Some people think money solves all problems, while others think money causes them and this 1934 movie proves them both right.
Miriam Hopkins plays a gazillionaire heiress (loosely or not so loosely based on Barbara Hutton). She comes to suspect that most men will be after her only for her dough, so she decides to test whether her latest suitor’s love is real by pretending to be her relatively poor secretary. It’s a modern spin on a durable dramatic gimmick, a device that hearkens back to classical drama, this role swap and mistaken identity, and the potent comical situations that ensue. And so it is in this movie, where a simple test turns into a complicated tangle of affections and assumptions.
The role swap story is fun, but the main reason I chose to re-watch and write about this movie is that I really enjoy Joel McCrea and Hopkins as a screen couple. Her zaniness, hyperactivity and absurdity mesh well with McCrea’s steady, deliberate, careful approach in all the five movies they made together. He has a great comic touch as he barrels on in this movie’s discussions, confident in his theory of love, which pooh-poohs romance and materialism, yet he positively lights up like an adolescent at the idea of a girl liking him. Sometimes he’s conceited and oblivious or dense and downbeat, and always makes for a perfect deadpan receiver for Hopkins’ lines that range from witty to deflating to dumbfounding. Of course as romantic lead his looks and charm are perfect, no surprise to any of his fans. But here his idea of romance is confusing. He doesn’t believe in love, he just wants a pal, and “if he feels like it” he’ll marry her. He would neither marry (who he thinks is) the heiress for her money nor would he NOT do so, nor would he hold her money against her! Yes and he’s very firm about all that. So good luck figuring out his exact feelings, logic and standards.
Playing Hopkins’ secretary/impostor is Fay Wray, just off the success of King Kong and reunited with McCrea, her co-star in The Most Dangerous Game. Rounding out the cast is Reginald Denny as Wray’s husband. That’s right, husband, which adds another layer of complication as Denny watches Wray standing in for Hopkins to field McCrea’s affections and courtship, and sometimes helps Hopkins bust them up. In Wray’s defense she repeatedly refuses but as a good friend and employee wants to help.
I’ve read and heard from movie fans that Hopkins is a bit of an acquired taste; people either love or hate her “stagey” approach. I enjoy the sharp, vibrant energy she brings to intense and tragic roles, as well as daffy, misguided comic ones. Here you can see her wheels turning as she sizes up the man in every situation, clearly insecure while pretending to be above it all. You can see her yearning desperately for love as she watches a true example of it, melting at buttery words while denying she has a romantic bone in her body. She’s not frilly or fluffy, but real and natural, straightforward (well except for lying about who she is and all) and impulsive. For example little, almost throwaway, bits like fanning her mouth after a strong drink, or flopping on the couch, not things that one might call ladylike but are totally hilarious, honest, and just right for the guy who wants a “pal”.
The introduction to Hopkins’ character is really well done, giving us a buildup of information about her past, the vast wealth she’s coming into, the expectations of her and her mysterious way of travelling in secrecy, totally avoiding photos and sightings. So when we first meet this character, and it’s Wray arriving in Hopkins’ place to a boring board meeting, nobody is the wiser. We’re told that her guardian C.Aubrey Smith has been with her since she was a baby, so his presence lends credibility, and but for his slight panic when Wray is asked to sign papers, we don’t suspect anything’s irregular until the big reveal of Hopkins, who’s hiding out at home playing billiards.
It’s through billiards that she meets McCrea and right away you see him hooked on this woman who beats him handily while sick with a cold, and takes the money he bet. Almost accidentally Hopkins falls into the same fib of posing as her secretary, but quickly sees the value of keeping up the lie, and there the crazy quadrangle commences. For a short picture there’s a lot going on, some toward the end even leaning toward the incomprehensible but still both fun and thought provoking. Who are people really, when stripped of their possessions and position? Do you love the person or your image of them, do best friends make for good romance, can a romance be built on a lie, and other such steep ponderings. There’s also slapstick, as when Hopkins and Denny purposely tip over the canoe carrying Wray and McCrea out on a “date.” The way Smith and Denny advise and scold Hopkins on her plan when it goes too far, just their continued compliance gives it that extra absurdity, as if the experiment is clinical. The ending has a couple pretzel twists that threaten to turn McCrea off completely but actually end up pushing him to realize and admit who he truly loves. And after a honeymoon cruise in which every passenger gets an unbelievable upgrade, you will be left wondering what exactly you just saw, and when or whether McCrea got wise to the ruse.
Laden with glamour and great deco sets, and with this packed cast of fine comic talents, The Richest Girl in the World is an enjoyable romantic comedy that examines the nature of love for richer or poorer. Or both.