Marilyn Monroe Launches Cinemascope in
How to Marry A Millionaire (1953)
“People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night,” 20th Century-Fox Studio mogul Darryl Zanuck predicted of television. He could not have been more wrong. By 1953, cinema attendance dropped nearly fifty percent from its peak of ninety million per week in the late 1940s. Communism was not Hollywood’s greatest growing menace; it was the exponentially growing television industry. To entice the public from the small monochromatic screens in their homes, the motion picture industry introduced spectacular novelties only available in theaters: simulated three-dimensional effects, stereophonic sound, and — the pièce de résistance — wide screen projection.
Fox purchased the anamorphic lenses developed by Henri Chretien in France and expanded the audience’s peripheral vision by creating a panoramic, curved screen triple the size of a conventional screen. The studio announced all films would be made in this new process called CinemaScope. Fox now owned two weapons to combat the threat of television: CinemaScope and Marilyn Monroe. Zanuck wasted no time in employing both.
Beneath the 12-Mile Reef and How to Marry a Millionaire were concurrently in production in the new widescreen process. The latter would be completed first but would not earn the distinction of the first CinemaScope film. Fox delayed its release to flaunt the new process with the exotic on-location scenery and cast of thousands in the “sand and sandals” epic, The Robe.
Producer Nunnally Johnson wrote the screenplay and later slanted the characters to match the leading actresses’ screen personas. Johnson’s gold-diggers are Manhattan haute couture fashion models and friends who pool resources to rent a Sutton Place penthouse from its tax-dodging owner to bait millionaires for marriage. After a cold and unproductive winter, they begin pawning the owner’s furniture for the cash needed to live extravagantly and mingle with wealthy bachelors. Schatze Page, the brains of the operation, takes interest in an older cattle baron, J.D. Hanley, while fighting her attraction to a younger man, Tom Brookman, whom she believes is poor. Loco Dempsey accompanies a married man, Waldo Brewster, to a private lodge in Maine which she thinks is an Elks Lodge filled with eligible men. After catching measles, she falls in love with a forest ranger, Eben, whom she mistakenly believes owns the acreage he protects. Myopic Pola Debevoise avoids wearing her glasses in fear that they will make her unattractive to men. Stewart Merrill, a phony oil tycoon, pursues her and invites her to meet his mother in Kansas. Without her glasses, Pola accidently boards a plane to Atlantic City, meets and falls in love with the owner of the penthouse, Freddie Denmark, evading the IRS.
Fox cast Lauren Bacall as Schatze and considered Monroe as Loco. Although the role resonated with Monroe (she liked the role’s snappy lines and lengthy screen time), Fox instead cast Betty Grable. Monroe was finally given the role of Pola, the beautiful, near-sighted model who is insecure about her appearance and avoids wearing her eyeglasses — horn-rimmed, cat-eye shaped spectacles of the 1950s. Pola’s screen time was less than the other roles, but the character offered a splendid challenge in physical comedy and pantomime. She regularly walks into walls, boards the wrong plane, bumps into people, holds a book upside-down, and trips on the modeling runway. Lacking confidence in her comedic skills, Initially, Monroe protested the role, but Negulesco convinced her that Pola offered an opportunity to showcase her skills at deadpan comedy. The only motivation you need for this part,” he advised, “is the fact that in the movie you are blind as a bat without glasses.”
Serendipitously, Monroe had already enrolled in warm-hearted Lotte Goslar’s pantomime class at the Turnabout Theatre to hone her skills for physical comedy. “She didn’t mind being observed and criticized,” Goslar remembered. “I set up a project for them to become infants and work out a character and behavior for that baby, then progress to childhood, youth, maturity and finally old age with the same character in mind. Marilyn was terribly good at it and everyone was much impressed.”
With sultry looks, a husky voice, and acting chops, Lauren Bacall was a sudden hit with the public and critics alike, and Warner Brothers Studio paired her with Humphrey Bogart in a string of film noir classics: The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). In To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall delivers the iconic speech to Bogart: “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.” In 1945, she married Bogart, twenty-five years her senior, and the couple settled in a large house in the exclusive Holmby Hills and and had two children. Johnson’s script offered Bacall an opportunity to play comedy for the first time.
Rising to fame in the musical Down Argentine Way (1940), Betty Grable acted, sang, and danced in Coney Island (1943), and Mother Wore Tights (1947). On Fox’s set of the latter film, a young Norma Jeane Dougherty performed her first screen test and signed a contract as Marilyn Monroe. Grable’s reign as the industry’s box office queen of Technicolor musicals and comedies peaked in 1947-48. In 1943, Grable posed in a bathing suit for Fox studio photographer Frank Powolny and made history. With her back toward the camera, head turned over her shoulder, and hands on her hips, Grable inspired tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers who tacked copies of the photo on the walls of their barracks. Grable was widely known to have the most beautiful legs in Hollywood, and Fox insured them for one million dollars with Lloyd’s of London.
