Director: Phil Karson
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Adele Jergens, Rand Brooks, Nana Bryant
Plot: A mother (Jergens) worries about her daughter (Monroe), when she becomes wrapped up in a relationship with a man (Brooks) whose family do not know about her burlesque career.
When it comes to the cinema icons, we like to think of them as some glorious, untouchable figures. Take Marilyn Monroe. When you think of the iconic actress, your main impression would be a woman whose personal life was wrought with drama, but she came alive when acting, her true passion. However, it becomes disheartening when those ideals are proven wrong. Without taking anything away from the powerhouse Monroe would become, her debut lead role in Ladies of the Chorus is a little bit of a damp squib.
The story is hypothetically interesting. Monroe and her mother work on a burlesque show as the ladies of the chorus. Adele Jergens (hands up – she out-acts Monroe here), plays the mother hen to her shy daughter, keeping her wrapped up in bubble-wrap, scared that she is not ready for the outside world. There is a reason for Jergens’ caution around her daughter. When she was growing up in the burlesque circuit, she fell in love with an audience member, who wanted her hand in marriage. When she accepted his proposal, his family and friends rejected Jergens’ station as a burlesque dancer and humiliated her. Jergens is trying to save Monroe from that devastating experience. However, as Monroe climbs the burlesque ladder, she meets the attention of Rand Brooks’ charismatic customer. Tired of her sheltered lifestyle, Monroe ignores her mother’s wishes and gets wrapped up in a whirlwind romance with Brooks. The next thing a worried Jergens knows is that Monroe has been proposed to and history starts horrifically repeating itself. Ladies of the Chorus is onto a good idea, focusing on the mythology of burlesque dancers and if the prejudice surrounding them is justified. Director Karson dives into the dressing room and makes every dancer – even the extras – feel grounded in reality, real girls with issues with dating and paying rent. They do not seem like the caricatures the outside world portrays them as. And there are some strong scenes like Monroe tracking her mystery lover to the florist he frequents, a rare moment in this film where Monroe shows the kind of charismatic leading lady she is due to become. The framing is decent too, with Monroe getting the main portion of narrative, but the events being shown through the eyes of the nervous mother on the side-lines, so the story becomes infused with a sense of tension before it has even done anything. You are waiting for things to go wrong, before the director has even hinted that there won’t be a happy ending.
Sadly, Karson directs this movie with a lifeless drifting sensation. The events play out rather boringly, few twists and bumps on the road. The shocks saved for the end of the movie are quite easy to see coming, meaning that they don’t have the effect Karson was obviously hoping for. This is also technically a musical, but not in the ‘breaking out of character to burst into song’ way – most of the performances are on stage and referenced by the other characters. Monroe is also surprisingly restrained when singing. That being said, some of the songs are surprisingly strong here, even if they come with the painful accompaniment of slowing down the story too much. Supporting characters are introduced, without being properly developed. The finale of the show is taken away from Jergens and Monroe and given to the mother of Monroe’s husband-to-be, Nana Bryant. But seeing as we have no idea who she is or why she deserves to send the movie out with a song, it feels like Karson has simply lost control of his own movie. There is also a strange scene smacked in the middle of the movie, where a painter/decorator duo, father and son, crop up at a manor and provide some truly baffling humour. It feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie, worth watching, because its addition into the film is so bizarre that it needs to be seen to be believed. All in all, the end result of Ladies of the Chorus is one of those interesting blasts from the past, but one that should have been a lot better.
Final Verdict: Monroe’s debut lead role is sadly trapped in a rather lifeless movie that has a few neat beats, but otherwise, is quite dull.