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Marilyn Monroe as Chanteuse [by David Lehman]

Marilyn-monroe-3-andrew-fareWe don't think of her as a singer, but Marilyn Monroe (whose birthday it is) sang -- and sang well. 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. (They shouldn't have dubbed Ava Gardner in Show Boat but that's another story.) See Marilyn making the most of a secondary role in Niagara, or fighting with her beau in Bus Stop, or teaming with Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or joining Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, 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.  

Some songs with male chorus and big brass solos, such as Berlin's "Heat Wave" ("she started a heat wave / by making her seat wave") are extravaganzas of sexual desire and energy. You can't keep your eyes off her, which is as it should be, but one consequence is that you don't hear enough of the voice. And wait till you hear her sing the same songwriter's "Lazy" and “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It.” Sublime. 4564db9354510ce5e46af8d22c914a96

Listen to her rendition of "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.

Marilyn Monroe After You Get What You WantCompare her version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" 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 forbids Love -- as if the abstraction stood for a Greek god or for the entire male sex -- to "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.

Ed. note: All BAP blog posts by David Lehman are copyright c David Lehman. All rights reserved.


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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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