Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (2001)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox

Nearly 40 years after Marilyn Monroe’s death halted production on Twentieth Century Fox’s light comedy “Something’s Got To Give,” Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days offers viewers the world premiere of the edited reconstruction of the Hollywood icon’s final film. It is one last look at a film that might have been and a star who will live forever on screen.

Director: Unknown
Narrator: James Coburn
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Stereo; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 16 chapters; Not Rated; 117 min.; Available Only As Part of “The Diamond Collection” - $99.98; street date 5/29/01.
Supplements: Movietone Newsreel: “Cinemascope Inaugurates New Screen Era”; Trailer For Cleopatra.
Purchase: Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/D-

Prior to my receipt of a slew of recent DVDs, I can’t claim with any certainty that I’d ever seen a film in which Marilyn Monroe starred. To be certain, I knew a lot about her, but this was all via different methods. I’d heard Marilyn discussed and viewed clips from her movies, but I don’t know if I’d ever actually watched any of them in their entirety. I think I might have taken in 1959’s Some Like It Hot at one point, but I’m not positive about this. I also experienced 1950’s All About Eve, but Marilyn only played a small role in that, so it’s not a flick one normally associates with her.

My situation clearly has changed. From last week’s starting point at ground zero, I’ve now viewed six of Monroe’s movies: SLIH plus the five flicks found in Fox’s “Diamond Collection”. I can’t say that I was eager to go through the Marilyn-athon. After all, if I’d ever been truly interested in Monroe’s work, I would have bothered with some of her films prior to this point in my life; frankly, none of them ever sounded terribly interesting to me.

However, since Fox and other studios have decided to commemorate what would have been Marilyn’s 75th birthday with this round of DVD releases, I figured it was about time that I checked out the phenomenon. For quite some time, I’ve felt perplexed by Marilyn’s enduring legend. To this day folks regard her as the ultimate sex symbol, and it’s not just people who remember her when she was alive. Even much younger viewers embrace her mystique and keep the aura intact; for some reason, Marilyn has managed to capture the imaginations of many generations, and that appeal shows no signs of flagging.

Now that I’ve more closely inspected her work, I’d like to say that I understand her lasting popularity, but frankly, I don’t. Physically, Marilyn was clearly an attractive woman, but that doesn’t explain things; she was good-looking but I never thought she was anything special in that regard. She maintained a certain breathy sex-appeal that went beyond her looks, but again, I didn’t feel that she displayed terrific heat that would explain her popularity.

To be certain, Marilyn was a pretty, sexy woman who showed fairly good skills as a comedic actress. Some have built her up to be much more skilled in the latter regard than I feel she is - especially because Monroe essentially played the same ditzy sexpot in most of her films - but I won’t deny that she showed talent. Do I feel that she merits such ongoing attention? No, but obviously that’s irrelevant; with or without my approval, Marilyn continues to fascinate many.

Clearly, much of her mystique relates to her abbreviated lifespan, as Marilyn’s early death and troubled life add a tragic element to her story. In Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days, we find a solid examination of her last few months alive and the complications that occurred during that period.

Within this show, there’s a strong emphasis on the production of Something’s Got to Give, the film that would have been her final release had it been completed. However, as we learn during the documentary, Marilyn caused lots of trouble for the movie. Her many absences from the set forced the flick to run well behind schedule, and these factors also eventually led to her dismissal from the film.

The Final Days takes a close look at the events that occurred during the production of Give. It includes some brief biographical details about Marilyn’s life prior to 1962, but the vast majority of the show focuses on Give itself. We watch the disaster unfold on an almost day-by-day basis, and we get an excellent accounting of Monroe’s slow descent into greater trouble.

The program follows a fairly standard documentary format. We find a mix of production and publicity stills, newsreels and other archival footage, and a slew of material from Give - more about that one later. In addition to these period elements, Final Days offers lots of new interviews with those in the know about Marilyn and the project. We hear from journalist Richard Meryman, photographer George Barris, actresses Sheree North and Susan Strasberg, and Marilyn’s doctor, Hyman Engleberg. In addition, many members of the crew for Give appear; we find comments from producers David Brown, Gene Allen and Henry Weinstein, actors Cyd Charisse and Steve Allen, hairstylist Peggy Shannon, production sound Richard Raguse, and Marilyn’s stand-in, Evelyn Moriarty. In addition, Marilyn’s housekeeper, Eunice Murray, also appears in a BBC interview from 1985.

All in all, I thought this was a very compelling program. The show avoids sensationalizing the information, which makes sense since the details of Marilyn’s life were edgy enough; we don’t need them to be embellished. The piece functions best because of the amount of detail included. Few stones seem left unturned throughout this journey, and we find out lots of interesting details about the events of Marilyn’s last few months.

Happily, the discussions remain consistently frank and honest. Many documentaries aren’t very useful because they sugar coat experiences; all we hear is how great everything and everyone was. Granted, that’d be tough to do for a program about Marilyn’s slow disintegration, but when a studio sponsors this kind of piece, I often expect the worst.

I suppose I should give Fox more credit since their DVDs often include some less-than-flattering programs. For example, Cleopatra tosses in a terrific piece that dishes the dirt on that production. I didn’t think The Final Days was quite as interesting as the companion piece for Cleo, but it still offered a very compelling experience.

For Monroe-philes, The Final Days will be a must-have due to its inclusion of some rare footage. In addition to lots of raw material from the set of Something’s Got to Give, the DVD also provides a short cut of the film itself. From chapter 13 through chapter 15, we see about 35 and a half minutes of shots from Give, all of which has been assembled in its correct running order. The mini-movie provides music plus the original production sound and does a nice job of demonstrating the overall progress made on the film.

