Let’s Make Love (1960): Cukor on Directing Marilyn Monroe–Staging the Number, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”

During the prolonged deliberations over Lady L, which would never materialize, director George Cukor busied himself with Let’s Make Love, his first picture with star Marilyn Monroe, then at the height of her fame (after appearing in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot”), and French singer-actor, Yves Montand.

Like “Heller in Pink Tights,” starring Sophia Loren, Let’s Make Love is a light film, albeit one with some serious thematic overtones and stronger artistic values.

Though the material is rather slight, the film features one of Cukor’s dominant themes: the magic of show business.  At times, Cukor pays stronger visual attention to the theatrical setting of a Greenwich Village club than to the characters.  He conveys vividly the chaos of rehearsal, the confusion of activities of a company in the midst of putting on a show, the excitement of performing.

In the end, the spirit of play and joyous sense of theatricality succeeds in conquering Clement’s otherwise stiff persona, shaking his bureaucratic world, which is earlier captured in long shots of his formally decorated office (with its huge empty desk).

Having scored a huge success in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Monroe was at the height of her career. A proven entity, Cukor did not have to mold her image; he took it as a given. Let’s Make Love was one of the few films, in which Cukor had no influence over its star. In fact, Cukor benefitted from Monroe’s popularity, on and offscreen. There were always press people on the set, and Cukor and the film got immense publicity.

He did, however, staged a splashy entrance–royal entrée, his said–for Monroe’s first showing in the film, based on his belief that, “like all great performers, when Marilyn enters, it should be an occasion.”  There’s a sense of anticipation, as Monroe appears about 17 minutes into the story, with her legs shinnying down a pole center stage, rehearsing her big number, the Cole Porter classic, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Wearing a tight purple sweater over black panties, she tells the audience  in the club: “My name is Lolita.”

Cukor alternates shots of Marilyn’s Amanda and an all-male chorus, emphasizing the whiteness of Monroe’s skin and her blonde hair. Lighting is a key factor in this sequence, with spotlights illuminating Monroe’s features. 

With focused spotlight on Monroe, the camera caresses her as she takes off her sweater and throws it on Montand, who is at the club.  The song last about 4 minutes, with only a few interrupted cuts, back to Montand as he is watching (and lusting after) her. At the end of the number, she kisses  one of the boys, blows kisses at the viewers, and winks at the audience.

The movie encourages voyeurism bordering on sexism (this was after all 1960) on the part of the club’s guest and the movie’s viewers. Thus while watching Monroe intensely, Montand’s Clement fantasizes about his own performing with her the sexually suggestive song.

Monroe was very pleased with Cukor’s careful mise-en-scene and her own performance; in fact, she used this song in some later recordings, and it became a staple in documentaries about her work after her untimely death, in June 1962.

Cukor found Marilyn to be intelligent, but unusually tough, considering her public screen image.  To him, she was a modern reincarnation of Harlow, possessing the same mixture of simplicity and overpowering sexual femininity.  Talking about her, he said: “Marilyn had the same talent as Jean Harlow to create an “exaggerated feeling of enchantment.”

Her natural gift for comedy, and style of delivery, also resembled ingredients of Harlow’s singular persona. Both actresses delivered their lines as if they didn’t quite know what they meant.

But there was one major difference between the two stars: Monroe was more profoundly distressed than the even-tempered Harlow, who was pleasure to work with. “Marilyn was quite crazy,” Cukor once said, “she was surrounded by advisers and full of bad judgments.”

At the same time, he was admired Monroe’s “amazingly reckless intensity” as a performer. In one scene, in which she was wearing high heels, she ran blindly, as though her life depended on it. Cukor had to place himself beside the camera, in order to stop her from colliding with it and injuring herself.

“Marilyn’s face moves,” Cukor told the British critic Kenneth Tynan, “it catches the light–it’s genuinely photogenic. And she thinks boldly, as a dog thinks. Her mind is wonderfully unclouded–she doesn’t censor her thoughts.”

But, occasionally, the ever-witty Cukor was also playful at Monroe’s expense.  Asked at one party game, what food the star reminded him of, he immediately replied, “A three-day-old Van de Kamp Bakery Angel Cake.”

Jack Cole, who choreographed Marilyn’s numbers in Let’s Make Love, later related the other, sadder side of the story: “It was a terrible ordeal for everybody. Cukor was not crazy about Marilyn for a number of reasons. He was not good for her. Josh Logan (who directed her in “Bus Stop”) was good for her. Logan would get everybody onto the set, lock the doors, get everybody crazy and then start photographing.”

The first couple of weeks were “lovey dovey” and Cukor hoped it would continue that way. Then Monroe came down with a flu–“95 percent legitimate flu and 5 percent terror,” Cukor told a friend, “or maybe my proportions are wrong”  Realizing how insecure and volatile Monroe was, Cukor was extremely gentle with her. He also minimized communicating with her; whenever he wanted things done, Cukor would use Cole as a messenger, because of the latter’s rapport and effect on the star.

“Let’s Make Love” (Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) – sung by Marilyn Monroe and chorus, then by Marilyn Monroe with Frankie Vaughan and again with Yves Montand.

“My Heart Belongs to Daddy” (Cole Porter) – sung by Marilyn Monroe
“Give Me the Simple Life” (Rube Bloom and Harry Ruby) – (parody) sung by Frankie Vaughan

“Crazy Eyes” (Cahn and Van Heusen), sung by Frankie Vaughan

“Specialization” (Cahn and Van Heusen), sung by Marilyn Monroe and Frankie Vaughan

“Incurably Romantic” (Cahn and Van Heusen) – sung by Bing Crosby and Yves Montand, by Marilyn Monroe and Montand, and again by Marilyn Monroe and Frankie Vaughan.

Cukor and Arthur Miller

Cukor’s special treatment was greatly appreciated by others. During the shoot, he received a personal letter from Arthur Miller, Monroe’s husband at the time, thanking him for the way he behaved toward his temperamental wife.  Miller wrote: “The picture is important to her, but immeasurably more important are the precious days and weeks of her life, which your patience and skill and understanding have made humanely meaningful for her.”

Miller admitted that he had never known his wife to be so happy at work, so hopeful for herself, so prepared to cast away the worst of her doubts. Confiding in Cukor why Monroe was so precious to him, Miller complained about his forced bachelorhood, his loneliness when she is gone.

For the most part, Cukor and his stars had fun on the set. On June 17, Cukor sent a birthday telegram, also signed by Monroe and Montand, to their mutual friend, Rene Clair.  French director had earlier asked Cukor to tell Monroe how much he admired her; he said he didn’t want to do it himself to avoid any troubles with her husband.

All along, Cukor knew that Monroe and Montand were having an affair–it was almost expected of them by the press.  There was only slight gossip about the liaison, though even Montand’s wife, French actress Simone Signoret knew about it.  The scene changed, however, once Simone Signoret arrived several weeks into the shoot to look after her husband.

With Let’s Make Love ready to hit theaters, Cukor was anxious to tell Monroe how touched he was by her thank you note, stressing again his “great devotion” to her. He then delightfully reported about the picture’s wonderful notices and smash opening in LA, where one couldn’t get near the Graumann Chinese Theater in the first two weeks of showing the movie.