Directed by Jean Negulesco and released in 1953, How to Marry a Millionaire stars Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and Lauren Bacall as shameless gold-diggers named Loco, Pola, and Schatze, respectively. Even though they have no money, a really fuzzy plot inexplicably places the girls in a rented apartment the size of Rhode Island so that they can execute a nonsensical plan of pretending to be wealthy in order to snare millionaires. All these women care about is money and manipulating men. To be fair, they also do some modeling, but it figures that their only occupational choice is one that allows men to gawk at them in all their Cinemascopic glory. Basically, they’re really expensively packaged prostitutes.
This film is a depressing reflection of oppressive, anti-feminist American society in the 1950s. During the 1950s, America was trying to reel the women back in after they had tasted short-lived success in the workplace and independence while the men were off fighting in World War II. Marriage was considered a woman’s ultimate goal in life, and the characters in the film obviously believe and endorse it. They’re just more superficial and want to cook, clean, and have babies for millionaire husbands. Good performances by the female leads cannot save this misogynistic mess. How to Marry a Millionaire celebrates everything that was wrong with America in the 1950s, and the three main characters emerge as nothing more than stereotypes who perpetuated the national repression of women.
Near the beginning of How to Marry a Millionaire, Loco Dempsey expresses surprise at Schatze Page’s willingness to give marriage another try after hearing Schatze describe her first failed marriage. Schatze replies, in a tone simultaneously dejected and longing, “Of course I want to get married again. Who doesn’t? It’s the biggest thing you can do in life.” While this sentiment may seem absurd to people living in a post-feminist society overshadowed by political correctness, it was pretty much standard text for the 1950s. Following an unprecedented era of independence for American women during World War II, the 1950s witnessed a desperate national search for stability, manifested in an explosion of prosperity and consumerism and an obsession with conformity and domesticity. During this time, women were not-so-subtly encouraged to resume their “traditional” roles of homemaker, wife, and mother, and new standards of femininity emerged. Released in 1953, How to Marry a Millionaire glaringly refers to these issues, specifically through the three main characters of Loco Dempsey, Pola Debevoise, and Schatze Page, gold diggers united by a common goal. They set up an elaborate operation to catch rich men and, in the process, embrace everything that was wrong with the 1950s, including blatant sexism, superficiality, and an emphasis on marriage as the ultimate goal of a woman’s existence. While the characters of Loco, Pola, and Schatze in How to Marry a Millionaire display moderate strength and individuality, they remain distinct products of the 1950s and ultimately embody various aspects of femininity through a blatant use of stereotypes, expose the decade’s disturbing obsession with consumerism, appearances, and marriage, and fulfill social expectations at the expense of their identities.
Among the three principal female characters, Loco Dempsey, portrayed with spunky enthusiasm by Betty Grable, is by far the most down-to-earth and relatable. She is blunt and constantly inhales food. In fact, while the other two women dream of men and jewelry, she dreams about a hot sandwich, beer, and peanut butter. Her ability to meet countless men, even though they are the wrong men financially, proves that she has experience. Loco first appears at the women’s apartment followed by a man, Tom Brookman, bearing groceries. She gets her food by lingering around stores until she manipulates some man into buying everything by pretending she forgot her money, and she is unashamed of her resourcefulness. While the three women sit outside on the balcony and discuss the plan to find and marry a rich man and split the profits, Loco dreamily muses, “All my life, ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always had the same dream – to marry a zillionaire.” This statement incorporates two very distinctly 1950s preoccupations – marriage and wealth. “The 1950s were an affluent era, when upward mobility seemed within reach; a consumerist era, when the market was flooded with goods and services; a conservative era, when voices of protest were muted or silent; and a period of consensus, when goals and aspirations were widely shared” (Woloch 495). Even though Loco aims higher in terms of money, she clearly believes that marriage and money equal happiness, a viewpoint definitely shared by the majority of the audience at the time.
In contrast to Loco’s sarcastic simplicity, Pola Debevoise approaches love with starry-eyed idealism. She is the ultimate romantic and the very definition of femininity. While Loco is certainly beautiful and uses her feminine wiles to her advantage, she eats too much and speaks too frankly to represent true feminine beauty as delineated by the 1950s. It is no surprise that Pola is portrayed by Marilyn Monroe, in a brilliantly funny and physical performance, the most feminine of all women in the decade. Pola wears glasses, and even though she needs them desperately, she only wears them when there are no men around. “In the era after World War II, American women embraced discomfort in a big way” (Collins 397). They wore ridiculous bras and uncomfortable clothes in order to highlight their feminine attributes and present themselves as valuable commodities so that eligible men would propose to them. This emphasis on packaging and the importance of external appearances certainly relates to Pola’s insecurity about her glasses. In fact, she recites matter-of-factly, “Men aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses.” Sadly, this preoccupation with a woman’s looks lingers today. In fact, it may be even worse with the media saturated by unrealistic images of thin, youthful, and “perfect” women and the growing numbers of eating disorders.
