The elegant humor of ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’

How do you like your comedy? You can have it with the broad strokes of slapstick, the fast-paced dialogue of screwball, a slash of darkness with a black comedy and a dash of romance with a rom-com.

Or you could enjoy the subtle laughter of a subdued, elegant comedy like “How to Marry a Millionaire.” While the plot doesn’t sound like a comedy – three ambitious gold diggers set their sights on bagging a rich hubby in New York City –  in the capable hands of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and a great ensemble cast, the movie will keep you smiling and laughing from start to finish.

That’s why this 1953 film is a favorite film of mine and my choice for “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” the theme of the 2021 fall blogathon from the Classic Movie Blog Association.

Setting the scene

Our female trio played by Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall aren’t shallow and underhanded as they appear on the surface, but insecure and hurt. They each have distinct personalities with endearing qualities that bring comedic elements to their roles whether it’s Bacall as the cool and collected Mrs. Page, Monroe as the daffy Pola or Grable as the unfiltered Loco.

After a more than 5-minute musical prelude, we meet the resourceful and sophisticated Mrs. Page (Lauren Bacall) as she’s renting a gorgeous Sutton Place penthouse fully furnished with a gilded grand piano and a patio with stunning Manhattan views.

Although it’s a deal at $1,000 a month (that’s about $10,000 today) because the owner is having income tax “problems,” it’s more than they can afford.  (The owner is Freddie Denmark, played by the wonderful David Wayne.)

But they need the penthouse. Mrs. Page – call her Schatze – is joined by Pola Debevoise (Marilyn Monroe) and “Loco” Dempsey (Betty Grable) in a plan to attract rich gentlemen by living the part in a swanky penthouse, gorgeous gowns and luxurious furs. (They are all upscale models which is the only explanation for their fantastic wardrobes.) The ladies even arrive in fancy cars by taking test drives in Chryslers (with gold trim) when they don’t have taxi fare.

They dream of marrying a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt. Is there a Mr. Cadillac or Mr. Texaco, they wonder? Schatze, burned by a quick marriage to a “gas-pump jockey,” still hopes to wed again but asks her friends what they would choose if they had their pick between marrying for love or money.

“It’s your head you’ve got to use, not your heart,” she tells them.

Schatze (Lauren Bacall, right) judges Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) by the patches on his elbow and lack of necktie despite him helping Loco (Betty Grable) buy groceries.

So when Loco (or Lo for short) arrives with four bags of groceries paid for by a stranger at the deli counter, the handsome Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell), Schatze won’t have any of it. She marks him as one of those poor gas-pump jockeys and sends him away. (Viewers quickly learn the truth about Tom, so we can knowingly smirk each time Schatze declines his invitations.)

Skip ahead three months. They’re still single – not yet even engaged – and have hocked most of their furniture to pay bills. Only a tiny table, folding chairs and cots for sleeping remain, leaving Schatze to quip, “Where are we going to sit next week?” (The sight of the empty luxury penthouse is funny on its own.)

But their luck is about to change. When Schatze told her friends that you “don’t meet rich guys at the deli counter, but in the fur department at Bergdorf,” Loco listened. That’s where she met the kindly, older gentleman from Texas, J.D. Hanley (William Powell) who carries her packages back to the penthouse.

Do nice guy J.D. Hanley (William Powell) and Schatzy (Lauren Bacall) have a shot at happiness in “How to Marry a Millionaire?”

He invites the ladies to an Oil Institute reception that night and it’s payday. Pola meets mysterious oil tycoon J. Stewart Merrill (Alex D’Arcy) and Loco meets grumpy rich guy Waldo Brewster (Fred Clark). Meanwhile Schatze and J.D. hit it off.

The men are all loaded, but complications arise.

Waldo turns out to be married. While Loco doesn’t date married men (she’s not that type of girl), she naively goes to his lodge in Maine which she has mistaken for a convention of eligible single rich guys. Instead, she finds a shack, a handsome park ranger (Rory Calhoun) and a case of the measles.

