In 1912, infant Dorothy Hunter (Miriam Hopkins) was orphaned when her parents drowned during the sinking of the Titanic. For years, her guardian, John Connors (Henry Stephenson), has shielded the young heiress from the glare of the media spotlight–few people even know what she looks like. After she finally comes of age, Dorothy travels to New York City to meet with the managers of her parents’ estate. They offer Dorothy a document to sign, but after an uneasy exchange of glances with John, she declines and John tells them to send her the papers to sign later.
It turns out that the “Dorothy” who attended the meeting is actually Sylvia Lockwood (Fay Wray), Dorothy’s secretary and best friend. After marrying Phillip Lockwood (Reginald Denny), Sylvia intends to resign from her job, since she and Phillip plan to move to England to be near his family. Dorothy, who is set to announce her own engagement to Donald (George Meeker), asks Sylvia to stay until after her wedding, to which Sylvia agrees.
Dorothy soon realizes that Donald has changed his mind about marrying her, and as the pair had been planning to marry for convenience rather than love, Dorothy wishes him well. But an offhand comment from Donald leads Dorothy to question whether she will ever find a man who will love her for her and not for her vast wealth. She asks Sylvia to continue impersonating her at her already-planned engagement party.
At the party, Dorothy–posing as “Dorothy Hunter’s secretary”–meets Tony Travers (Joel McCrea) and challenges him to a game of billiards, which she handily wins. Dorothy is smitten by Tony, but her doubts lead her to convince Tony to court “Dorothy Hunter” instead as a test of his affections. Against her better judgment (and Phillip’s objections), Sylvia plays along with Dorothy’s plan. As Dorothy falls deeper in love with Tony, she finds new ways to test him, as she remains unable to believe that he might actually love a mere secretary over the “richest girl in the world.” Ultimately, Dorothy’s continued masquerade and her inability to trust in Tony’s true feelings threaten to drive away the love of her life. Can she get over her issues and finally accept Tony’s love at face value?
Directed by William A. Seiter, The Richest Girl in the World (1934) is a fun little romance with an absolutely outlandish–and thereby thoroughly enjoyable–plot. That being said, the character of Dorothy is the very definition of the word “frustrating.” Though her worries about finding love for love’s sake, as opposed to the allure of money, are relatable, those concerns quickly devolve into paranoia. It’s hard to watch this movie and not want to reach through the screen at times and shake some sense into Dorothy. Still, while Dorothy’s scheme may be convoluted and unfair to Tony, it is understandable on some level–after all, faced with a similar situation, who wouldn’t question their lover’s motives?
There are few actresses I can think of who could best toe the line between frustrating and vulnerable than Miriam Hopkins. She does a wonderful job of maintaining Dorothy as a sympathetic figure despite the character’s sometimes annoying moments of self-sabotage. There are scenes in this film where Hopkins simply sparkles, demonstrating an appealingly natural comedic skill. It’s a stark contrast to the movies in which I was first introduced to Hopkins several years ago–films like The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943), in which she indulges in almost histrionic overacting, or The Heiress (1949), in which she delivers an admirably subdued and layered performance. Still, though she was an adept dramatic actress, I would argue that Hopkins’ greatest strength as a performer lies in comedies like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933), where she could let loose her charismatic personality to full affect.
Hopkins, who was a notoriously difficult actress to work with (just ask Bette Davis), plays very well off of Joel McCrea–in fact, this was the first of five films that the pair would make together, and McCrea reportedly got along well with the sometimes temperamental star. In Girl, you see the first glimmers of the comedic persona that McCrea would later bring to full, glorious life in his collaborations with writer/director Preston Sturges. Here, McCrea ably plays the unwitting puppet in Dorothy’s scheme, by turns befuddled and commanding, hapless and determined.