On her way to marry Mr. Merrill, Pola boards the wrong plane as a result of her blindness. As luck would have it, the same man she unknowingly caught snooping in the apartment, the man who actually owns the apartment, sits next to her. Even though she is on her way to marry another man, her predatory instincts kick in, and she flirts with Freddie. After he catches her reading her book upside down, he confronts her about her glasses. He convinces her to put them on, even prefacing it by telling her he already thinks she is a “strudel,” and after much protesting, she finally does. She worries that she looks like an old maid, and he replies, “I’ve never seen anybody in my whole life that reminded me less of an old maid.” This placates her, and even though this man is painfully average-looking, she nuzzles up to him and swoons, “Tell me anything.” Pola finally accepts her glasses, but only because a man demands it. She needs a man’s approval and validation to make her happy and complete. “The image of single women as incomplete and deficient human beings was everywhere in the culture” (Harvey 86). His trouble with the law appeals to her sense of adventure and romance, and she gains a man and some self-confidence in the end. “Although Pola’s happy ending in How to Marry a Millionaire includes getting to keep her glasses on, our cultural memory of that movie mostly forces her to keep them off” (Barton 138). As it turns out, Freddie even potentially has some money or, as Pola puts it in a delicious double entendre, “He’d be holding if he could get his hands on it.”
Without a doubt, Schatze Page is the least feminine of the three main characters. She is divorced, icy, assertive, and calculating, and she lies and manipulates to gets her way. The key characteristic is “divorced,” which makes her a bitter woman with a grudge. At the time, “experts supported traditional roles, where passivity, dependence, and noncompetitiveness were expected. Their warnings, moreover, echoed through the 1950s, positing two alternatives: femininity or disaster. ‘Psychiatrists who studied the causes of our disturbing divorce rate,’ according to Life in 1956, ‘note wives who are not feminine enough’” (Woloch 499). Certainly, this divorced woman possessing a hard and cynical outlook was no accident. Perhaps Schatze was a lesson to women of the 1950s – lose your femininity and lose your humanity. Schatze formulates the plan to capture and marry wealthy men, and she follows the plan with snobbish exactitude. She grimly professes, “It’s your head you’ve got to use, not your heart.” To this end, she fawns all over J.D. Hanley, a sweet man old enough to be her father, who is completely aware of her selfish intentions but too lonely to care. She is physically attracted to Tom Brookman, the man Loco brings home, but she dismisses him immediately, with extreme prejudice, because she assumes he works as a gas pump jockey. If he does not have money, he is not worth her time.
Ironically, Tom Brookman is one of the wealthiest men in the world, but Schatze never suspects it for one second. This is one of the story’s biggest flaws. Obviously, Schatze plans everything very carefully, and such a ruthless gold digger would have done her research. He must be one of the most eligible bachelors around. It seems totally unfeasible that none of the women, especially Schatze, knows his identity.
When J.D. asks about the man he knows she loves, she responds hopelessly, “He’s nothing. Absolutely nothing.” What a harsh, cruel assessment of love. She marries Tom, and at the end, the three couples joke around at a diner. When Schatze asks him to determine his worth, he replies, “Oh, about 200 million, I should imagine.” The joking continues until he pulls out an impractically enormous wad of cash, and the three women faint to the floor. Schatze gets her way, even though she does not deserve it. She is a miserable, pathetic, shallow person during the entire film, and she ends up with love and money. Why Tom would even want her when she treats him so terribly, acts like such a stuck-up, superficial snob, and cares so much about money is the biggest mystery of all.
As far as their relationships with each other, these women appear to be friends, but they are only acquaintances. They inhabit the same space and share a goal, but they never really confide in each other. Loco and Pola disappear for huge chunks of time without even telling Schatze. They show up at her wedding, and she only wants to gloat. She does not care about them or what they have been doing, and Loco even fears her reaction to her marriage. Schatze unconvincingly congratulates them on their happiness, with more venom in her voice than kindness. If this film celebrated female friendship and bonding, then it might relieve some of the negative sexist overtones, but it fails in that aspect, as well.
All in all, How to Marry a Millionaire paints a vivid picture, in dazzling Technicolor, of social attitudes toward women in the 1950s and encourages a closer inspection of today’s world. This film masquerades as a playful romp, but its danger lies in that very lightheartedness, implying through comedy that its subject matter is not real or serious. On the contrary, its grave message still reverberates loudly today, and while sadly accepted at the time, its depiction of feminine limitations and stifling female stereotypes is no less upsetting. Loco, Pola, and Schatze possess the ability to transcend their social expectations, but the filmmakers did not believe in them, and society would have not allowed it anyway. Likewise, How to Marry a Millionaire has the potential to say something valid and meaningful, but it ultimately condones the attitudes toward women during the 1950s, proving it is just as superficial as its characters.