Pola, who refuses to wear her glasses (“You know what they say about women who wears glasses.”), knows little about her smooth-talking guy. She can’t even see his phony eye patch which is a big clue. He talks big multi-million dollar deals and wants her to meet his mother – who lives in Jersey.

How blind is Pola (Marilyn Monroe) without her glasses? She doesn’t know she’s reading a book upside down as she sits next to Freddie Denmark (David Wayne) on a plane.

Poor J.D. is a sweet and charming widower who sees through the ladies. He grows to love Schatze but thinks their age difference isn’t fair to her. Meanwhile, Tom continues to call the seemingly uninterested Schatze.

As Schatze, Bacall is cool and collected, confident in her plan to marry for money after she was left with a broken heart. She stands tall and firm as she keeps her friends in check with the plan, but we can see the cracks in her armor.  There is humor each time she denies her feelings for time, telling him “After tonight, I never want to see you again.” Sure, Schatze, sure.

Marilyn Monroe’s natural comic abilities shine in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” Here, she sheepishly looks at her oil-tycoon date (Alex D’Arcy) after she walks into the back of the maitre’d because she’s not wearing her glasses.

Monroe, as we know, is a gifted comic actress. Pola’s refusal to wear her glasses sets up numerous comedic moments for Monroe as she walks into walls, bumps into people and doesn’t always know who she is talking to. The embarrassed smile she gives after her gaffes is endearingly funny. Her insecurities in wearing her glasses – which she looks beautiful in – also sets up my favorite sequence as she blindly boards an airplane to New Jersey.

As the extravert Loco, Grable portrays the energetic life of the party who wears her heart on her sleeve and can’t help but tell you how she feels. Her description of Waldo: “Mine is loaded, but he’s a real yawner.” She’s also the only who raises her voice, but it’s usually in frustration with herself as she knows what’s really in her heart.

In another funny scene, Walter Brewster (Fred Clark) makes Loco (Betty Grable) sit apart from him in an empty train car to protect “his” reputation in “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

Humor is even found in cranky Waldo. Played by familiar face Fred Clark who does charmingly grouchy as good as anyone, he makes it easy to laugh at his character. Waldo is a hapless chap in a miserable marriage who is afraid of getting caught and goes to extremes so he isn’t. An unhappy Loco and nervous Waldo sitting rows apart in an empty train car so one thinks they are together is one of those understated humorous moments the film does well.

“How to Marry a Millionaire” is a winning film in many ways. It is funny, irresistibly charming and an entertaining feel-good film that looks fantastic in vibrant Technicolor and Cinemascope.

It’s my movie prescription in the “Laughter is the Best Medicine” blogathon.

Trivia

The costume design is by Travilla who dressed Monroe in eight films including her iconic ivory pleated dress in “The Seven Year Itch” and the red sparkly gown in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Other versions:
Nunally Johnson adapted two stage plays for this movie, “The Greeks Had a Word for It” by Zoe Akins  (1930), which was made into the 1932 film of the same name,  and “Loco” by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert. (1946)

The film was adapted into a 1957 TV series starring Barbara Eden, Merry Anders and Lori Nelson. It ran for two seasons.

A made-for-TV remake 2000 “How to Marry a Billionaire: A Christmas Tale” turned the tables as a trio of guys – John Stamos, Joshua Malina and Shemar Moore – looked for rich women.

The blogathon

You can find links to other stories in the Classic Movie Blog Association‘s “Laughter is the Best Medicine” blogathon here.

5 thoughts on “The elegant humor of ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’”

  1. You picked a winner for the blogathon! What is there not to like? It is beautiful to behold and the ladies (and gents) are just perfect – although Marilyn might be just a little more perfect than the rest. A joyful post about a joyful film.

    Liked by 1 person

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