I’ve been a classic film fan since I was a young girl. But I didn’t have much access to them back then. Unless they were available at the library or occassionally airing on our local television stations, I was out of luck. One of the handful of movies I remember watching as a kid is How To Marry a Millionaire. Since then, I’ve seen it countless times. It is one of a few films that never fails to surprise me, no matter how many times I watch it. I always forget how funny it is!
Schatze, Pola and Loco are three models who devise a scheme to marry rich men. They agree to share the lease on a New York penthouse. Schatze believes that they must put themselves in the same orbit as men of wealth in order to attract them. And if they must pawn the furnishings of their new apartment to make ends meet while they hunt, well then, a girl must do what is necessary.
Schatze: You wanna catch a mouse, you set a mouse trap. All right so we set a bear trap. Now all we gotta do, is one of us has got to catch a bear.
Loco: You mean marry him?
Schatze: If you don’t marry him, you haven’t caught him, he’s caught you.
The ladies are not meeting with much success. Until by chance, Loco runs into Texas millionaire JD Hanley (William Powell). JD invites them all to a meeting for oil tycoons. While Schatze latches on to JD, Pola and Loco find their own prey. Suddenly things are looking up. But just when everything is going according to plan, fate throws a monkey wrench into the works.
Schatze endears herself to JD while fending off the advances of Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell). She believes him to be a common “grease monkey”, much like her ex-husband. Loco finagles an invitation to the married Waldo Brewster’s cabin in Maine. There she meets forest ranger Eben Salem (Rory Calhoun). And Pola is headed to Atlantic City to meet up with playboy J. Stewart Merrill (Alexander D’Arcy) when she unexpectedly meets Freddie Denmark. Unbeknownst to the ladies, Freddie owns their apartment, but is currently in hiding due to problems with the IRS.
Suddenly Schatze, Pola and Loco find themselves torn between the men who meet their requirements and those they are really attracted to. What’s a gold digger to do?
I’ve never met a more lovable film about a trio of gold diggers than How To Marry a Millionaire. It’s a master class on how to make a questionable agenda, appear both charming and acceptable. These ladies are calculating as they hunt down unsuspecting men who meet their criteria, just so they can ensure their own comfort. They are willing to trade their beauty for financial security as if it is a simple business transaction. Yet I actually kind of admire the way they utilize their assets to achieve their goal. It’s the kind of single minded focus men use all the time in climbing up the success ladder.
One of my favorite things about How To Marry a Millionaire are the gorgeous costumes designed by Travilla. The clothes themselves are drool worthy. But Travilla uses color, cut and shape to reinforce the ladies personalities. Bacall wears the most classic shapes in more somber colors to reflect her practical nature. Monroe gets draped in silouhettes which hug her famous figure. Many of her outfits are in jewel tones which only further put her on display. But they also give her a bit of gravity as a hint that though she may be a bit ditzy, she has a good heart. The most trendy and creative clothes are worn by Loco. They reflect her working class personality. A woman who wants money, but lacks refined taste.
How to Marry a Millionaire is a romantic drama, but also a comedy. The humor is written in to the plot, characterization and dialogue so seamlessly that it is easy to forget how funny it is. There is of course the physical comedy performed by Marilyn Monroe as the self conscious Pola who continually runs into walls and other objects because she refuses to wear her glasses.
Surprisingly, Betty Grable plays the dumbest blonde who is constantly and quietly eating through out the film. Her nibbling away always cracks me up, because it is done so obviously yet unobtrusively. Whoever heard of a model who is always stuffing her face?! It’s a subtle touch that a viewer might miss, if not paying attention. Then there is Lauren Bacall’s character Schatze. With a straight face and dry delivery she drops some of the most outrageous and hilarious lines in How To Marry a Millionaire.
Schatze: Most women use more brains picking a horse in the third at Belmont than they do picking a husband.
All three of the main actresses give good performances. Grable was at the end of her career but still popular. Her portrayal of Loco garners the least attention compared to the other two. I think it was generous of Grable to share the screen with Bacall and Monroe and resist the temptation to steal scenes.
Monroe’s performance as the nearly blind Pola, is the most arresting of the three. Unlike Grable, she steals almost every scene she is in with her breathy voice and her stumbling about. She is like a shiny object which catches your eye, even while objects of greater but understated value sit nearby. Still, she is absolutely adorable and it is one of my favorite of Monroe’s roles.
At first glance, Schatze appears to be the odd one out. Pola and Loco are naïve, beautiful and friendly. Schatze is shrewd and stand offish. But without her scheming plan, none of them would have much hope of marrying wealth, in spite of their beauty. And without Lauren Bacall’s presence the whole film would devolve into a glitzy, fluffy, forgettable mess. Hers is the pivotal role in the film and she plays it in a very understated way.
Bacall gives Schatze and How to Marry a Millionaire presence and depth. Schatze is the brains of it all, but she also acts as a mother figure or mentor and keeps them all on track, including herself. Past experience has been her teacher. Even when she finds herself falling for a man who reminds her of her ex, she exercises severe self-discipline in resisting him. She keeps her eyes on her prize. Over the years, I have found my respect grow for Bacall’s near flawless portrayal of her character. It is restrained and almost bare. It doesn’t command attention. But in the end I always find myself amazed by her, in spite of more colorful performances by Grable and Monroe.
According to Nunnally Johnson, the film’s writer, the three actresses got along well on set. Bacall and Grable became good friends. Other actors who appeared with Monroe have said that she was difficult to work with. But both Grable and Bacall tried to make Monroe comfortable. I think this effort at camaradarie was both generous and smart. It definitely is felt in the ladies on screen friendship. Too, it just makes me admire these actresses all the more.
There are not enough films which feature genuine camaraderie and friendship among beautiful women. Most of them find it more interesting to pit women against each other as jealous competitors. I appreciate that How To Marry a Millionaire resists that temptation and instead portrays the ladies as working together towards a common goal, while accepting each other’s foibles and differences.
Years after I first saw this movie I ran across an earlier film with a very similar story line. Ladies in Love stars Constance Bennett, Janet Gaynor and Loretta Young as three young working women looking to marry wealth, only they don’t all get their happy ending, like Schatze, Pola and Loco. I can’t find any confirmation that these two films share the same source inspiration, but I’m always amazed how much alike they are. Though I’ve always loved Bennett, find Gaynor rather winsome and Young as beautiful as always, Ladies in Love can’t quite touch my love for Millionaire.
Perhaps, its’ those gorgeous costumes and settings or perhaps its the dream that anything is possible in New York City or perhaps it is just the outstanding performances of Bacall, Monroe and Grable, but this picture will always remain a personal favorite. But what I love most is that in the end love triumphs over all other considerations. As it should.