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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

Director: Jean Negulesco
Starring: Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable

Carrying on with the biggest hit of Marilyn Monroe's star-making year, How to Marry a Millionaire, in which Monroe is teamed with fellow icons Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. All told, this one doesn't age quite as well as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, primarily because its strategy for creating conflict is to have one of the women act like a complete cow to whatever guy she's with at the moment and to have him react not by dropping her (as any reasonable human being would) but by wanting her more. That being said, it does have more than a few moments that are sharp and funny and a couple that are just downright strange (such as an early scene in which the three women discuss the kind of men they're willing to associate with, who will only be the best of the best in terms of class and wealth, while sitting around eating hot dogs, the classiest of all food), and any movie that features scenes of Monroe, Bacall, and Grable, each an icon in her own right, is worth a look at the very least.

The three stars are Schatze (Bacall), Loco (Grable), and Pola (Monroe), three models who rent a luxury penthouse together with the idea that the only way to find a wealthy man to marry is to be in the kinds of places where wealthy men can be found. They can't really afford the penthouse, which comes fully furnished courtesy of an owner who has had to flee the country at a moment's notice due to a problem with the IRS, and end up selling off the furniture piece by piece in order to meet their basic needs so that it isn't long before they're sitting in a living room which is empty save for a folding card table and a couple of chairs, having made no progress in their efforts to find suitable men. Loco does manage to meet Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell), who helps her bring home some groceries, but Schatze takes one look at him and decides that he's not worth the investment of time, unaware that despite his casual style of dress he's actually a millionaire. Despite being summarily dismissed by her, Brookman takes a liking to Schatze and continues to pursue her despite her stated disinterest and even as she gets involved with J.D. (William Powell in one of his final roles), a wealthy widowed Texan.

While Schatze is trying to figure out how to close the deal with J.D. and keep Brookman at bay, Pola gets herself mixed up with an eye-patch wearing suitor who talks a good game about being wealthy - too good, perhaps - and then accidentally gets involved with Freddie (David Wayne), the owner of the penthouse who has secretly returned to New York and whose attempts to sneak into the penthouse to retrieve evidence that could prove his innocence are continuously foiled by Pola, though it doesn't really matter because she's never wearing her glasses and can't see a damned thing. Loco, meanwhile, gets talked into going to stay at a lodge in Maine owned by a business man who can't quite seem to decide whether or not he's going to have an affair with her, a conflict which becomes moot once Loco meets Eben (Rory Calhoun), a forest ranger whom she comes to believe is also rich in land holdings.

The story of How to Marry a Millionaire is based on two plays, Zoe Akins' The Greeks Had a Word for Them (which was previously adapted as a film of the same name in 1932) and Loco by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert. The bones of How to Marry a Millionaire come from Akins' play, which is about three showgirls who rent a penthouse together and go looking for rich men, and I'm guessing that the contribution made by Loco is to the stretch of the film which takes places in Maine. The blending together of the two stories sources is not exactly seamless, as the separation of Loco from the main action in New York just makes it feel like she's in an entirely different movie, which leaves the film as a whole seeming a bit disjointed. In fact, for a film that's premised on the idea of three friends living together and working towards a similar goal, the three characters don't actually even spend that much time together between the establishing scenes and the finale that brings everyone back onscreen together.

Because the story doesn't quite hang together on its own, How to Marry a Millionaire leans pretty heavily on the actors to make things work, which they largely do. Bacall plays Schatze in a way that makes her almost all edge, which is especially interesting when you consider that female characters like that usually end up punished by the story rather than rewarded, and Grable's Loco oscillates between a kind of earthiness and the kind of snobby entitlement that Schatze also possesses, and which leads both of them to behave like brats whenever their expectations are disappointed. That sense of entitlement suits Schatze because Bacall plays her with such hardness, but it doesn't really suit Loco who only seems to actually be invested in the idea of landing a rich husband at moments when the screenplay absolutely demands it and whose inclination towards a hunky ranger is forecast by the fact that while Schatze and Pola have dreams about being showered with riches by their future husbands, Loco dreams about a hamburger while licking her lips in her sleep (seriously, this happens, which means Grable was either a great sport or simply a pro). However, even though Loco's characterization isn't terribly consistent, Grable's ability to roll with things keeps the character afloat. As for Monroe, her portrayal of dim bulb Pola is one of her best comedic performances, showcasing an adept ability at physical comedy as Pola's refusal to wear the glasses that she so desperately needs results in a lot of walking into things, wandering off in the wrong direction, and mistaking people for other people because she can't see them properly. As in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, there's an overall sweetness to Monroe's portrayal here that makes her character easy to root for even though her stated goal is less than wholesome. How to Marry a Millionaire plays a bit strangely in the light of 2017, but it's easy to see why it helped solidify Monroe as a star in 1953.

Next Up: River of No Return

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