Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 25, 2019)
With 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe experienced her first big hit as a lead actress. However, she actually shared top billing with fellow sex symbol Jane Russell, which made sense, since one wouldn’t expect Fox to bet the bank on a then-unproven actress.
As such, it seemed likely that Marilyn’s follow-up to Blondes would put her firmly in the lead, right? Wrong.
Instead, with How to Marry A Millionaire, Monroe took an apparent step backwards and became part of a trio, one that put her as the junior partner between two better-established actresses.
Since both films came out during the same year, it’s possible that Millionaire was done before the success of Blondes was established. In that vein, it makes more sense that Marilyn made this reverse move, and in other ways, the decision seems smart.
After all, it may have been more beneficial to slowly edge Marilyn into the spotlight rather than to force leads on her all at once. Granted, she’d been an actress for a few years as of 1953, but it still seemed positive to make this a gradual transition.
So in Millionaire, Marilyn worked as part of an ensemble of general equals along with Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. I refer to this arrangement as one of “general equals” because it’s clear that Bacall was more equal than the other two, and Monroe got the weakest part.
The film’s plot seems to balance screentime among the three actresses. Schatze (Bacall) rents a posh Manhattan apartment that’s beyond her means, but she has a plan: she’ll take up residence there along with two other hotties - Pola (Monroe) and Loco (Grable) - and the trio will stalk rich, eligible men.
At least one of this bevy of babes will certainly be able to snag a wealthy dude with little trouble, right? Maybe not, and the movie follows their misadventures as they attempt to balance affairs of the heart with those of the wallet.
Bacall’s Schatze is the first of the trio we see, and she dominates the program. I can’t say that she’s the lead of the piece, but her prominence almost makes this the case.
Monroe and Grable clearly take a backseat to her character’s presence. Grable has the second-biggest role, which leaves Marilyn with the smallest part, though the balance between Grable and Monroe remains fairly close.
One area in which all three seemed fairly equal related to the quality of their parts. Although Bacall becomes the dominant partner, I don’t think that her role really feels much better developed or interesting, as each of the three creates generally interesting and fun personae.
We get little insight into the personalities, but that’s not really something one would expect from this kind of film. Millionaire doesn’t intend to offer a penetrating character piece, so I don’t mind that we learn relatively little about the backgrounds and motivations of these women.
After all, the concept of three chicks out to marry for money may seem politically incorrect today, but it probably felt much less offensive 65 years ago. Few women had careers in that day and age, and their main goal was to find a solid man to support them. Something like this film probably wouldn’t go over too well today, but it made more sense during the earlier era.
Just because we have different expectations and thoughts about women’s roles now doesn’t mean that something like Millionaire can’t be enjoyable, though. Indeed, I feel the film brings a fun and fairly charming trifle.
As with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we find little more than an escapist fantasy. We see a proto-chick-flick in which we see women who achieve their dreams in a fashion, but it’s an entertaining affair.
Monroe plays another variation on her staple ditzy blonde character, and she seems just fine in the part. Many people endorse Monroe as a comedic genius, but while I don’t think she was quite that talented, she did accomplish her work in a charming and effective manner.
Bacall’s presence adds class and stature to a story that could have seemed tasteless. Even considering the tenor of the time, there was something crass about the gold-digging concept, but the appearance of an actress as sophisticated as Bacall lends credibility to the flick.
Grable probably winds up as the weakest link in this chain, but she seems acceptably convincing in her part. She seems a little too subdued for a character named “Loco”, but she provides some good moments.
How to Marry A Millionaire offers an erratic but generally watchable and entertaining movie. It lacks tremendous humor, though it does attempt some cleverness via a few inside jokes.
At one point, Bacall makes a mildly-mean reference to Humphrey Bogart, and Monroe also mentions that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”. As a whole, this film delivers a modestly witty and pleasurable romp that makes for an enjoyable viewing.