Sunday, April 16, 2006

How To Marry A Millionaire [1953]

[Now Experiencing] [Film]

Last week I covered confronting political philosophy shallowly disguised as a science-fiction film. This week, I'm taking a trip back in time to visit with Marilyn Monroe.

Picture this - the year is 1953. Perry Como's at the top of the charts with a string of hits. In Australia, Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies is serving out the fourth year of a term of office that would not end until 1966, while overseas the United States has overwhelmingly declared that "They Like Ike" with a landslide electoral win for new Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. A certain Senator Joseph McCarthy has the western world hunting for Communists under their beds. Shows like Dragnet and The Lone Ranger are captivating audiences through the new medium of TV, and an enterprising toy producer has just created the world's first plastic toy soldiers.

In film, Audrey Hepburn is taking a Roman Holiday, Vincent Price appears in House of Wax (the world's first 3-D film), and the star of centerfold actress Marilyn Monroe continues its meteoric rise with How To Marry A Millionaire - presented in 20th Century Fox's dramatic new technology, CinemaScope.

How to Marry a Millionaire stars Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe as a trio of young models determined to do whatever it takes to snag a millionaire husband and fulfil their highest worldly aspirations. To this end, the "intelligent" one of the three (and I speak comparitively), a Ms Schatze (Bacall: The Big Sleep, Key Largo), has rented an expensive fully-furnished high-class apartment for a year. Selling the apartment's furniture to provide capital for top-class clothes and comforts, the three intend to use the apartment as bait in a "millionaire-trap", with the intention that at least one of them will land a wealthy husband to retrospectively cover the costs of their scheme.

The plan is complicated however, by the fact that Loco (Grable: Down Argentine Way, Sweet Rosie O'Grady) is spoiled and stupid, and can't seem to stop getting involved with men without a penny to their name; whereas Pola (Monroe: Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) is almost blind without spectacles, but rarely wears them because she thinks they make her look ugly.

The three fall in and out of relationships with a range of unlikely men, ranging from park rangers to oil tycoons to a genuine multi-millionaire, before (predictably) finding happiness and each winding up married.

The moral message of the movie continues to be relevant to this day: the highest thing a woman can dream of is to be married, and occasionally a man turns out to be vaguely worthwhile despite not being overwhelmingly wealthy. I think there's something in that for all of us. Er... I mean, turn off your braincells, reset your moral clock to 1953, and don't use this movie to educate your children.

Of the three female leads, Grable (a relic of an earlier age of silent and black and white films) comes across as whiny and annoying; furthermore most of her scenes are almost wholly unrelated to the rest of the plot and are filmed in the absence of the other lead actresses. Indeed, this film comes at the end of Grable's career - in two more years she was to retire from cinema altogether.

Bacall plays what is arguably the protagonist of the movie; certainly the script seems to consider Schatze central to the story, and Bacall plays her world-weary goldminer alter-ego admirably. The "I never want to see you again" montage near the end of the movie will remain a memorable gem of cinema long after the rest of the film is forgotten, and she manages to invest the totally shallow character she is given with a considerable personality and dignity.

But ultimately, whatever the script may have had in mind, Monroe steals the show as the sweet-hearted but ditzy Pola, and the director knows it. Monroe's entire acting career may be limited to playing a series of seductive ingenues, but arguably that's because she does it so well. The camera lingers lovingly on Monroe in every scene, and she invests even the dull moments of the film with an energy that carries the viewer through till the closing credits.

Visually, the movie is fascinating. The CinemaScope technique, which operates to compress panoramic images onto standard film stock, is a stark contrast to the standard fare of the 1950s. The DVD I was watching the film on was a restored version, containing full widescreen to take advantage of the medium, and presented a great opportunity to see the film close to the way it was intended. An incidental effect of Cinemascope is to cause an illusion of three-dimensions in the visual image, which goes to great effect in the few scenes in which a painted backdrop is used to give the effect of a New York skyline.

There's nothing special to comment on in the directing; director Jean Negulesco does a competent but uninspiring job. The script careers from brilliance to dullness and back again, largely made watchable by the high production values and the work of the actors. It's not roaringly funny by today's standards (at least so far as it intends to be funny), but it does have its moments.

Made notable more for its historic place in the careers of the three lead actresses and for its technical achievements than for any inherent quality, How To Marry A Millionaire still made for an enjoyable and unchallenging night's entertainment, and I'm glad I had the chance to see it.


Julia B said...

Speaking of Lauren Bacall, she's the voice of the Witch of the Waste in the English language dub of Howl's Moving Castle.
Think about that next time you watch The Big Sleep.

GregT said...

Yeah, that woman just won't die, will she? I think she's possessed with some sort of extradimensional life-prolonging energy that maintains her existence until Earth's hour of greatest need.

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