21 September 2014
Obviously, and unoriginally put, Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire is problematic for women. In today’s world, this film is outdated and the humor is lost; however, in its day, 1953, this film was celebrated as a romantic comedy, a demeaning and oppressive comedy about women, marketed to women. Essentially, this film is about three single women who create a “bear trap,” meaning they set-up a façade of wealth to attract millionaire husbands. Setting the trap involves lying and cheating, not to mention using their feminine wiles to seduce the objects of their desires. And, in the end, each woman marries, but each decides to pick love over money; yet, ironically, the bear trap worked because two of the three women did, in fact, marry millionaires.
The real problems in the How to Marry a Millionaire revolve around the film’s representation and treatment of women. Some limiting and degrading claims asserted by the film are: women’s only goal in life should be marriage; women are jokes; and women who step outside their traditional role in society must be corrected.
First, the three women in this film never aspire for any more in life than a husband. Not one has a career objective; not one communicates any inkling that her success or happiness could be achieved without a man. And, in the film’s narrative, how could any of these women be fulfilled and accomplished without a man? These three women live in a man’s apartment, work as models for a man (where they model only for men), and devote their lives to attracting men; in How to Marry a Millionaire, it is a man’s world, and so the female characters in the film exist only to find a man to care for them.
Furthermore, the women are the comic relief of the film. Although each woman is unique—Schatze (Lauren Bacall), clever and hardworking; Pola (Marilyn Monroe), sweet but completely naïve; and Loco (Betty Grable), foolish yet fiery—each is reduced to one role, gold digger. Despite their differences, which actually offer each of them independence from the others, the film eliminates their uniqueness by fitting each women into the same money-hungry category. And, as gold diggers, these women are the butt of all the film’s jokes. Pola, for example, is too vain to wear her glasses, convinced “men are not attentive to girls in glasses.” She is so blind without her glasses she literally walks into a wall at one point in the film. This moment, of course, is pure comedy, but it is the woman, the gold digger, who is the punch line of the joke. Or, in the film’s conclusion, when Tom reveals himself to be a millionaire, all three women fall of their stools in shock. The men stand up and “cheers” to their unconscious wives. A final crack at the women the film spends the entire time making fun of.
According to film theory, female characters who break from the standard representation of “woman”—typically by trying to manipulate a man or assert her dominance/power—are punished by the end of the film, either by transforming her into the traditional representation of a woman or by killing her off. This typically happens in the thriller and drama genres; however, even in How to Marry a Millionaire, an inferred punishment awaits all three women.
Sadly, the fiery Loco marries a firefighter. Read on a slant, the marriage marks the end of Loco’s sassy, outspoken disposition, as her husband exterminates fire. Pola finds her happy ending with Freddie, who also wears glasses and encourages her keep her spectacles on. Trouble with this union is Freddie is a criminal. He, quite literally, tries to kill someone just before the film’s conclusion, according to Pola. Considering she now wears he glass (which means she will see things more clearly, both literally and figuratively) and that she met her murderous husband while reading the book Murder by Strangulation, Pola’s future does not look very good. Lastly, there is Schatze, the only character of the three who actually marries a millionaire. Shatze is clearly the smartest, most resourceful character in the film, but she, unexpectedly, ends up with a man as dishonest as she is. Her assertion of power, as the ringleader in the entire film, is tamed by her husband who will always, because of his financial and business dominance, control her; she is transformed into a housewife…the role she wanted, then did not, but is now stuck with.
Again, this film is a classic, but is not as celebrated today as some of its contemporaries because its ideology about women, men, and marriage is uncomfortably outdated. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look back at films of yesteryear, with a contemporary lens, and investigate how these films help perpetuate and shape society’s expectations. In this case, the 1950s mentality about a woman’s role is evident. Although some argue the film is trying to poke fun at the way women are stereotyped, the film also does a fine job contributing to the stereotypes itself, hence the problem with How to Marry a Millionaire.