If you want Give to make sense, however, you need to watch it within the context of the documentary. We see virtually all of the mini-flick’s scenes as they’re shot, and the narration explains them to us. As such, I thought the short version of Give made perfect sense because I’d already learned so much about the story and the production.

While the raw footage shown during the documentary was interesting, I really appreciated the ability to watch the completed segments of Give in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Ultimately, The Final Days was a very solid documentary that should appeal to both Marilyn die-hards and less knowledgeable fans like myself. The latter crowd will be interested in Monroe’s history, while the former group should be thrilled to get so much previously-unreleased footage.

The DVD:

Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days appears in an aspect ratio of mainly 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though much of the program appeared in a 1.33:1 ratio, portions utilized other dimensions. Most significant were the final 35 and a half minutes of the show, during which time we saw the edited excerpts from Something’s Got to Give; those clips featured dimensions that approximated 2.35:1, but they still offered no anamorphic enhancement.

Because Final Days compiled material from such a wide variety of sources, it was virtually inevitable that the quality would be erratic. During the main portions of the documentary, three kinds of components appeared. We got various sorts of film clips - whether from Marilyn’s features, newsreels, or other media - plus new interviews with contemporaries and videotaped shots of still materials. Without question, the interview snippets provided the most satisfying visuals. These consistently appeared clear and accurate, without any genuine concerns.

As for the other components, they were less steady. The various film clips showed many different defects. Scratches, grain, speckles, blotches, and grit popped up frequently during these snippets; even the footage from Marilyn’s movies - all of which looked so good on the new DVDs - appeared faded and flawed. The taped stills generally seemed crisp, but the zooming often created excessive evidence of jagged edges, so these pieces sometimes appeared edgy.

However, I wasn’t particularly bothered by these concerns. Documentaries of this sort always show varied quality, especially when the events happened many decades ago. Sure, it’d be nice if the show had used the cleaned-up prints for the film clips, but none of these problems affected the impact of the show.

The most important quality issue that related to Final Days had to do with the compiled excerpts of Something’s Got to Give. Happily, these largely looked quite good. Sharpness seemed nicely crisp and detailed, though the lack of anamorphic enhancement meant that some softness occasionally appeared. Occasional jagged edges and moiré effects also cropped up throughout the film, though these remained minor. Colors seemed nicely clear and vibrant, while black levels seemed to be rich and deep. Shadow detail was a little thick, but low-light sequences appeared to be adequately visible.

Not surprisingly, print flaws caused the vast majority of the concerns during Give. Some parts of the film looked pretty clean, but others were much more problematic. Various instances of scratches, speckles, grain, blotches, hairs, nicks, and grit showed up throughout the snippets. Generally, the movie seemed somewhat dirty, though I suppose it was in pretty good shape considering that it’s apparently received no attention prior to now. In that sense, we’re lucky to have it at all, and I found the visual presentation of these clips to seem more than acceptable.

Because most of the audio heard during Final Days came from the interviews and narration, it was more consistent than the picture. Even when archival footage appeared, we usually heard contemporary voice-overs. The program’s soundfield seemed appropriately modest. All speech emanated from the center, as did all of the minor effects. The show’s score offered very satisfying and broad stereo imaging that complemented the action.

Audio quality appeared fine. Of course, the occasional archival elements were erratic and sounded pretty scratchy, but the new interviews came across as warm and distinct. A few lines were slightly edgy, but they usually seemed natural and they always lacked problems related to intelligibility. The music appeared nicely bright and dynamic, and the score showed good range. Bass seemed low and rich, and highs were clean and crisp.

As for the audio during Something’s Got to Give, the music presented decent stereo separation but the rest of the track stayed firmly in the center speaker. Quality appeared reasonably good. The music was clear and accurate, though a little dated, while dialogue seemed relatively strong. Since the speech came from production elements, it could be a little erratic, but I thought it was generally clean and intelligible. Effects were still a minor element and were all taken from the production track as well. They seemed a little thin due to the lack of embellishment, but they were acceptably realistic. Ultimately, the soundtrack to The Final Days had modest goals, but it achieved them all well.

Because The Final Days is essentially an “extra” itself, I didn’t expect to find any supplements on this disc. However, we find two minor pieces. In addition to a trailer for Cleopatra, we discover a “Movietone Newsreel” called “Cinemascope Inaugurates New Screen Era”. This three-minute and 50-second clip offers a short but fairly interesting look at the history of movies through the invention of anamorphic lenses. The film experiences an odd dropout after we hear from Will Rogers, but otherwise it’s a fun little piece.

As someone who knew relatively little about Marilyn Monroe until recently, the last week or so has been a real education. Mostly I’ve experienced her career through her work in films, but the documentary called The Final Days added some historical perspective to those movies. The program provides a solid overview of her last few months and will be a special treat to Marilyn devotees due to the inclusion of rare footage from Something’s Got to Give, the film on which she worked when she died. Picture and sound quality were erratic but they seemed just fine for this sort of project.

Note that The Final Days appears only as part of Fox’s Marilyn Monroe “Diamond Collection” set. The latter includes five movies - How to Marry a Millionaire, Bus Stop, There’s No Business Like Show Business, The Seven Year Itch, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - plus The Final Days. “The Diamond Collection” is really a steal for Monroe fans; in addition to the bonus DVD, it costs only $99.98 list as opposed to a total of $124.90 for the five films on their own. Granted, you’d need to really love Marilyn to want that much of her material, but if you fall into that category, it’s a great idea. At least the documentary adds a fascinating component to the mix. It’s not worth $100 on its own, of course, but it the other movies interest you, The Final Days will definitely reward your purchase.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Purchase Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection at
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