Sunday, December 5, 2010

Characters Inspired By Marilyn Monroe

There can be no doubt that Marilyn Monroe was one of the most popular actresses in the history of Hollywood. From 1953 to 1962 she ranked in Quigley's top ten box office stars three separate years. In Empire magazine's list of the "Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" Miss Monroe ranked #8. In Empire magazine's list of "Sexiest Female Movie Stars of All Time" she ranked #1. In the American Film Institute's list of "100 Years...100 Stars" she was ranked #6. Premier magazine voted her the #2 greatest movie star of all time (Cary Grant was #1). In a poll conducted by Clairol, Marilyn even beat out Grace Kelly (who was #2 and would have gotten my vote) as the greatest blonde of all time. Even before she died, Marilyn Monroe had become an icon. After he death she would become even more of one.

Given the impact Marilyn Monroe had on popular culture, even as she was still alive, it should come as no surprise that several characters in pop culture have been inspired by her and even based directly on her. Some characters merely took her appearance, while others took various aspects of her personality as well. In fact, it seems possible that of female celebrities, Marilyn Monroe has inspired more characters than any other woman, except possibly for Bettie Page.

Indeed, it is possible that one character was inspired by Marilyn Monroe before she was even famous. Vicki Vale, a photojournalist for The Gotham Gazette, first appeared in Batman #48, October/November 1948 (it probably hit the stands in August or September of that year). According to legend, she was based on a young actress named Norma Jean Mortensen. As told by Bob Kane, he first met Norma Jean in 1943 at a cast party held after shooting had ended on the serial The Batman (1943). Later when Bob Kane was serving as a consultant on the serial Batman and Robin in 1948, he met Norma Jean, now Marilyn Monroe, on a Hollywood backlot. The two went to the beach where Mr. Kane drew some sketches of her. When he returned to New York City he showed the sketches to his editor and told him his idea for the character of Vicki Vale. The editor approved the idea. When Batman #48 was being prepared, however, the colourist made her hair red instead of blonde. Of course, here I must mention that Bob Kane also claimed to have had an affair with Marilyn....

Although it has often been stated that Vicki Vale was based on Marilyn Monroe, Bob Kane's story does seem questionable. I must point out that Bob Kane was well known for embellishing his life and his career. Indeed, for decades he insisted that he and he alone created Batman. When it was finally revealed that the character was co-created by Bill Finger, Mr. Kane even denied the fact, although he would eventually acknowledge the fact that Mr. Finger made Batman's costume darker and more bat-like, created and named the secret identity of Bruce Wayne, created Robin, and even named Gotham City. Sadly, this was not the only instance in which Bob Kane stretched the truth, so it possible he did the same with his story of the creation of Vicki Vale. First, it seems highly unlikely he first met Norma Jeane Mortensen in 1943. The Batman was an extremely, low budget serial shot very swiftly, so that it is doubtful that there was ever a cast party when it ended shooting. If there was, there can be no doubt that Columbia Pictures did not flit the bill. Even if there was a cast party, it is doubtful Miss Mortensen was even there. She had not yet begun her career in modelling, let alone acting. Second, it seems unlikely Bob Kane ever had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. Although Bob Kane was a known womaniser and was actually very handsome (when younger he looked somewhat like Robert Young), it is curious that Marilyn herself never mentioned any such affair, nor anyone who knew her! Indeed, it must be pointed out that in 1948, Marilyn Monroe was married.

Some have questioned Bob Kane's story of the creation of Vicki Vale based on the fact that by 1948 Bob Kane no longer worked on Batman, leaving that to a number of ghost artists. Here I must point out that even after Mr. Kane had ceased drawing the feature, he still had input on its characters. For instance, Bill Finger himself has said Bob Kane created The Penguin, basing him on Willy, the advertising mascot for Kool cigarettes. It was Bill Finger who gave The Penguin his personality as a rather snooty gentleman. Bill Finger has also credited Bob Kane with co-creating  The Mad Hatter, who first  appeared in Batman #49, November 1948, only a month after Vicki's first appearance!

That having been said, there could be a kernel of truth to the story that Bob Kane based Vicki Vale on Marilyn Monroe. One scenario is that Bob Kane did indeed meet Marilyn Monroe on a Hollywood backlot in 1948 and she served as a the model for Vicki Vale. Batman and Robin, like the first serial, was shot at Columbia Pictures. Marilyn Monroe had a contract with Columbia from March 9, 1948 to September 8, 1948. This at least makes it possible that they met on the Columbia backlot. Another scenario is that Bob Kane met Marilyn Monroe on a beach and asked if he could sketch her. The sketches which Bob Kane always claimed he made of Marilyn Monroe on that beach do indeed resemble her. And since Bob Kane had an eye for the ladies, it seems likely he would ask her to pose for him for sketches. A third scenario, is that Bob Kane based Vicki Vale on Marilyn Monroe without ever having met her.  Norma Jeane Dougherty ( her surname having changed after marrying James Dougherty) began modelling in 1944 and proved rather popular as a pinup and cover model. By 1948 she had appeared in such publications as Family Circle, Yank, U.S. Camera, and Pageant, among others. Indeed, this cold explain why Vick's hair was red rather than blonde. When Norma Jeane first started modelling, she still had her natural hair colour, which was auburn. The closest comic books in the late Forties could come to auburn was red.

