She knew how to harness that body as a weapon, but it was also weaponized against her.– Amber Tamblyn
We already know how I feel about the marketing strategy with Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, but I’m all about watching something with a clean slate to give creative works a fair shot. Documentaries around Monroe tend to run the gamut between factual wonders and conspiracy theory-drive drivel. So, how is CNN’s latest entry into the Monroe documentary waters?
Overall, I have to say Part I is quite good.
It’s not going to introduce anything new to the weathered Monroe fan, but it’s evident a lot of heart was put into the film. I do think the absence of men as talking heads feels like virtue signaling (there are some excellent male experts on Monroe), but with the feminist angle the documentary pushes, I’m not overly shocked that’s what we got. A very minor complaint in the grand scheme of things; however, I would have preferred to see a man talking about Monroe’s impact rather than some of the questionable voices we got.
Below you’ll find my full review for Part I, divided into inaccuracies, what I liked and conflicting messages. Read on to learn what I hated and what I loved about Marilyn Monroe Reframed.
Claim: Norma Jeane barely knew Jim Doughtery
Fact: Marilyn and Jim dated before marriage even came up. While it’s questionable whether this budding romance would have resulted in marriage if Norma Jeane hadn’t faced the possibility of returning to the orphanage, it wasn’t an arranged marriage to a man she didn’t know. Letters to Berniece Miracle and Grace Goddard show a new wife enamoured with her husband and living as a housewife. While there’s a definite possibility Norma Jeane was trying to convince herself as much as her family members, but this isn’t mentioned. According to Jim, Norma Jeane was a receptive wife and the couple was very much in love while Marilyn would make it more of an arranged marriage. Personally, I would say the truth is somewhere in the middle.
There are framing issues throughout the documentary, although I would say these were for time rather than intentionally misleading the audience. Jumping from Marilyn getting placed in the orphanage in 1935 to the 1940s seems like she’s been there for 7-odd years, but Marilyn was actually there for the required year as designated by state law. Another glaring issue was making it seem like Jim enlisted in the service and got shipped to the South Pacific as soon as marrying Norma Jeane. In actuality, the couple spent over a year together before Jim left.
Marilyn fans will recognize the heavy use of Columbia publicity photos when talking about her first six months at Fox and the use of 1950 photos for Columbia years. Again, not a huge issue, but a little irritating when establishing her timeline.
Claim : Zanuck decided her contract with Dangerous Years
Fact: Marilyn had a larger role in Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!, starring June “Pocket Grable” Haver. Her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor minus the “Hi, Betty” exchange. While her handful of lines in Dangerous Years likely did contribute to Zanuck deciding to drop the aspiring starlet, there would’ve been more at work. I’m going to chalk this one up to time constraints rather than intentionally misleading the viewer. They also don’t point out that Monroe was at the studio for a year before getting dropped.
Claim: Joseph Schenck parties took from the Fox stable
Fact: This one is a bit dubious (I’ll go more into these parties in a minute). MGM talent scout Lucille Ryman and husband John Carroll introduced Monroe to Pat Di Cicco who then took the starlet to Joseph Schenck’s party as a date. Di Cicco was known to provide the girls for these parties, with author Stacy Eubank pointing out that Schenck’s parties were known to have “the best food and best whores in town.” This is not to insinuate that Monroe did anything at these parties (again, more on that in a minute), but she wasn’t pulled from the Fox stable for attendance.
Claim: Rita Hayworth was Latina
Fact: Rita Hayworth was Hispanic, not Latina.
Claim: Cohn makes her go platinum, uses photos from All About Eve to illustrate hair change, turns around and says within a month she’s in a starring role
Fact: Monroe’s shades of blonde did go through changes over the years, but photos show it also was an excellent color that was easily changed from looking quite light to dark, depending on the lighting. While it might have been lightened (although by a miniscule amount), she was far off from going the shade of platinum people associate with her. Furthermore, the documentary makes it sound like her physical transformation took months then claims she was starring in Ladies of the Chorus within a month of getting signed. In actuality, Monroe was signed on March 9th and began making Ladies in early June.
Claim: Marilyn points out wolves like no one else
Fact: This is a bit of a nitpick, but Monroe was far from the first or last person to talk about the casting couch or sexual assault in Hollywood. Reporter Omar Garrison wrote a large, 5-part expose about the seedy side of Hollywood, the casting couch and hopefuls becoming prostitutes and porn stars in 1949.
“I came to Hollywood just before Christmas in 1946, and boy, was I dumb! I didn’t know a casting couch from a doll buggy.”
– June LaddGarrison, Omar, 1949, “Hollywood: Fame or shame,” The Mirror, pg. 15.
