“She’s as phony as a three dollar bill, and you’re trying to make her real”, director Howard Hawks told 20th Century-Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck after the latter complained about losing money on his studio’s recent films with Marilyn Monroe. Hawks continued: “She belongs in an outrageous comedy or in a musical”1. The director had come to know Monroe, and had developed a rapport with her, after giving her lifts home from cocktail parties in Palm Springs. In Hawks’ account, Zanuck subsequently took him at his word. In the space of 12 months, between March 1952 and February 1953, Hawks had directed two films with Monroe for Fox, the screwball comedy Monkey Business (1952) and the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

If Gentlemen Prefer Blondes cemented Monroe’s status as a preeminent leading actress, then Monkey Business is the last in a line of character actress supporting roles. Here she is Lois Laurel, secretary to Charles Coburn’s Mr. Oxly – who is the boss of the chemical company where Cary Grant’s Prof. Barnaby Fulton works as a research chemist. Grant is failing to fulfil his boss’ wishes to create an elixir of youth, until one of the lab’s test chimpanzees escapes from its cage and creates the formula, dumping it into a drinking fountain. Grant and his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) accidently drink the solution, mentally reverting to their teenage selves.

When we meet Monroe’s Lois she has arrived early to work, announcing that her boss has complained about her “punctuation”. Later, when Grant’s scientist, under the spell of the elixir, runs off to buy a new car, Oxly asks Lois to “Go to every Ford agency and find Dr. Fulton”. “Which shall I do first?”, she responds. The joke of her character is clear – she’s the dumb blonde, but as in all her performances of this archetype, Monroe inhabits it with wonderful timing and a genuine comic sense.

These qualities are encapsulated in her first scene, when she tells Barnaby that “I have something to show you”, and promptly puts her foot onto a couch, lifting her skirt slightly above her knee. Then, after a brief pause, she proclaims: “Isn’t it wonderful? The new non-rip plastic stockings you invented.” Holding her pose and discussing the stockings with Grant, she breathlessly concludes: “You’d be amazed doctor.” It’s an action that dances on the edge of appealing coyness and naivety; a sexual tension that somehow never crosses over into vulgarity. In a shot typical of Hawks, the actors’ bodies are shown in full, resisting the temptation to immediately cut to a close-up of Monroe’s thigh. This plays into the action’s ambiguity. It’s the kind of moment that Monroe was an expert at cultivating; allowing members of all genders and sexualities to project their desires onto her.

And it was cultivated. Hawks tells the story of a very different Monroe behind the scenes: “she’d sit around the set and nobody’d pay any attention to her. People wouldn’t take her out. And yet she had this strange effect when she was photographed.”2 But if Andrew Dominik’s Blonde (2022) acts as some kind of barometer, the idea that Monroe was the conscious author of her onscreen persona, subsequently taken advantage of through typecasting and exploitation, is one that is still not well understood in mainstream discourse on the actor.

Dramatically, Monroe acts as a foil to Rogers’ Edwina, the film’s Hawksian Woman. After Grant takes the elixir of youth he spends the afternoon in adolescent abandon, driving, skating, and swimming with Monroe – a contrast to the more mature pleasures he enjoys with Rogers. This highlights a rather strange aspect of Monkey Business’ structure. The central romantic couple’s ability to navigate their social and professional obligations while meeting their sexual needs is already resolved by the film’s opening. This is communicated by a wonderfully written initial domestic scene that borders on erotic. This sits in marked contrast to Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the earlier film, Grant’s palaeontologist is doomed to a loveless marriage before he realises his potential mistake during his escapades with Katherine Hepburn’s Susan. The elixir of youth in Monkey Business poses a threat to good, mature marital sex. The characters have nothing to learn from it. It is only their eventual lack of interest in the tonic at the film’s conclusion that allows order to be restored. It makes the film a sort of atomic-age comedy of remarriage, with unchecked scientific advancement, rather than divorce, allowing the lead couple to flirt and consider other romantic possibilities before their inevitable reunion.

