May 19, 1962 might have been the most high profile day in pianist Hank Jones’ life. Jones, who appears on more than 60 albums (including Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else) and has been awarded the Jazz Living Legend award by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, might not have been a household name, but back in 1962, one May day, he was part of something that almost everyone was talking about afterwards. He played piano on this:
Okay, so maybe the piano isn’t the most immediate thing you notice during Marilyn Monroe’s particularly breathy performance of “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy, 10 days ahead of his 45th birthday, but it was certainly there. It was arguably the sexiest rendition of the song to date — certainly the sexiest one performed in public, so much so that Kennedy joked, “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way” after the performance.
In honor of Monroe’s star turn, let’s remember the star at her best with these ten classic movies. (All are available via Netflix unless otherwise stated.)
DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952)
Monroe isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of film noir actresses, but that’s exactly what’s going on here as she plays the worst babysitter imaginable. After all, when you leave your kids with a sitter, you expect them to be alive when you return…
MONKEY BUSINESS (1952)
Even beyond Monroe, the cast list for Howard Hawks’ sci-fi comedy — in which a scientist accidentally invents a formula that makes the user believe they’re decades younger — is worth the price of admission by itself, with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers filling out the lead line-up. Come for the Marilyn, stay for the Grant slapstick.
Another film noir, with Monroe playing the femme fatale Rose, who literally lures men to their deaths. Unfortunately for her — but appropriately, considering the genre — things don’t turn out well for her despite her best laid plans. (And this in her first lead role, too!) Soon enough, she’d find a safer way to success…
Available on Amazon Prime
HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953)
Monroe plays a well-meaning, but dim, gold digger in this comedy, melting a million hearts in the process. The true fire can be found in Lauren Bacall, however, with a performance that’s at once melancholy, sexy and filled with a resigned amusement at the world.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953)
On the one hand, you could complain that Monroe’s playing another gold-digger in this Howard Hawks comedy released the same year as Millionaire, but on the other hand, she does it so well. It helps that she gets to play off Jane Russell this time around, and sing such beloved songs as “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” even if she was dubbed on the high notes. (Marni Nixon was the voice responsible.) Available to rent on Apple Movies
RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954)
The combination of Monroe, Robert Mitchum and the Western genre sounds like a strange one, and it only gets weirder from there: for example, the story was inspired by classic Italian masterpiece The Bicycle Thief. Very much an oddity in her filmography, it’s worth a watch just to see how incongruous she seems in the old west setting.
THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954)
The perils of the entertainment industry are laid bare in this shocking expose of… Okay, maybe not; but what this star-studded musical lacks in realism it makes up for in glitz: featuring the songs of Irving Berlin, the movie features Ethel Merman and Singin’ In The Rain’s Donald O'Connor, with everyone singing and dancing their hearts of until you don’t really care how flimsy the plot is.
THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955)
Billy Wilder’s whimsical take on the perils of monogamy — for those who haven’t seen the movie, the title refers to the period in a long-term relationship where eyes and attention spans may start to wander — remains as funny and ridiculous as it did when it was released, and Monroe’s nameless fantasy figure will still make pulses race when she stands atop that subway grate. Let’s just call this one “timeless.”
BUS STOP (1956)
Monroe abandons both comedy for this return to drama, in which she plays a singer who ends up the object of attraction for the clueless Beauregard Decker, a character who doesn’t seem to understand the rules of attraction or good manners, to say the least. Although it’s technically not a musical, Monroe does get to perform “That Old Black Magic,” which (appropriately) bewitches young Beau.
Available on Amazon Prime
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
Sure, arguments can be made for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or even Bus Stop as the quintessential Marilyn movie, but my vote is firmly cast for this screwball comedy that sees her play off Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as the two of them try to escape certain death by pretending to be members of an all-female jazz group. Over-the-top, unsubtle and all the better for it, director Billy Wilder brings out the best in all involved. Available to rent on Apple Movies