We don't think of her as a singer, but Marilyn Monroe (whose birthday is today), sang. Unlike Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak in Pal Joey, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, she needed no dubbing. (In another column I will salute the wonderful voices that emerge from Mesdames Hayworth, Novak, Kerr, Wood, and Hepburn in those flicks. Say, does anyone say "flicks" anymore?) See Marilyn making the most of a secondary role in Niagara, or teaming with Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or joining Mitzi Gaynor and Donald O'Connor on the Irving Berlin bandwagon in There's No Business Like Show Business, or cavorting with cross-dressers Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot. She sings in each of these movies and the songs are noteworthy, each and all. The way she pronounces the "z" in "Lazy," for example, or the electricity when she strolls among the nightclub plutocrats and sagely notes that "after you get what you want you don't want it. / I could give you the moon, / you'd be tired of it soon. / You're like a baby, / that wants what it wants when it wants it, / ah, but when you are presented / with what you want you're discontented." (Irving Berlin never fails to amaze me.) This lyric was made to order for Miss Monroe.
Some songs with male chorus and big brass solos, such as "Heat Wave," are extravaganzas of sexual desire and energy. There's a heat wave coming in from the south and you can't keep your eyes of the north of her body even as your brain wanders to the tropics. "The way that she moves / the thermometer proves / that she certainly can can-can." No, you can't keep your eyes off her, all of her, which is as it should be, but one consequence is that you don't hear enough of the voice. Listen to her do "I'm Through with Love," or "I Wanna Be Loved By You," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" or "Bye Bye, Baby" -- but listen to the songs without looking at the visuals. You'll hear a melodious voice of limited range, thin but accurate, with a husky low register, a breathy manner, and a rare gift of vibratro. When her voice trembles over a note -- over "you" or "baby" -- the effect is seductive and yet is almost a caricature of the seductress's vamp. The paradox of her singing is that she reveals her sexual power and flaunts her vulnerability -- to flip the usual order of those verbs. She can be intimate and ironic at the same time.
Compare MM's version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) with Carol Channing's definitive Broadway treatment, and you get the essential difference between theater and cinema, New York and Hollywood. Channing's is the superior theatrical experience: funny, charming, a show-stopper of the first order. But Channing serves the song where Monroe makes her songs sound like illustrations of her life. Monroe's treatment of "Diamonds" may not be as effective as Channing's in its service to Leo Robin's marvelous lyric for Jules Styne's delightful tune. But Monroe's version is younger, friskier, sexier. When she sings it, the song is about her. Music is the food of love, and sexual ecstasy is on the menu, for dessert.
Nowhere is she better than "I'm Through with Love," which she sings in Some Like It Hot. Gus Kahn's lyric, which rhymes "I'm through" with "adieu," is as apt for Marilyn as "Falling in Love Again" was for Marlene Dietrich. In "I'm Through with Love," the singer feigns nonchalance, affects an uncaring attitude. But melodically during the bridge, and lyrically in the line "for I must have you or no one," the song lets us know just how much she does care. Monroe implies this pathos in "I'm Through with Love" at the same time as she struts her stuff. She vows that she'll "never fall again" and commands Love -- as if the abstraction stood for a Greek god or for the entire male sex -- to cease and desist; don't "ever call again." But we don't quite believe her, because we know temptation is just around the corner. In a sense, her voice thrusts out its hips when she sings. It's a feast for all the senses. -- DL