waiting out his own divorce from Mary Slattery so that he could marry Monroe. The film does have a dark, Milleresque feel to it, due perhaps in no small part to the fact that it was shot in black and white.

Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter and Eli Wallach also appear in the film, which was directed by veteran John Huston. Until the era of DVDs the film was a commercial failure and Marilyn hated her performance in it.

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