Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." (20TH CENTURY FOX PRODUCTIONS / July 30, 2009)

The first man to impersonate Marilyn Monroe may well have been her dance coach, Jack Cole. Anticipating the iconic Marilyn, he brought out her exceptional femininity through dance. Monroe copied him in return. A star was born.

Monroe's six-movie collaboration with Cole began with 1953's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," the breakthrough film that made her a superstar. Yet the man behind the icon has been forgotten -- an odd missing puzzle piece in view of Monroe's staying power.

Revelations about the pioneering jazz-dance choreographer's influence on his talented pupil continue to surface in interviews, biographies, archival material and an upcoming Cole documentary. It all leads to a critical reassessment of an overlooked dance artist who lived and worked in Los Angeles for 33 years.

Coming 47 years after her death on Aug. 5, 1962, it also sheds new light on Monroe's capacity to improve her craft. With other authority figures, Monroe could be vague and even rebellious. With Cole, a stern taskmaster who did not suffer fools, she buckled down.

A preeminent film choreographer when he joined Twentieth Century Fox to oversee "Gentlemen's" musical numbers for director Howard Hawks, Cole came to Hollywood from the world of nightclubs and Broadway. His decade-long film portfolio included remarkable female solos: "Put the Blame on Mame" for Rita Hayworth in "Gilda" (1946); "No Talent Joe" for Betty Grable in "Meet Me After the Show" (1951) and "Beale Street Blues" for Mitzi Gaynor in "The I Don't Care Girl." (1953).

In "Gentlemen," Cole connected the nondancer Monroe to her fulsome body, giving her the power of movement. But he went even further, injecting comic zing into her line readings and coaching her breathy song delivery. Forming a bond with the insecure actress, Cole helped solidify the dumb-blond persona she introduced in "Monkey Business," "All About Eve" and "Love Happy." In her much beefier role in "Gentlemen," they perfected it, together.

Difficult people

Monroe famously drove entire movie sets crazy. Producers sweated her tardiness; she was a budgetary time bomb. Directors seethed when she consulted her private drama coach. Fellow actors stewed because her flubbed lines meant multiple takes. Tremulous, tearful meltdowns visited her regularly. She often hid in her dressing room, dreading the soundstage.

Cole was a known terror in the dance studio. An inveterate curser, he hurled invectives at even his most faithful followers. During one of his brutal technique classes, he dragged one girl by the hair across a sweat-stained floor while threatening to toss another out a second-story window. When a dancer fainted in rehearsal, others, afraid to stop, hopped awkwardly over her body. In his early years hoofing in nightclubs, he harangued bandleaders who didn't swing and scolded chatting customers. Wearing harem pants and a bare chest, he chased one belligerent client down Wilshire Boulevard wielding a kitchen knife.

The pairing could have been a hellish match. And yet these two supremely flawed people collaborated productively over six films. Their heady first result, the"Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" dance sequence from "Gentlemen," is a delicious confection, a piece of Hollywood perfection. Although covered in Cole's fingerprints, many are unaware that the sequence even had a choreographer.

Snatching the plum role of Lorelei that Carol Channing originated on Broadway from Fox's aging song-and-dance queen Betty Grable set the stakes high for Monroe. She knew her limitations. She understood the cruel microscope of the movie camera and had never been in a musical. Determined to succeed in "Gentlemen," Monroe rehearsed relentlessly alongside genial costar Jane Russell.

"Marilyn and I had never danced before; we were a pair of klutzes," Russell told Cole biographer Glenn Loney in Dance Magazine. "Jack was horrible to his own dancers, but with us, the two broads, he had the patience of Job. He would show us and show us and then turn us over to Gwen." (Gwen Verdon, Cole's protégée, was on the brink of Broadway fame as the high-kicking redhead dancer of "Can-Can." Married to (and separated from) choreographer Bob Fosse, she died in 2000). Russell said she fled several sessions in exhaustion while Monroe begged Cole and Verdon to continue into the night.

"My mom liked both Marilyn and Jane," remembers Verdon's son, James Heneghan, 10 at the time. "But Marilyn especially displayed a tough work ethic that was a big deal with my mother."

Molding Marilyn

Monroe's relationship with Hawks had deteriorated after he directed her in "Monkey Business" in 1952. Renowned for mentoring actresses (notably Lauren Bacall), Hawks was a connoisseur of slender women. The Monroe aura eluded him. In his Hawks biography, Todd McCarthy writes that Hawks found her sexuality vulgar. Plus, her late arrival to work and reliance on her acting coach infuriated him. Only studio head Darryl Zanuck's enthusiasm over early rushes kept Hawks from firing Monroe. It's feasible that the legendary director's anger drove the terrified actress toward Cole.

For "Diamonds," Cole crafted Monroe a simple palette of bare-bones moves. He knew her bells and whistles would ramp it up. First, she's whisked around the red-drenched stage (a Cole trademark) by a bevy of male dancers (another). On her own, she does little more than skip or walk, saucily shifting her weight at the hip. Adding new dimension, Cole micro-choreographs for the camera. Monroe purses her lips, winks, points a gloved finger, shrugs her shoulders and sensually touches herself. The effect is radiant and erotic. It's eye candy.

In conversation with Annette Macdonald in "Jack Cole: Jazz," a Timeline Films documentary that's been delayed by lack of funding, Monroe's vocal coach Hal Schaefer remembers Marilyn as a keen student. "Marilyn had fluidity, but she lacked strength and clean lines. Jack was brilliant in telling her what to do.

"He wanted her to make a move, and she put her arm out. It just kind of drifted. Jack said, 'No, wait. Sharp, I want it sharp!'

" 'But Jack, I'm supposed to be a sex queen,' she said.