The River of No Return
The image of Marilyn Monroe is indelibly etched into the public consciousness: movie star, sex symbol, tragic figure. But there are aspects of her persona that go deeper. Norma Jeane Baker modeled for magazines in the mid-1940s and considered several professional names before settling on the famous Monroe moniker. Besides modeling and moviemaking, she was married to a famous baseball player, Joe DiMaggio, and a famous playwright, Arthur Miller, part of what kept her in the headlines of the tabloids and on the covers of movie star magazines (post-modeling career), in addition to the cover of Playboy magazine's first issue in 1953 and appearance in the centerfold (a case of the past coming back to haunt her). And, of course, she was a singer...a very good one.
After several small film roles and extra work around 1947, she landed her first significant role in the semi-musical B picture Ladies of the Chorus where, with little training or musical experience, she performed two songs, "Anyone Can See I Love You" and "Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy," like a pro. In retrospect, it's surprising her career didn't take off right away. She received positive notices in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, followed by a small role in the Best Picture Oscar winner for that year, All About Eve. She didn't really get around to singing again until 1953, and then it was only a few bars of "Kiss" in Niagara (she was top-billed this time), worthy of mention for the softer, sexier delivery that would later become a trademark sound.
A career milestone came next and featured plenty of singing, not just by Marilyn but va-va-voom co-star Jane Russell as well. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks, was a huge success and as far as I know it marked the first time her recordings were made available to the public. MGM released a ten-inch album and 45 extended play with the six songs performed in the film. Two were duets, two were by Russell, and there were two solo shots by Monroe: "Bye Bye Baby" and the iconic "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," a big production number with Marilyn wearing the famous pink dress that would certainly bring in excess of a million dollars at auction...without the diamonds (the dress actually was auctioned and sold for over 300 thousand dollars, but there are doubts as to its authenticity). In many ways it was her first real hit song, although the record never appeared on any national charts.
Her one actual hit was "The River of No Return," which she performed in the 1954 Otto Preminger film of the same title co-starring Robert Mitchum. An ultra-slow ballad with orchestration by Lionel Newman (who wrote the song with Ken Darby) and backing vocals that might have been what The Sons of the Pioneers would sound like had they gone Hollywood, Marilyn sang in her soft, breathy voice but bypassed her usual sexual energy...at least as far as she was capable of toning down something that apparently came natural. A single was released on RCA Victor and popped up on the national charts in June '54 (a version by Tennessee Ernie Ford, which opens the film, hit the C&W charts in August). Marilyn's flip side, "I'm Gonna File My Claim" (accented in the film by some tent pole moves bordering on strip tease as we know it today), overcompensated for the sedate title tune. She got out a guitar for "One Silver Dollar" and "Down in the Meadow," but while the vocals were all her own, the guitar playing was clearly a hand pantomime. She did, however, display a little knack for coloratura singing in the former song's middle section.
Next came the all-star ensemble There's No Business Like Show Business, in theaters during the 1954 holiday season. The Irving Berlin-penned soundtrack was released on Decca with the show's five biggest stars on the cover - but no Monroe! RCA Victor released "Heat Wave," another song that would remain closely identified with her. "After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)" was the flip side. The two songs headlined an EP release with "Lazy" and "You'd Be Surprised" (the latter song is not from the movie, though it was written by Berlin). There were other non-film RCA recordings, some not released until years later.
The studios took advantage of Marilyn's articulatory talents; she sang the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard "That Old Black Magic" in Bus Stop and brief excerpts of songs in other films, but there were no record releases for a couple of years. Billy Wilder's 1959 classic Some Like it Hot contained a few shorter songs, made into full studio recordings for release on discs. "I Wanna Be Loved By You," a hit in 1928 for Helen Kane (whose infectious 'Boop-Boop-A-Doop' became the prototype for cartoon character Betty Boop) was revived by Marilyn in the film and released on the United Artists soundtrack album and on a 45. The vocally shaky "I'm Thru With Love" was on the B side.
The last film to feature her singing was Let's Make Love in 1960. She vamped her way through Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," the main production number, while other songs in the film were duets with British singer Frankie Vaughan. Out of all of these songs, the one musical performance that may be her most famous wasn't released for sale. "Happy Birthday To You" ("Happy Birthday, Mr. President") was her contribution to John F. Kennedy's Birthday Salute on May 19, 1962 at Madison Square Garden (held ten days before his 45th birthday). She tacked on a few bars from a version of Bob Hope's signature song "Thanks For the Memory" rewritten for the occasion ("Thanks, Mr. President"), all done up in provocative style. JFK gave his response after reaching the podium: "I can now retire from politics after having had 'Happy Birthday' sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way."