It would be tempting for contemporary audiences to find Monkey Business’ reiteration of Monroe’s dumb blonde character sexist and, by extension, class Hawks as a sexist director, but the intentions of the film are complicated. Hawks’ strengths and weaknesses hinge on his non-intellectual approach, what Robin Wood calls “his intuitive response and spontaneous involvement”3. As a result, Monkey Business reflects many of the latent attitudes of post-war America. This, coupled with Hawks’ intuitive practice of building gags upon gags until they reach their logical conclusion, leads the film down some strange corridors. The blackface sequence that follows after Barnaby gets paint on himself in a fight with Edwina is one of these, particularly when – audacious even for 1952 – it transforms into a redface sequence after Grant’s character happens across a group of children playing as Native Americans. We may also be made uncomfortable by the likely animal abuse of the two chimpanzees trained for the film. Though, when Hawks’ camera tracks back as one of the chimps swings open its cage door, it’s hard not to be reminded of the pan of the camera in Bringing Up Baby as Hepburn’s Susan does the same. As an audience we are struck by a strong sense of affection towards both subjects.

While Hawks was mostly dismissive of Monkey Business in subsequent interviews – “I don’t believe the premise was really believable and for that reason the film was not as funny as it should have been”4 – it found advocates amongst key Hawks critics. Wood called it “Scarface apart, Hawks’ greatest comedy”5, and Jacques Rivette penned “The Genius of Howard Hawks” in response to the film’s French release, an essay that would become central to Hitchcocko-Hawksianism. Rivette was fascinated by how the film “gaily, logically, and with an unholy abandon – chronicl[es] the fatal stages in the degradation of a superior mind.” So profound were these concerns that he found himself “quite unable to join in the laughter of a packed theatre”6.

Perhaps because much of the “degradation” displayed uses racist iconography, it is difficult for modern audiences to reach the same conclusions that Rivette did in 1953. Monkey Business does, though, allow us to consider Hawks’ influence on the French critic-director, particularly in relation to their shared preoccupation with letting things play out in a mix of careful calibration and improvisation. Take, for example, the long take in which Rogers perfectly balances a beaker of the elixir-laced coffee on her head, lying down on the floor while Grant looks the other way. With impeccable timing, she stands up again as Grant’s attention is caught by the ringing of the phone and his head finally turns. It’s the type of spark that is kindled in Rivette’s work by details such as Pascale Ogier’s kung-fu choreography in Le Pont du Nord (1981), or Jean Pierre-Leaud’s dangling of an Eiffel Tower souvenir in Out 1 (1971).

Despite its influence, Hawks is mostly correct – the film’s attempt at anarchic energy never quite reaches the comedic heights of, say, the 1931 Marx Brothers film of the same title. Since Jane Russell revealed that Hawks didn’t direct the musical sequences for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monkey Business can be considered Monroe’s and his only full collaboration7. Not exactly a bountiful partnership, but one that catches Hollywood’s greatest director and its most iconic star at a fascinating intersection.

Monkey Business (1952 USA 97 mins)

Prod Co: 20th Century-Fox Prod: Sol C. Siegel Dir: Howard Hawks Scr: I. A. L. Diamond, Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht Phot: Milton R. Krasner Ed: William B. Murphy Art Dir: Lyle R. Wheeler, George Patrick Mus: Leigh Harline

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn, Hugh Marlowe, Henri Letondal, Larry Keating


  1. Hawks quoted in Tony Macklin, “Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews”, Howard Hawks: Interviews, ed. Scott Breivold, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2006, 130–131.
  2. Hawks quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington, “A Discussion with the Audience of the 1970 Chicago Film Festival”, Focus on Howard Hawks, ed. Joseph McBride, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1972, 21.
  3. Robin Wood, Howard Hawks, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2006, 10.
  4. Hawks quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, “Interview with Howard Hawks”, Howard Hawks: Interviews, 33.
  5. Wood, 72.
  6. Jacques Rivette, “The Genius of Howard Hawks”, trans. Adrian Brine, Russell Campbell, and Marvin Pister, Cahiers du Cinéma. The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1985, 126.
  7. “Hawks had nothing to do with the musical numbers… He was not even there.” Jane Russell quoted in Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, New York, Grove Press, 1997, 508.

About The Author

Andréas Giannopoulos is a Melbourne-based narrative film director and writer. He recently completed a Master of Arts Screen: Directing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and is a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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