Playing for laughs, Johnson’s script mentioned the men in the lives of Grable and Bacall. Loco wrongly argues that music on the radio is played by trumpeter-bandleader Harry James, Grable’s husband. Schatze persuades Hanley that she is attracted to older men by saying: “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fellow, what’s-his-name, in The African Queen” (Bogart and Katharine Hepburn had starred in John Huston’s 1951 Academy Award winning classic. Johnson made no reference, however, to Monroe’s beau, DiMaggio. Instead, he scripted Pola reading a book titled Murder by Strangulation, alluding to Marilyn’s role in Niagara. In the fashion show sequence, Pola models a red bathing suit and jacket adorned with rhinestones as an announcer says, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. And this is our proof of it.”
The role of Schatze’s beau, J.D. Hanley, required an older actor with an established image of sophistication. Fox appropriately cast William Powell. At age sixty-three, Powell had been a major star at MGM Studios and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor three times; for The Thin Man (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Life with Father (1947). Powell partnered with Jean Harlow, Monroe’s idol as a child. When Harlow suddenly died at twenty-six, Powell sent roses to her crypt; Monroe asked DiMaggio to someday do the same for her.
Cast as Tom Brookman, the man Schatze truly loves, Cameron Mitchell was one of the founding members of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in New York City.
As the cantankerous Waldo Brewster, the married man paired with Loco, Fred Clark appeared in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951). Balding and sporting a pencil-thin mustache, Clark is a familiar-faced character actor who usually played dour, short-tempered roles. He also appeared in Auntie Mame (1958).
Alex D’Arcy, an Egyptian actor in international films whose roles were mostly suave gentlemen or rogues, played the swarthy Stewart Merrill, Pola’s millionaire suitor. Monroe earned seven hundred dollars per week, equal to Darcy’s pay for a supporting role.
Rory Calhoun had Lana Turner to thank for launching his career, not his agent. When Calhoun escorted Turner to the premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, he caught the attention of paparazzi. He was no stranger to Monroe, who had worked with him in A Ticket to Tomahawk. Now Calhoun was paired with Betty Grable as Eben, a forest ranger in Maine.
The film marked David Wayne’s last of four appearances opposite Monroe. He played Freddie Denmark, the owner of the penthouse, who loves Pola even with eyeglasses firmly perched on the bridge of her nose. Wayne befriended Monroe on the set of As Young As You Feel and soon after challenged her on refusing a role. “I’ve been in this business a long time and I know what’s good for you,” he snarled. “I’ve been in this business a very short time,” Marilyn retorted, “and I know what’s good for me better than you do.” Wayne later said, “I adore her.”
When the three female stars assembled on the soundstage for the first time, the press awaited a mushroom cloud of conflict and cattiness or, at least, Grable’s bitter resentment of Monroe. However, Grable immediately embraced Monroe and ceremoniously told her, “Honey, I’ve had mine. Go get yours. It’s your turn now.” In response to Bacall grumbling about Monroe’s tardiness, Grable said, “Honey, give it to her. Let’s listen to records until she gets here. It’s her time now. Let her have fun.” Before long, Bacall found herself also feeling protective of Monroe.
As the production progressed, Monroe showed Grable a special kindness that the latter would remember. “[We] were very close,” Grable recounted. “Once…I got a call on the set. My younger daughter had had a fall. I ran home. And the one person to call was Marilyn.” Bacall invited Monroe to her home for dinner and conversation. She discussed her own battles at Warner Brothers Studio and told her guest, “Don’t let them push you around…I’m a little rebel too. And I know that when you stand up to them, the bastards back off.” Monroe longed for a domestic life with a husband and children and talked about, in Bacall’s words, “want[ing] to be in San Francisco with Joe DiMaggio in some spaghetti joint.”
The film’s director, Romanian-born Jean Negulesco prepared to film an early scene on the penthouse terrace, with his leading ladies chatting and having a lunch of hot dogs and champagne and sitting in chaise lounges. Grable called a time-out. “You can’t appear in front of the cameras looking like that,” she told Monroe. Grable had noticed that her co-star’s toenails would be visible in the shot. Negulesco and the crew waited as a nurturing Grable took Monroe into the dressing room and gave her a complete pedicure.
Monroe’s work ethic and stamina in toiling for long hours impressed Negulesco. She labored nonstop for twelve hours each day and focused only on her work. When greeted in the morning and asked how she was feeling, Monroe would reply with a related line from Johnson’s script. “She had a right sense of knowing the character she was playing,” Negulesco later said. “The way to enter a scene, to hold singular attention as the scene developed, the way to end a scene — so that no other actor existed around her.”
