How to Marry a Millionaire Showed Lauren Bacall Could Command the Heck Out of a Scene

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 12 2014 10:58 PM

How to Marry a Millionaire Showed Lauren Bacall Could Command the Heck Out of a Scene

Lauren Bacall circa 1945.
Lauren Bacall circa 1945.

Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Lauren Bacall died today, at the age of 89, and, unsurprisingly, the news conjured up the iconic moment in her film career—her onscreen seduction, at the age of 19, of future husband Humphrey Bogart in her film debut, To Have and Have Not. The way the husky-voiced actress slinked across the screen with that piercing gaze and devil-may-care attitude made it nearly impossible to pay attention to anything else going on in a given scene.

It certainly wouldn’t be the last time she commanded the screen and everything else around her—her career would be spent playing tough broads. The toughest, most memorable of them all, to my mind, is Schatze in How to Marry a Millionaire.

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The 1953 comedy about a trio of gold-digging women who go in together on a New York City penthouse—the better to snatch up a wealthy man, so their thinking goes—is one of those rare films that delivers on the promise of its all-star cast. When it was released in all of its Technicolor-Cinemascope glory, it boasted three of Hollywood’s most captivating actresses at the time: Bacall, of course, along with Betty Grable (she of the million-dollar legs) and Marilyn Monroe (who’d already played a different gold digger, to much success, earlier that year).

Grable as the plucky Loco and Monroe as dumb blonde Pola are great—but Bacall as Schatze stands out as a towering force. As the leader of the group, she sticks to a strict mantra: no dates worth “under six figures!” The other ladies, with their eyes not quite so on the prize, look up to her as their pseudo big sister, and she accepts that role wholeheartedly:

In this brief moment early in the film, Bacall is able to reveal both a smidgen of vulnerability underneath her hardened exterior: A previous love left her wounded, she explains to them in the matter-of-fact way only time can muster. More embarrassingly, he left her with nothing to show for, financially. As Schatze delivers this news, as well as her carefully laid-out plan to find all three of them rich men to secure their futures, she’s calm and collected—but her determination for such a superficial, yet pragmatic, accomplishment bubbles to the surface. It enchants Pola and Loco in its intensity—and us, too.

Nearly every scene throughout How to Marry a Millionaire does just that, letting Schatze spout off firm, sharp commands of what she thinks she wants as others either agree to play along, or—as is the case with the sloppily dressed suitor whose advances she routinely rejects—attempt to point out how she’s getting in her own way. Of course, by the end of the film, Schatze finds true love outside of the confines of wealth (sort of), her hardened exterior melted, as is often the case in such films. But boy, is it fun watching Bacall be the boss—she was damn good at it.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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