As far as the “ground-breaking” ‘Hollywood Wolves’ article, plenty of women had complained about (or glorified) wolves in Hollywood for years:
Of course, Marilyn talked about wolves before “Wolves I Have Known,” primarily in this article from 1951:
Of course, the most famous case of a girl talking about “wolves” was Patricia Douglas, who was raped during an MGM party and took on the studio in 1937. While MGM worked hard to bury Douglas, and arguably succeeded until David Stenn’s wonderful Girl 27, the public knew about Hollywood’s treatment of aspiring starlets for years. I’m not saying Monroe’s 1953 article wasn’t important to the Hollywood lexicon, but to act like she was the first to talk about men exploiting women in Hollywood is simply wrong.
What I Liked
Overall, the documentary was pretty accurate. To only have a handful of issues after watching something for an hour is pretty great. Talking heads that stood out were Michelle Morgan, Cindy de la Haz and Christina Newland, and I look forward to seeing where the documentary goes with thought leaders like Angelica Jade Bastien. I especially liked hearing commentary about Monroe’s skills as a model from Nancy Lee Andrews (I’ve thought for years that she should have focused on modeling rather than making the jump to actress), and it’s refreshing to hear people talk about how Monroe was smart about playing the publicity game.
So, I have to admit that I did go into the documentary after reading that it sometimes contradicted itself, but I only noticed one contradiction. Alicia Malone and Mira Sorvino insinuate that Marilyn slept with Joseph Schenck to get ahead while Michelle Morgan talks about how Monroe had integrity by refusing to sleep with Cohn. Presumably, if she wouldn’t sleep with one studio head, she wouldn’t sleep with another. We’re never going to know Monroe’s bedroom partners, but both she and Schenck denied a physical relationship. I’ll leave this one up to viewers to decide.
Overall, I quite enjoyed it. I do think they’re setting up the patriarchy argument and making some pretty big claims (like her performance of “Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy” being some feminist manifesto), but we’ll see what happens. Most inaccuracies start in the 1950s, so I’m a bit wary about how that will go. However, I definitely recommend Part 1, and I look forward to seeing where the rest of the documentary goes.
Claim: Johnny Hyde got her the role of Angela in The Asphalt Jungle.
Fact: It was more likely a combination of Lucille Ryman and Johnny Hyde. For a documentary looking to focus on the importance of a woman in Hollywood, it’s a little odd to ignore Ryman’s contributions to building Monroe.
Claim: Love Nest was released in April 1951.
Fact: Love Nest was released in October 1951.
Claim: Let’s Make It Legal was released in May 1951
Fact: Let’s Make It Legal was released in November 1951.
Claim: People said Marilyn dated Joe DiMaggio as a publicity stunt, and it likely was a publicity stunt.
Fact: Going to preface this by saying that Sarah Churchwell has made some really weird claims throughout this documentary so far, and this is by far the weirdest. DiMaggio and Monroe were set up by mutual friends and met in private. DiMaggio wouldn’t have agreed to go out with a starlet for publicity. Later, Churchwell claims it turned into real love.
Claim: Hugh Hefner exploited Monroe by using her photos in the first issue of Playboy without consulting her. Hefner running the Golden Dreams shot put shame on those photos by renewing public interest.
Fact: This is actually more of an opinion, but I’m going to squeeze it in here. Life magazine ran one of the Red Velvet photos and they had made their way onto an assortment of products, from playing cards to dinner trays, since Monroe was named. Hefner licensed the photos for a small, 50,000 issue run. While it can be argued his method was exploitative, I never see anyone go after Life or any other manufacturers who licensed the photos in question. Hefner always held a soft spot for Monroe, and she was in negotiations to pose for Playboy at the time of her death. As far as renewing interest in those photos, it hadn’t died when Hefner ran them. It’s unlikely the magazine impacted her career.
Claim: Monroe called the press about her wedding to Joe DiMaggio.
Fact: Monroe called Harry Brand, Fox’s publicity boss, to inform him she was marrying Joe in an hour. Brand got on the phone with the press, informing them where she will be. Realistically, I would imagine Monroe thought they’d get there when she was leaving; however, nearly every reporter in town got there within minutes. Regardless, Marilyn didn’t call the press herself.
Claim: Marilyn was approached about performing in Korea two days into her honeymoon with Joe in Japan.
Fact: Marilyn agreed to perform before leaving the U.S. She wouldn’t have had time to come up with her act, rehearse and figure out a tour schedule in the time the documentary claims.
What I Liked
A great entry that contextualizes Monroe well. The documentary isn’t looking for a victim angle which is refreshing. While some of the language is a little flowery, I know what I’m getting into with a program like this, and I’m not going to fault people for being more positive or glowing than I am when discussing Monroe.
I actually liked this one more than part one. I think it paints Monroe well and doesn’t shy away from showcasing her as a person. Sarah Churchwell’s commentary is a bit disappointing, but it’s countered well by Bastien, Morgan and de la Hoz. I do wish that Monroe scholars like Morgan and de la Hoz were featured a little more for proper context, because the focus on Churchwell gets tiring. I think the documentary shows promise, and for the handful of inaccuracies I found in it, there are many things the program gets right.