The new widescreen process presented a challenge to the motion picture industry long before perplexing television editors who later had to broadcast these films within the proportions of a square television screen. Directors filmed longer scenes and several pages of dialogue without a cut or close-up, giving the appearance of a filmed play. Actors, accustomed to memorizing a few lines for brief shots that would be spliced with others to create a sequence, were now required to memorize entire scenes.
When formatted to fit television screens, nearly half the CinemaScope film is cropped. For example, the final shot in Millionaire contained all six of the main characters seated at a diner counter and conversing. The camera remains stationary, as all the speaking characters are visible on the wide screen. When modified for television or videotape cassette, only three characters are visible. This is corrected by the “pan and scan” technique, whereby an editor pans and scans across the widescreen to keep the action in the middle of the screen, capturing the actor or actors who are speaking. The effect suggests that the original CinemaScope camera panned, although it remained stationary. In later DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the film, the wide screen ratio is preserved with black bars visible on the top and bottom, a technique called letterboxing.
David Wayne found filming in the new process unyieldingly tedious. When shooting the scene inside the plane, the width of the CinemaScope camera lens required the crew to remove the entire side of the plane. This forced all of the extras to remain seated inside of the plane, take after take. Monroe and Wayne went thirty-eight takes, and everyone in the scene was drenched in sweat from the bright lights. It was a tormenting workday, but the resultant flawless scene was delightful.
Despite the cumbersome set and blazing lights, Monroe’s performance was impeccable. “Monroe plays Pola’s reactions perfectly,” wrote Carl Rollyson. “Waves of panic move across Pola’s face as she tentatively puts her glasses on. Denmark’s response is immediate, positive, and decisive. He tells her the glasses give her a ‘certain difference of distinction,’ and Pola glows with a happy idea of importance she has never felt before. She is directed to a sense of self-worth, just as Monroe sometimes depended on the sensitive guidance of others to achieve a belief in her own strength.”
Monroe’s comedic talent inspired Negulesco to remark: “In the end I adored her, because she was a pure child who had this ‘something’ that God had given her, [which] we still can’t define or understand. It’s the things that made her a star. When we put the picture together, there was one person on the screen who was a great actress — Marilyn.”
The film’s trailer announced, “The
grand and glorious adventures of three fascinating females, who pool their
beauty in the greatest plot against mankind since Helen of Troy, Marie
Antoinette, and Venus de Milo!” Posters exclaimed: “The Most Glamorous
Entertainment of your lifetime in CinemaScope. You see it without glasses, Big-Time,
Grand-Time, Great-Time Show of All Time!”
How to Marry a Millionaire opened in New York on October 29, 1953, but its Hollywood premiere took place on November 4 at the Fox Wilshire Theater on Wilshire Boulevard and La Cienega Avenue. Monroe n arrived on the arm of Nunnally Johnson and accompanied by Bacall and Bogart. She donned a strapless gown with a heart-shaped bodice made of white lace over flesh-colored crepe de Chine and embroidered with sequins.
“The big question, ‘How does Marilyn Monroe look stretched across a broad screen?’ is easily answered,” announced the New York Herald Tribune. “If you insisted on sitting in the front row, you would probably feel as though you were being smothered in Baked Alaska. From any normal vantage point, though, her magnificent proportions are as appealing as ever, and her stint as a deadpan comedienne is as nifty as her looks. Playing a near-sighted charmer who won’t wear glasses when men are around, she bumps into the furniture and reads books upside down with a limpid guile that nearly melts the screen.”
Monroe’s proficiency in pantomime created a standout performance. “Miss Monroe has developed more than a small amount of comedy polish of the foot-in-the-mouth type,” opined the New York Post. The ordinarily stringent Bosley Crowther of the New York Times also approved: “The baby-faced mugging of the famously shaped Miss Monroe does compensate in some measure for the truculence of Miss Bacall. Her natural reluctance to wear glasses when she is spreading the glamour accounts for some funny farce business of missing signals and walking into walls.”
In its first release, the film earned over nine million dollars, becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1953 behind Oscar-winner From Here to Eternity. Monroe endeared herself to the public with self-depreciating humor. She successfully played comedy while remaining sexy. “It was the first time that Marilyn was not self-consciously the sex symbol,” Nunnally Johnson remarked. “The character had a measure of modesty.”
“Marilyn’s the biggest thing that’s happened to Hollywood in years,” Grable told columnist Aline Mosby. “The movies were just sort of going along, and all of a sudden — zowie! — there was Marilyn. She’s a shot in the arm for Hollywood!”
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.