• Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Revisiting Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at the Music Box this weekend (as part of the ongoing series of classic musicals) rekindled an internal debate that I’ll likely never resolve: Who’s the greatest American filmmaker, John Ford or Howard Hawks? Every time I consider the question (it happens every couple years) I know I’m embarking upon a fool’s errand, and yet it seems vital that I do. Just about everything I value in Hollywood cinema finds its greatest expression in the work of these two directors—principally, the development of serious, even philosophical art from the materials of genre storytelling. If Ford was the poet laureate of American movies, lyrically exploring the national character through the endless permutation of favorite motifs, then Hawks was its supreme prose stylist, his precise, unfaltering syntax conveying a complex worldview with perfect clarity and without sacrificing the immediate pleasures of popular narrative film.

I don’t need to go further into what makes these filmmakers important and what distinguishes them from each other—those subjects have inspired untold amounts of criticism and film scholarship, and I doubt I have anything new to add to the pile. What I want to address here is how Gentlemen Prefer Blondes approaches what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema,” the conveyance of meaning through the harmonious interplay of all aspects of filmmaking. The presentation of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in front of single-tone backdrops is one example of this. Against the bold color, they seem, literally, like jewels, and this underscores the Monroe character’s materialism as well as the overpowering charisma of both women.

Russell (as well as her character) is at the height of her powers in the musical number “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?,” which finds the sex-crazed Dorothy Shaw coming on to the entire U.S. Olympic team in a gym. There’s arguably nothing innovative about the scene: the architectural organization of bodies recalls Busby Berkeley’s choreography, the visual joke of a person surrounded by too much of a good thing can be found in numerous Ernst Lubitsch comedies. Yet its particular glory is unique to Hawks. The spectacle (presented, for the most part, in unpretentious medium shots that balance heroine and environment and grant the actors a good deal of playing space within the shot) never overwhelms our sense of character or theme. The images might scream lust, but the song (a playful, rhythmically complex number by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson) and Russell’s coy expressions convey that Dorothy wants something more than that—not love per se, but some authentic feeling to offset the geometry of her environment.

The movie fulfills her desire (as all good movies do!) with the entrance of love-interest Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), yet Hawks provides a wonderful sense of temporary satisfaction in the last moments of the scene. One of the Olympic divers knocks Russell into the gymnasium pool midchorus, depriving her somewhat of her composure before she takes her final pose. It’s one of the greatest accidents in movie history. Russell wasn’t meant to fall in the pool, but Hawks, recognizing a good punch line when he saw one, decided to keep it in the film. This points to one of the unique properties of cinematic art, the ability of filmmakers to preserve moments of spontaneity within an immaculate structure. Is there any other American director who did this more meaningfully than Hawks?

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.