Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable scheme together to marry wealthy, attractive men in the 1953 film How to Marry a Millionaire, directed by Jean Negulesco and also starring William Powell and Rory Calhoun. The film was based on two plays and was one of the first movies to be made in Cinemascope.
Three friends, Schatze Page (Bacall), Pola Debevoise (Monroe), and Loco Dempsey (Page) all have one goal in mind: to attract and marry wealthy, successful men. The three women work as models in an NYC department store and rent a sumptuous penthouse from a rich man named Freddie Page, who is hiding out in Europe to avoid the IRS. New York City living is expensive for the trio, though, and Schatze has no problem selling Freddie’s furniture when money gets tight. The film chronicles each woman’s search for Mr. Millionaire, but out of all three of them, it’s Schatze who’s most determined to marry a wealthy man.
Schatze meets a handsome gas pump attendant, Tom Brookman, but Schatze, citing her experience from her first marriage to a poor man, snubs Tom in favor of the wealthy, older J. D. Hanley. Even though she’s pursuing J. D. in earnest, she has trouble choosing between what she wants and what she tells herself she wants; after every one of her dates with Tom, she declares that it’s the last, but somehow, she still finds herself accepting his invites. Pola, who has to wear glasses because of her terrible eyesight, eschews them because she’s convinced that they make her less attractive. She misreads her flight, and she ends up in Atlantic City instead of Kansas City, where she was supposed to rendezvous with a shady speculator pretending to be the scion of a Middle Eastern oil family. While on the bus home, she meets a man who wears glasses just like she does and who ends up being the very Freddie Page whose apartment they rent. Loco travels with a married businessman to his lodge in the woods only to find out that he has ulterior motives. When she comes down with measles, she has to stay at the lodge, and she mistakes the handsome, kindly forest ranger who takes care of her for a wealthy man. When she discovers otherwise, she’s too smitten to care.
While the film is a comedy chronicling the exploits of the three gold diggers, it’s also a social commentary in the spirit of Jane Austen on the institution of marriage and what some women consider to be important qualities in a husband. While marriage was a decision that should have been, in theory, based on love, for a very long time, a woman could better her circumstances through a prudent marriage. How to Marry a Millionaire juxtaposes the marriage for love and the marriage for economic reasons and ventures to ask what is more important: happiness or material security. Each of the heroines discovers which is more important to her, since these are decisions that will impact the way in which they live their lives. And in the end, each has to make the individual decision that is best for her.