While Humphrey Bogart’s career soared, Lauren Bacall’s flatlined. Her final Warner Brother’s film, Bright Leaf with Gary Cooper, opened on July 1, 1950 to mediocre reviews and a tepid box office.
Twelve days later Jack Warner finally gave Bacall her wish, and released her from her contract for $50,000 that would be paid out as a percentage of her earnings from future films with other studios.
She was only 25, with the world at her feet.
But a stumbling block had arisen in her career that was bigger even than Jack Warner. As she writers in her memoir By Myself, “A funny thing happened to my career the first few years of being Mrs. Bogart. Funny—peculiar. Everyone thought I was terrific personally, but they stopped thinking of me as an actress. I was Bogie’s wife, gave great dinners, parties, but work was passed over.”
It was an accurate assessment but also a bit unfair—Bacall herself continually put her duties as a wife and mother ahead of movie-making. It was no wonder the scripts stopped coming.
In the three years after she cut ties with Warner, she had a second child (a daughter, named Leslie after Bogart’s friend and mentor Leslie Howard), went to Africa with Bogart, and turned down scripts that would separate her from him.
It’s a recipe for a good marriage and a happy life.
But not for a career in Hollywood.
She didn’t work for three years.
In 1953, she received a script for How to Marry a Millionaire, a comedy co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable.
Millionaire would give her a chance to test her comedic chops, something she’d long desired. But Bogart was slated to travel to Italy to film Beat the Devil.
Bacall writes, “I wanted to go with him, but I would have to make Millionaire or forget my career all together… [Bogie] was very good about it—Millionaire was the best part I’d had in years.”
It was their first separation in eight years of marriage.
How to Marry a Millionaire tells the story of three beautiful young women who plot to marry rich husbands. Schatze Paige (Bacall) is the brains behind the operation, a cynical divorcee who won’t make the mistake of marrying a poor man for love again.
She convinces her friends Pola (Monroe) and Loco (Grable) to pool their money to rent an expensively furnished penthouse, on the theory that acting and looking rich will put them in contact with more millionaire men. As time goes on, Schatze sells off the furniture to bankroll their lifestyle (and tells anyone who asks it’s being cleaned.)
Pola is blind as a bat without her glasses, which she refuses to wear around men as she thinks they make her unattractive. She continually walks into walls and has no idea who she’s speaking to. Loco is able to lure any man into lending her money for groceries and carrying them up to the penthouse, but overall she’s not too bright.
The three scheme their way into snagging three prospects, but Pola’s is a gambling swindler, and Loco’s is married. Only Schatze chooses well, the old but kindly J.D. Hanley (William Powell, in his sixties). He’s so kind that he feels it would be selfish to marry Schatze, given their age difference.
In desperation, Schatze tries to convince him that older men are wonderful, practically winking at the audience when she insists, “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what’s his name in The African Queen.”
In the end, of course, all three women fall in love with poor but perfect men. In the case of Loco, a forest ranger she mistook for a lumber tycoon. For Pola, a man who also wears glasses and still thinks she’s beautiful when she wears hers.
And Schatze? Well, on her wedding day, she switches out grooms from the rich J.D. to the gas pump operator who’s been pursuing her despite her attempts to brush him off.
And guess what?
Turns out he was a millionaire all along.
The film was a great success, the 5th highest grossing film of 1953, higher than Marilyn Monroe’s other hit that year, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Though Marilyn Monroe always had a way of drawing your eyes to her, How to Marry a Millionaire is Bacall’s film.
She finally proved to herself—and the world—that she could play comedy, and more importantly, make a hit without Bogart.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
- Bacall, Lauren. By Myself. 1978.
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