Archive for January, 2010


Falling for “Niagara” and Marilyn Monroe

1953 was a good year for Marilyn Monroe. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “How to Marry a Millionaire,” and “Niagara” would deliver the one-two-three punch needed to cement her status as a box office star. “Niagara” stands out because of how much it differs from the other two.

Ray and Polly Cutler (Max Showalter and Jean Peters) arrive at Niagara Falls for a belated honeymoon and get pulled into the web of George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) and his beautiful but deadly wife Rose (Marilyn Monroe). For a B picture, the plot is pretty tight, the scenery is breathtaking, and the acting is quite effective (with the exception of Showalter who seems inappropriately over the top). Monroe is the centerpiece though, dominating every scene she’s in and holding everything together. When “Niagara” turns its attention elsewhere, it loses some of its momentum.

Although the role of Rose wasn’t specifically written for Monroe, she pulls it off. She was still under contract at 20th Century Fox as a stock actor, and as a result, made less money than her makeup man on “Niagara.” The similarities between Rose and Monroe’s own situation at the time are striking. In “Niagara,” George marries Rose for her appearance, her magnetism, and her effect of men. However, he becomes jealous and resentful about those very qualities that had initially attracted him to her. This parallels Monroe’s relationship with husband Joe DiMaggio. I’ve written more on Monroe here.

Joseph Cotten (George) is best known for his films with Orson Welles, such as “Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “The Third Man.” In “Niagara,” he successfully presents a troubled and abusive man quite sympathetically. Jean Peters (Polly) won a trip to Hollywood in 1946 after winning a Miss Ohio State pageant and was married to Howard Hughes from 1957 until 1971. She got the role of Polly after Anne Baxter dropped out, causing the screenwriters to then focus more on Monroe’s character. Max Showalter (Ray) starred in musical theater (including over 3000 performances of the original Broadway version of “Hello Dolly”) and was also a composer, songwriter, and pianist. He was cast as the original Ward Cleaver in the “Leave it to Beaver” TV pilot. His most recognizable role (to me) was as one of Molly Ringwald’s grandfathers in “Sixteen Candles.” “Niagara” director Henry Hathaway started out as a child actor in Westerns until he enlisted in World War I. After the war, he went into finance and then became an assistant director in Hollywood. He had a reputation for being difficult with actors, although Monroe and John Wayne (whom Hathaway directed to an Oscar win for “True Grit”) seemed to work well with him.

“Niagara” was received fairly well by audiences and critics alike. Critics and studio promotion paid special attention to equating Niagara Falls’ beauty and dangerous power to Monroe and her character.

Interestingly, there are quite a few similarities between “Niagara” and Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958):

  • A blonde who enchants a conflicted male hero
  • Scenes in which this hero follows her in silence from location to location
  • Climbing up and down stairs
  • The importance of a bell tower as a site of murder
  • Plans to kill spouses and returns from the dead (plot points that are also prevalent in “Les Diaboliques,” written by the same novelist as the novel from which “Vertigo” was adapted
    • I’ve written about “Vertigo” here and “Les Diaboliques” here