Monday, August 1, 2016
Reeling Backward: "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953)
I can't quite decide if "How to Marry a Millionaire" is a daringly progressive film or a horribly anachronistic throwback. Probably one for 1953, and another for 2016.
It's silly to judge the social politics of a 60-odd-year-old movie by today's standards. Back then as women who worked in factories during World War II were pushed back into the home, "marrying well" was not a topic people shied away from talking about openly.
For men, that meant finding a spouse who was pretty, kind and a good mother. For women, it meant marrying a stable guy with a good income.
The problem comes when you put these foremost qualities on a scale, with the assumption that more must be better. If a well-to-do man of prospects is desirable, then why not a fabulously rich fellow? Why settle for next-door beauty when you can get Marilyn Monroe?
Speaking of Monroe, "Millionaire" more or less marked her ascension from breakout star to screen icon. Betty Grable was billed first in the movie, though the blonde WWII pinup girl was closing in on 40 and her legendary duels with the studios meant her career was crumbling. Monroe actually took over her part in "Gentleman Prefer Blondes," which came out a few months earlier and made her a star.
(Though Grable received top billing in the credits, Monroe was usually listed first on the posters and advertising.)
Grable's screen persona was actually somewhat similar to Monroe's, the bubble-headed blonde with hidden qualities beyond a gorgeous face. Their characters in "Millionaire" are rather the same, too; both are sweet and rather dim. They play man-hungry Loco Dempsey (Grable) and nearsighted Pola Debevoise (Monroe), who's constantly bumping into things because she fears to wear her glasses in public.
"Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses," Pola says, echoing Dorothy Parker and setting up an inevitable romance with a four-eyed suitor (David Wayne) who appreciates her spectacles.
The funny thing is, the movie really belongs to Lauren Bacall. She plays Schatze Page, the smartest and most outgoing of the trio. She hatches the idea for the girls, all fashion models, to pool their resources and rent out a New York City penthouse as a man-trap for rich men. She's calculating and rather mercenary, but in the end the frozen cockles of her heart melt for a guy she assumes is a gas station jockey (Cameron Mitchell), but is actually worth $200 million.
That's $1.8 billion in today's dollars, folks. Dude even has a city named after his family.
I was pleasantly surprised by the character of J.D. Hanley, a 56-year-old widower played with charm and class by William Powell. He becomes Schatze's main target, but he puts her off due to their age difference. Hanley later changes his mind and agrees to marry her, though she undergoes her own change of heart at the altar.
Hanley is gracious and considerate throughout, even when Schatze breaks his heart. That's the beauty of getting old, he says: you learn how to deal with disappointment.
Probably the most cringe-worthy scene in the movie is when Schatze dreams of how her life will be after she marries Hanley, as she leans over a display of jewelry and points, telling the salesman she would like "That... and that... and that... and that and that and that..." My modern sensibilities recoil at the notion of a woman seeing a man as simply a path to comfort and baubles.
But eventually Schatze evolves from gold-digger to kind heart.
I should point out that models of this era were not the high-paid celebrities we know today. In one of the film's signature scenes, a whole gaggle of women, including our trio, try on clothes and parade around for a client at a snooty retail store, like living, breathing mannequins. (Though how this is less degrading than doing the same thing on a runway for a hundred people escapes me.)
Palo initially falls for a rich Arab oilman, but he turns out to be a conman. She has several unwitting conversations with the man who owns their apartment, who's on the lam with IRS troubles -- he blames them on a crooked accountant -- and sneaks in to retrieve papers from a hidden safe. She doesn't know who he is and assumes it's Hanley because of her poor vision.
They later bump into each other on a plane and share love at first sight -- fuzzy first sight, to be sure, until she dons her glasses.
Loco's story is the most convoluted, and least interesting. She agrees to go up to a lodge in Maine with a crabby millionaire named Brewster (Fred Clark), thinking a "lodge" means a large gathering of men. It actually means his cozy cabin, and she's mortified at the implication.
But then she catches sick and falls into the arms of Eben (Rory Calhoun), a good-looking local bumpkin. She assumes he's rich when he shows her the mountain range and calls it "his" as far as the eye can see, but he's actually a forest ranger talking about his scope of responsibilities. Loco is disappointed when she finds out the truth, and he's disappointed that she's disappointed, but they patch things up in the end.
So when it all shakes out, two of the three women actually do marry millionaires, though Schatze didn't know it at the time and the other fortune is currently in government hock.
It's a beautiful film to look at, with vivid colors and striking costumes (which earned an Oscar nomination.) It was actually the very first film shot in CinemaScope, though "The Robe" beat it to the box office by a few months. Journeyman director Jean Negulesco makes very good use of the widescreen format to show off New York's locales.
Nunnally Johnson produced and wrote the script, which was actually based on two different stage plays, "Loco" and "The Greeks Had a Word For It."
Though it may seem terribly outdated, "How to Marry a Millionaire" is enjoyable as an artifact of a bygone era and (mostly) outgrown attitudes.