As the “real” Sylvia/”fake” Dorothy, Fay Wray is lovely and refined, and does a remarkable job of conveying her character’s discomfort with the charade. This is Wray’s second appearance with McCrea, after the two starred together in 1932′s The Most Dangerous Game, which was shot on the same sets at the same time as Wray’s most famous film, 1933′s King Kong. Wray’s career was undoubtedly at its peak during the mid-1930s; by the end of the decade, she took on fewer roles, and she spent much of the 1940s in retirement before reemerging in the 1950s with small roles in films and on television. Playing opposite Wray is character actor Reginald Denny, in a rare supporting lead as Sylvia’s husband. Though Denny does not come close to matching McCrea in pure, masculine appeal, he is nonetheless delightful as the put-upon Phillip, who must silently endure the indignities of watching his wife be wooed by another man.
The film was written by Norman Krasna, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Story for his screenplay. Krasna crafted some of the best screwball comedies to come out of the 1930s and 40s, including Hands Across the Table (1935), Bachelor Mother (1939), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), and The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), as well as other classic comedies such as Princess O’Rourke (1943, which won him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), White Christmas (1954), and Indiscreet (1958). With Girl, Krasna manages the impossible–taking an unbelievable plot and giving it a sensibility that, more often than not, belies the zaniness of the action on-screen. At the same time, he’s able to insert some thoughtful social commentary about class difference and the politics of moneyed romance. It’s an interesting case of juggling themes, and against all odds, it works.
In its third act, the film delves into questions of gender tropes that reflect the attitudes of the time period while likely giving modern-day feminists a series of minor heart attacks. When Dorothy takes the seemingly drastic step of feigning an affair with Phillip, John reacts with disgust, telling her that he “can’t even pity” her for going to such lengths to test Tony’s feelings. He accuses Dorothy of giving Tony too big of an “obstacle” to overcome: “Who do you think you are?” John demands. “You’re only a woman–just flesh and blood, like everybody else. What makes you think you’re so desirable?”
From our perspective now, this is a horrifyingly judgmental attack on Dorothy, particularly from the man who raised her from infancy and purports to have her best interests at heart. John essentially equates Tony’s ability to forgive “Sylvia” for her premarital sex romp with something as arduous as climbing Mount Everest. The damnedest thing is, despite her bravado, Dorothy actually agrees with John, proclaiming, “Maybe you’re right. No man in the world might want a woman that much,” before adding, “Then no one will have me.” In Dorothy’s mind, Tony has to love her enough to be willing to overlook even the most grievous sin–sex being the most horrible thing she can think of at the moment.
And Tony plays right into Dorothy’s hands, as in the end, his affection for “Sylvia”–in spite of her perceived transgression–overcomes his supposed love for “Dorothy Hunter,” and he vows to take “Sylvia” away from the dirty influence of Dorothy and her money and the loose morals that accompany it. As he charmingly explains to “Sylvia” before manhandling her away from the house: “I don’t think you’re worth saving. But if you’ve one shred of decency left in you, I’ll find it–or I’ll beat it into you.” Like I said … charming.
When “Dorothy Hunter” accepts Tony’s proposal, he tells her, “You know, I gotta start bossing you around so you’ll be broken in right.” It’s an unwittingly ironic statement on Tony’s part, because he still does not realize that he is the one who is being “broken in,” as Dorothy and Sylvia dangle him from the marionette strings. In this particular round of the battle of the sexes, Tony is the one being played. Dorothy–the real Dorothy–holds all of the power, and interestingly enough, it has nothing to do with her vast wealth, and everything to do with her ability to fool Tony and manipulate him in order to judge his behavior.
The movie ends with Tony still not having been clued in to who’s who–despite the fact that he and “Sylvia Lockwood” are married and enjoying their honeymoon on a transatlantic cruise as the film comes to a close. Once the two of them are wed (which, as John explains in a previous scene, is considered legal even though Dorothy marries under a different name–how, I can’t even begin to understand), Tony seems to have no problem with his new wife’s sexuality, as the movie ends on a highly charged note. “Sylvia” explains that she needs help buttoning up her tight satin dress for dinner that evening, and Tony immediately offers to help–”What are husbands for?” he asks with a smirk as he begins to lead her back to their cabin.
Dorothy: “Oh, we’ve got two hours left [before dinner].”
Tony: “May take longer than you think.”
THEY’RE TOTALLY GOING TO “DO IT,” YOU GUYS.
(You know, in case you didn’t grasp that.)
Gotta love those Code-era winks and nudges.