Silver Screen Standards: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
There’s a lot to love in the CinemaScope spectacle of Twentieth Century Fox’s How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), even if it sometimes plays like a demo reel for its technological innovation. Fox was eager to show off the wonders of CinemaScope, sure, but the movie also demonstrates the talents of some of classic Hollywood’s greatest leading ladies, namely Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe. Throw in William Powell’s penultimate screen performance, a couple of romantic hunks, and a series of gorgeous costumes, and you’ve got something for pretty much everyone willing to sit down with a Technicolor comedy about three dames looking for mercenary matrimony in mid-century Manhattan.
How to Marry a Millionaire was Fox’s first CinemaScope feature, and the enthusiasm for the medium shows in every shot, beginning with the long overture performed onscreen by a full orchestra. Moviegoers accustomed to the cold opens of the modern age probably ought to be warned about that opening; even my lifetime learners were squirming in their seats through it during a recent showing of the picture at the retirement community where I volunteer. Once the story gets rolling, the CinemaScope is on display in more manageable doses as the audience is treated to views of the city, of New York Harbor, of beautiful girls modeling the latest couture, and of the snowy mountain vistas of Maine. The picture makes the most of the technology both indoors and out but proves especially delightful when the action moves to a rural ski lodge with expansive views of slopes and trees. Sadly, The Robe (1953) ended up stealing a lot of the thunder by being the first CinemaScope movie to appear in theaters, even though How to Marry a Millionaire was filmed earlier, but the technology was still so new and exciting that audiences in 1953 must have been properly wowed.
The wow factor extends to the cast, as well, with Grable, Bacall, and Monroe all giving terrific performances from very different points in their careers. Betty Grable was close to bowing out, having been in pictures since her early teens in the 1930s, but you’d never know it from her lively, wacky turn as the free-spirited Loco, the least mercenary of the trio. While her friends dream of jewels and wealth, Loco dreams about hot sandwiches and mustard, so it’s no surprise when she falls for a meaty forest ranger played by Rory Calhoun. Lauren Bacall was already well established as a noir star thanks to her red hot chemistry with real-life husband Humphrey Bogart in 1940s hits like To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Key Largo (1948), but How to Marry a Millionaire shows her talent for a comic role without Bogart by her side. Her Schatze – divorced, disillusioned, and determined to do it right this time – is the brains of the operation, coolly hocking the rented apartment’s furniture to carry on with the plan until at least one girl hooks a husband with a bank account. Marilyn Monroe had been working in Hollywood since the late 40s, but her star was finally rising in 1953, when Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes helped propel her to leading lady status. Her near-sighted, naïve Pola is one of her most entertaining performances, sweeter and smarter than Lorelei Lee and just delightful in her scenes with David Wayne.
While CinemaScope and beautiful stars give the movie its pizazz, the laughs are largely due to deft direction by Jean Negulesco and the dry, witty comedy of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, working from two different plays as source material. There’s a lot of humorous dramatic irony on offer, especially in Schatze’s persistent rejection of handsome Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell), whom she believes to be a penniless gas pump jockey but who is, in fact, even richer than Schatze’s intended target, the benevolent and lonely cattle baron played by William Powell. Loco’s problem is a tendency to misunderstand a situation, as she does with her Elks Lodge assumption and her belief that Eben, the forest ranger, actually owns the trees that he watches over, but she gets the last laugh in a really hilarious scene on the George Washington Bridge. Poor Pola, so blind she bumps into walls and reads books upside down, seems like an easy mark for a joke, but it’s her self-consciousness about wearing her glasses, not her near-sightedness, that’s really the problem. Each character is uniquely funny but also likable and capable of generous, selfless behavior that proves the mercenary act is just that, which makes the picture kinder, sweeter, and more romantic than its title might imply.
CinemaScope proved a moneymaker for Fox in 1953, with The Robe taking first place as the top-grossing film of the year and How to Marry a Millionaire coming in fourth. You can read more about CinemaScope films in this article from the BFI website. If you’re interested in a different take on How to Marry a Millionaire, the movie got a TV series remake that ran from 1957 to 1959 with Merry Anders, Barbara Eden, and Lori Nelson in the lead roles.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.