The very first comedy to debut in Fox’s newly patented Cinemascope was Jean Negulesco’s How To Marry A Millionaire (1953); a breezy enough bonbon that brought together three of Fox’s most bankable stars for the first and only time. Immediately following Darryl F. Zanuck’s announcement that all subsequent Fox movies would be shot in Cinemascope the studio laid an ambitious track of projects to capitalize on the newly expanded proportions of their movie screen.
That girth didn’t necessarily translate into more substantive cinema. In point of fact, stories became simpler and camerawork more static, all in service of filling the 2:35.1 image with a lavishness befitting the expanded horizontal plain. In this respect, How To Marry A Millionaire doesn’t seem to fair quite so badly as some other Fox comedies. The screenplay by Nunnally Johnson is a spritely concoction of merriment and mix ups too naïve, but serviceable nonetheless. Audiences get what Cinemascope promises; ‘more’ of everything stretching as far as the eye can see.
Early Cinemascope had its drawbacks to be sure. The concave lens tended to cause vertical objects to warp inward, especially if placed near the edge of the frame. Cinemascope also used colour by DeLuxe – vegetable based mono pack processing incapable of reproducing the vibrancy of Technicolor’s metal dyes. Also, because Cinemascope utilized standard 35mm film, the compressed image in the camera became less smooth with exaggerated grain when uncompressed on the elongated screen. Finally, early Cinemascope lens made close-ups virtually impossible, lest the actor getting too close to the camera suffering from ‘the mumps’ – a horizontal stretching that artificially flattened and fattened faces and figures. To Negulesco’s credit, most of these technical hindrances are kept at bay in How To Marry A Millionaire; the one exception being Cinemascope’s need to fill every inch of each shot with action, lest the image become static and dull.
One advantage of Cinemascope was its utilization of true stereophonic sound. How to Marry A Millionaire takes full advantage of this ‘new’ technology, particularly in Cyril Mockridge’s frothy score, winningly conducted by Alfred Newman. We open on a static master shot of the 2oth Century-Fox orchestra conducted by Newman in a full blown orchestral arrangement of his famous ‘A Street Scene’ (something of a studio anthem since 1931, inserted presumably to set the cosmopolitan mood of all the frenzied antics to follow) before dissolving into the film’s brassy main title sequence.
Betty Grable had been Fox’s reigning blonde throughout the 1940s and was rounding out her tenure by the time she was assigned the role of always hungry super model, Loco Dempsey. At first Negulesco worried that Grable might be resentful of Marilyn Monroe. But actually Grable was every bit the star and the lady, telling Monroe, “I’ve had mine. Now, go out and get yours.” To this mix was added Lauren Bacall, one of Warner Brother’s most identifiable leading ladies.
How To Marry A Millionaire is a film that could only have been made during the 1950s; the flighty escapades of its dippy heroines par for the course of that decade’s sexual stereotyping; ‘the little woman’ at odds with these three hapless schemers out on their seductive lark. Nunnully Johnson’s screenplay is cliché to a fault and begins with resourceful fashion model, Schatze Page (Lauren Bacall) arriving as the grand dame in furs to inspect a fashionable Sutton Place penthouse recently on the market.
It’s Schatze who’s come up with the plan of renting the address and using it to snag a ‘rich’ husband. Loco (Betty Grable) can’t wait to get started and has invited fellow model, Pola Debevoise (Marilyn Monroe) to partake in the experiment. However, without her glasses Pola is as blind as a bat. This leads to all sorts of interesting screw ups along the way, especially since Pola is convinced that men don’t like women who wear glasses because it makes them look too intelligent.
As the girls move in they are unaware that their present digs once belonged to Freddie Denmark (David Wayne), who has avoided the IRS by living in Europe, but infrequently makes house calls, skulking around while the girls are out in search of the evidence that will exonerate him of the charges of tax evasion and fraud. However, as autumn fades into winter money grows scarce. To keep up appearances, Schatze begins to liquidate the apartment’s expensive furnishing to a pawn broker. By the first few flakes of winter the girls are living off of a folding table and a few fold out chairs.
Loco brings home Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) – a congenial enough sort who’s helped to carry her groceries, but whom Schatze quickly admonishes and sends away. From past marital experience she has already reasoned that Tom is nothing more than a penniless gas pump jockey and therefore entirely unsuitable. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Tom is actually heir to a vast, multi-million dollar holding company that owns half of Manhattan.
Tom pursues Schatze without telling her who he really is and even crashes a fashion show at Mr. Antoine’s (Maurice Marsac) design house where the three are working, under the pretext of looking to buy a gown for his mother. Although Schatze harbours a deep seeded desire for Tom she puts the breaks on at every turn, determined not to get involved. Besides, who needs Tom Brookman when there’s J.D. Hanley (William Powell), a recently widowed oil tycoon, much too old for Schatze, but infinitely capable of giving her the lifestyle she’s after. In the meantime, Pola – without her glasses – has mistaken Freddie for a friend of Schatze’s whom she infrequently flirts with while trying to get a little closer to J. Stewart Merill (Alex D’arcy), a one-eyed Arab prince who is actually a local con artist out to bilk rich women of their life savings.
Stewart tells Pola to take a plane and meet him in California where presumably they will be married. But she misreads the flight itinerary and books herself on a plane to Kansas City instead. Seated next to Freddie on the plane Pola strikes up a conversation. He thinks she’s ‘quite a strudel’ and encourages her to put her glasses back on. It’s love at first ‘clear’ sight. Meanwhile, another budding romantic prospect is about to unravel when married banker, Waldo Brewster (Fred Clark) decides to take Loco up to his lodge for a fun weekend of skiing. The stuffy old philanderer contracts the measles instead, leaving him bedridden. Forest ranger Eben (Rory Calhoun) puts the moves on Loco. Although she resists at first, Loco can’t help herself.
Tom and Schatze spend the weekend together. He wants Schatze to love him for himself and not his money. But she repeatedly tells him she never wants to see him again, even though she realizes it’s no use. The two are inseparable, and bad timing too, since Schatze has already accepted a proposal of marriage from J.D. Determined to go through with the marriage to Hanley, Schatze’s final rejection leaves Tom resentful and disappointed. Realizing she cannot marry Hanley, Schatze pulls out of their wedding moments before the vows are exchanged.
Afterward, Schatze and Tom join Pola and Freddie and Loco and Eben at a local greasy spoon where they laughingly joke over corn beef sandwiches and beers about how close they came to landing millionaires. However, when it comes time to pay the bill, Tom pulls out a wad of hundreds from his pocket, instructing the proprietor to ‘keep the change’. Schatze, Loco and Pola faint dead away. Ebon, Tom and Freddie propose a toast to their wives.
How to Marry A Millionaire is utterly obtuse, yet strangely intoxicating entertainment. At some point – and I’m not exactly sure where in the film that point is – the improbable campiness of the exercise becomes just too over the top to be scoffed at and thereafter translates into something ultimately satisfying. It’s silly, but good antiseptic fun to watch Monroe’s dim-witted Pola and Grable’s clueless Loco flub their chances to marry rich while Bacall’s scheming Schatze – the most enterprising of them all – manages to unknowingly land the man of her dreams.
The real star of the film, however, is Cinemascope. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald exploits the horizontal plain to stellar advantage throughout, photographing his three females stars in interesting (albeit static) compositions or, occasionally finding ways to fill the entire screen with the extended limbs of one star exquisitely lying on a settee. This is Cinemascope at its most frivolously decorous, but it works for the story in unexpected ways.
If the women are mere window dressing, then the men are incidental necessities at best, inserted to make the narrative function – the most cardboard and one dimensional of the lovers being Rory Calhoun’s robust forest ranger. William Powell’s stately oil man – his last role – provides an elegant link to the bygone era of champagne screwball comedies, a quality otherwise lacking in the rest of the film. In the final analysis, How To Marry A Millionaire is more a movie of its time than a timeless movie. That said, it’s entertaining for the most part and sincerely played.
Fox’s hi-def debut is impressive, given all of the limitations of early Cinemascope. We get a bright and generally colourful transfer with some fairly solid detail throughout. Like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How To Marry A Millionaire underwent a photochemical restoration back in the late 1990s to resurrect its thoroughly faded and well-worn image. Don’t expect those ultra glossy, super vibrant images that vintage Technicolor yielded. How To Marry a Millionaire’s colour is monopack vegetable dye based by DeLuxe and that’s a problem. That said, this 1080p transfer accurately recreates the DeLuxe ‘look’.
Colours don’t pop as much as they’re simply present and accounted for. Also, certain scenes, like the dream sequence, tend to favour a curious blue/beige tonal base. Fades and dissolves experience problematic graininess. Overall, film grain is accurately reproduced. It’s just heavier in between scene transitions. But again, this is vintage Cinemascope in all its…uh…glory. The audio is 5.1 DTS and really surprised me. The Cyril Mockridge score and Alfred Newman’s A Street Scene have acquired more acoustic ballast and were a joy to listen to. What’s not a joy is Fox’s squandering on the extras once again. Nothing except a brief Movietones Newsreel and trailers.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)