Regardless, while Bob Kane's story of how Vicki Vale was created is unlikely, it is quite possible that Vicki Vale was based on Marilyn Monroe. Of course, while Vicki Vale's appearance may have been based on Marilyn Monroe, her personality was based largely on Lois Lane. Just as Lois was always trying to uncover Superman's identity, so too was Vicki always trying to uncover Batman's identity!  From her face to her figure, Vicki does resemble Marilyn a good deal, particularly in her early days of modelling. Vicki Vale would appear in the serial Batman and Robin, where she would be played by Jane Adams. In the movie Batman (1989) she was played by the very blonde Kim Basinger. Vicki Vale would be a regular character in the Batman comic books until 1963, after which editor Julius Schwartz dropped the character. Since then she has resurfaced a few times in the comic books.

Given Bob Kane's story of the creation of Vicki Vale, it would seem that he was very attracted to Marilyn Monroe whether he met her or not. In 1960 Bob Kane created the animated series Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse. A funny animal parody of Batman, the series ran from 1960 to 1962. Minute Mouse's love interest was a movie star named Marilyn Mouse, who looked like a rodent version of the movie star.

While it is debatable whether Vicki Vale was based on Marilyn Monroe, it is fairly certain that Milton Caniff based the character of Miss Columbia Mizzou in the comic strip Steve Canyon on the actress. Of course, her name has an entirely other source of inspiration. Miss Columbia Mizzou first appeared in  Steve Canyon in September 1952. Miss Mizzou was a blonde who wore a trenchcoat and generally nothing else. Milton Caniff drew her while consulting a picture of already famous actress Marilyn Monroe. As to her name, Milton Caniff spoke at the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1949 as part of the university's Journalism Week. Mr. Caniff apparently enjoyed his visit to Columbia, as he maintained close ties with the university for the rest of his life. The first name of Miss Mizzou then came from the city in which the University of Missouri is located. Her surname came from the nickname of the university to this day--Mizzou (short for "Missouri University"). Here I must note that the University of Missouri is also the alma mater of Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker and underground cartoonist Frank Stack was an art professor there (in fact, he still lives in Columbia). I must also point out that I was named for Milton Caniff's Terry Lee from Terry and the Pirates...

It would be in 1955 that one of the earliest characters to be based on Marilyn Monroe would appear in a play. The play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? revolved around a fan magazine writer (Orson Bean) who must ,make a deal with a Hollywood literary agent in order to become a successful screenwriter. Among the characters was Rita Marlowe (played by Jayne Mansfield in a break through role), a movie star who was essentially an exaggerated version of Marilyn Monroe. The 1957 film version would retain Rita Marlowe and Jayne Mansfield, and she would remain an exaggerated parody of Marilyn, but it largely jettisoned the plot. In the movie, starring Tony Randall, an advertising man must pretend to be Rita Marlowe's boyfriend in order to make her actual boyfriend jealous. Jayne Mansfield would essentially make a career out of parodying Marilyn Monroe.

Most of the characters based on Marilyn Monroe up to the late Fifties had been largely positive, if some of them were a bit exaggerated. This was not the case with the lead character in Paddy Chayefsky's movie The Goddess (1958). The movie starred Kim Stanley as Emily Ann Faulkner, who becomes the extremely famous and popular movie star Rita Shawn. The film portray how, even though Rita has attained dizzying heights of fame and wealth, she is still essentially lonely and unhappy. It has always been said that the film was based loosely on the life of Marilyn Monroe and, indeed, there are many similarities between Rita Shawn and Marilyn.

Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse would not be the only TV series to draw inspiration from Marilyn Monroe. Although it has never been clear, many have often suspected that the character of Marilyn Munster was based on Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, not only is Marilyn the only normal looking human being in the Munster family (the rest looking like classic Universal monsters), she is a beautiful blonde. Beverly Owen, the first actress to play Marilyn Munster, certainly thought so. She stated that the producers seemed to be going for Marilyn Monroe's image. In the end, however, Miss Owen confessed that she thought Marilyn Munster wound up being a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Sandra Dee.

Another television character patterned after Marilyn Monroe was Sweet Polly Purebred, TV reporter and the romantic interest of Shoeshine Boy and his alter ego Underdog. While creators W. Watts Biggers and Chet Stover named and developed the characters, it was artist Joe Harris who designed their appearances. In the case of Sweet Polly Purebred, he modelled her after Marilyn Monroe. This is fairly obvious given the colour (blonde) and style of her hair. Of course, Polly was not the only character on Underdog based on a movie star. Underdog's archnemesis Simon Barsinister was based on Lionel Barrymore. The gangster Riff-Raff was based on George Raft. Even Underdog himself was based on an actor, namely the actor who voiced him, Wally Cox.

