Why Lauren Bacall wins 'How to Marry a Millionaire'
In the opening credits of 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire, the onscreen billing order ran Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and then Lauren Bacall—though it was advertised with Monroe billed first (the success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes earlier that year put her well on her way to swooning super-stardom). Either way, Bacall came last.
But that didn’t stop the late actress from stealing the movie.
Before getting any further, it’s important to establish that this is the kind of movie where somebody wins. How to Marry a Millionaire is about three models who conspire to marry rich. The plot is the kind of frothier-than-a-cheap-smoothie material that Hollywood cranked out during the studio system, and so the film is more about sparkling performances than sending a message. So the goal here is really to chomp the most scenery per scene—to see how many winks you can flick at the audience without breaking the fourth wall, or making them faint from exhaustion.
Let’s round up the contenders:
First, there’s Betty Grableas Loco Dempsey, the air-headed, food-obsessed model who tries to go after married man Waldo Brewster (Fred Clark) but ends up with a forest ranger (Rory Calhoun) instead. How to Marry a Millionaire was the last big box-office success at Fox, and the last film she did on her contract (she later appeared in How to Be Very, Very Popular for the studio, but as a freelance artist). Her role was also beefed up for the production, as the writers combined elements from Zoë Akins’ play The Greeks Had a Word for It (about women trying to marry rich) with Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert’s Loco (about a young model). But even though Grable’s telegraphed as a star—and a prodigious amount of screen time’s devoted to the time she spends stuck in a lodge in Maine—she’s perhaps the least present of the three leads.
That’s partly because Grable had to play blonde across from Marilyn Monroe. She was the very near-sighted Pola Debevoise, who walks into several walls because she hates wearing glasses. Pola’s story mirrors Loco’s: She tries to nab an international playboy, but ends with a charming crook. Nobody’s better at being an alluring ditz than Monroe, and armed with her favorite word (“creamy”—which she keeps trying to keep make happen) she was to win what the press dubbed the “Battle of the Blondes.” To be fair, that battle never really existed. Grable reportedly told Monroe on set, “Honey, I’ve had mine—go get yours.”
Lauren Bacall’s Schatze Page, however, has no time for any of that friendship business. While the blondes might have made friends, the brunette runs away with the picture. Schatze, concocts the plot in the first place and is the only one of the models to marry rich (even if she thinks she’s settling). On handicap alone, Bacall makes up the most ground, going from third billing to most appealing with phrases like “nobody’s mother lives in Atlantic City on a Saturday” or “wealthy men are never old.” Where Grable and Monroe trip over themselves in slapstick, Bacall’s the cat who always lands on her feet.
Of course, it’s easy to overestimate Bacall’s role, which The New York Times derided for its “truculence” at the time, in hindsight. As most pieces on her have noted, Bacall was great for being a femme fatale of highest sort—seducing the much-older Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946) and then marrying him in real life. Now she was playing a spunky woman named Schatze. It’s as if Megan Fox showed up to deliver quips written for Katharine Hepburn
So Bacall’s stiffness comes with the territory, but it’s livened by the natural wittiness of her part—that of a New York model, coincidentally the same job that Betty Perske had before she became Bacall. The studio could have cast someone with less (or a more intellectual sort) of sex appeal as Schatze, but they didn’t. She’s more buttoned up—and obviously not blonde—but Bacall definitely didn’t turn off her darkly knowing “look” (not that anyone asked her to).
And so Bacall makes “brains” of the operation just as sexy as the other two members, which is a rare occurrence. If Grable and Monroe are to How to Marry a Millionaire as Carrie and Charlotte are to Sex and the City, Bacall is both Miranda and Samantha. In terms of Girls, she’s Marnie Michaels and the girls that steal Marnie’s boyfriends. Usually there’s an even more definite split between the brains and the leader in a three part film—with the third woman playing a seductress, just to keep things even—but Bacall’s Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids with emotional support, Kirsten Dunst in Bachelorette if she were the one getting married, Regina George in Mean Girls if she knew butter isn’t a carb.
The common sense wisdom today is that no one would want to watch a movie where the romantic lead has so much going for her. You could see the note from the studio: “She’s not relatable; have her trip a lot or be bad at her job or something.” But Lauren Bacall transcended relatability. If she wanted a millionaire, she could marry a millionaire—even though he wasn’t the millionaire she was aiming for originally. Heck, she wanted Humphrey Bogart, and look what happened.
If that’s not enough to convince you, you have to admit that Bacall could have won How to Marry a Millionaire with just one line:
“What I’m trying to tell you is that I’ve always liked older men. Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella, what’s-his-name, in African Queen—absolutely crazy about him.”