While it is fairly certain that Sweet Polly Purebred is based on Marilyn Monroe in her appearance, it is not so clear that the character of Maggie in Arthur Miller's play After the Fall was based on Marilyn. The play debuted in 1964 and centred around lawyer Quentin. Quentin later marries the sexy Maggie, who goes from a shy, slightly scatter brained girl to an outright prima donna after she attains fame as a singer. Maggie drinks, takes barbiturates, and becomes increasingly irrational. Maggie eventually commits suicide. Although Arthur Miller always denied it, many have suspected that Maggie was based on Marilyn Monroe. From her shyness to being slightly scatter brained at times to taking barbiturates, Maggie does have a lot in common with Marilyn Monroe. For that matter, After the Fall seems all to similar to Arthur Miller's actual life, including being suspected of Communist sympathies. Of course, Arthur Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe.

While After the Fall had a very dark character who may or may not have been based on Marilyn Monroe, cartoonist Mort Walker would base a much lighter character on her. It was in 1971 that Mr. Walker gave General Halftrack a secretary named Miss Buxley in his comic strip Beetle Bailey. She was largely based on Marilyn Monroe. Miss Buxley was a sexy blonde who dressed provocatively but was entirely oblivious to her affect on men. Miss Buxley was sweet, but a bit scatter brained, and not always efficient at her job. With Miss Buxley, Mort Walker was trying to capture the air of innocent sexuality Marilyn Monroe often displayed. Unfortunately, Miss Buxley would increasingly become a source of controversy. Starting in the Minneanpolis Tribune in 1981 and soon spreading nationwide, Miss Buxley was increasingly criticised as being a stereotypical, dumb blonde secretary. Even though most readers were not critical of Miss Buxley, Mort Walker was eventually forced to revamp the character in 1984. Sadly, many of his critics missed the fact that Beetle Bailey was a comic strip that poked fun at everyone and everything: the United States Army, lazy soldiers (Beetle himself), martinet officers (Lt. Fuzz), intellectuals (Plato), womanisers (Killer), dirty old men (General Halftrack), and volatile, fat people (Sgt. Snorkle).

While many characters have been based on Marilyn Monroe, there are many that people believe were based on the actress who most certainly were not. Most incredulously, there are those who believe classic cartoon character Betty Boop was based on Marilyn Monroe! This is obviously not the case. Besides the fact that Betty is very much black haired as opposed to blonde or even auburn haired, the first prototypes for Betty came about in 1930, when Norma Jeane Baker was only four years old! Betty Boop emerged completely in her now familiar form in 1932. This is not to say that the character was not based on a sex symbol. Betty Boop was based in appearance on the It Girl herself, Clara Bow. If Betty shares anything in common with Marilyn Monroe, it is perhaps because Marilyn shared a lot in common with Clara Bow.

Another character often claimed to be based on Marilyn Monroe is Tinker Bell from Disney's version of Peter Pan (1953). While Tinker Bell is blonde and most certainly has an hourglass figure, she was not based on Marilyn Monroe. In fact, it is impossible that she could have been. Disney bought the rights to Peter Pan in 1939. While World War II would halt the film, work would start on the animated Peter Pan again in 1949. While traditionally Tinker Bell had been portrayed only as a spot of light accompanied by tinkling bells in the stage play, the Disney studio had decided from the beginning to make Tinker Bell a humanoid fairy. Indeed, they even decided Tinker Bell should have some sex appeal to keep male viewers interested. That having been said, they did not look to Marilyn Monroe for inspiration. In fact, in 1949 Marilyn was not yet a big name movie star and probably below Disney's radar. Instead, they held auditions for women to try out as the model for Tinker Bell. They chose Margaret Kerry, a shapely and leggy young actress and model. Of course, by the time Peter Pan  was released in 1953, Marilyn Monroe was at the height of her fame. People then simply assumed Tinker Bell, the shapely blonde fairy, was based on Marilyn Monroe, the shapely blonde actress.

Another character people often assume is based on Marilyn Monroe actually owes very little to her. The character of actress Ginger Grant on Gilligan's Island was originally written as a wisecracking actress and was portrayed as such by the original actress to play her in the series' original pilot. In other words, she was closer to Jane Russell or Eve Arden than Marilyn Monroe. Tina Louise was re-cast as Ginger Grant and it soon became apparent she was not comfortable playing a wisecracking actress. Ginger Grant then became an amalgam of various actresses. Like Marilyn Monroe, Ginger exuded a naive sexuality. Like Sandra Dee she tended to be wide eyed and innocent. Like Lucille Ball she could be daffy and get into all kind of scraps. While Ginger Grant owes a little to Marilyn Monroe, she also owes a good deal to other actresses as well. This makes sense as she is meant to be an archetypal Hollywood starlet.

Regardless, Marilyn Monroe provided the inspiration for many characters in popular culture and there can be no doubt that she will continue to do so. It is possible that more characters in various media are based upon than any other actress. Indeed, more characters may be based on her than any other actor, male or female. From comic strips to plays, she has had an enormous impact on American pop culture.

No comments: