The year 1934 is considered the year when the Production Code was actually enforced in movies, with many a feature going under the knife in order to be shown theatrically. That’s not to say that the occasional saucy feature didn’t slip through and in watching The Richest Girl in the World it’s obvious how much additional scandal could have been inserted had it been released a year prior. The Richest Girl in the World borrows from the likes of The Prince and the Pauper as well as Cyrano to tell a story that verges on the cusp of too wacky to work. Thankfully, leads Joel McCrea and Miriam Hopkins have enough comedic timing (and enough chemistry to spark a chain reaction) to keep things buoyant.
Hopkins plays Dorothy Jordan, the richest girl of the title. However, thanks to the lack of photography and her own reclusive nature, no one actually knows what Dorothy looks like. This invisibility gives her an air of freedom, as she worries constantly about people loving her for herself or her money. The only one who truly knows her is her impersonator/secretary, Sylvia (Fay Wray). But when Dorothy meets the mild-mannered Tony Travers (McCrea), she refuses to fall for him unless he can pass the ultimate test. Dorothy makes Sylvia act as her impersonator one more time to prove whether Tony loves the heiress truly or not.
Even when Miriam Hopkins was playing an average or poor woman it’s impossible to erase the regal bearing she has. So watching her play an heiress isn’t a particular stretch. The film is labeled as a romantic comedy, but it never veers into the world of screwball. Dorothy Jordan is a benevolent heiress whose never let the trappings of wealth go to her head, but she’s not kooky. She spends her time playing billiards, hustling men for their money, but you’d never see her inheriting a leopard or being caught dead engaging in Carole Lombard-level shenanigans. That being said, I adore Miriam Hopkins. With her wide smile and shining eyes she’s so charming and she easily walks away with this movie, with a spectacular Walter Plunkett wardrobe no less!
Dorothy is a character who understands the perils of wealth, such as they are. She’s set to marry a man who unceremoniously dumps her because she has too much money; how else would he feel like a man if he wasn’t wealthier? The film never says as much, but it’s fairly laughable hearing a man say he’d turn down a woman who’s financially secure. Maybe that’s why McCrea’s Tony works so well. To his credit, McCrea was the king of movies like this. He’s just normal enough to avoid falling into the high concept shenanigans of the plot, but romantic enough to keep them moving.
This was the first of five pairings between McCrea and Hopkins and they get along like a house on fire. (Their sexual chemistry probably set it!) Norman Krasna’s script is far more interested in developing the relationship between McCrea’s Tony and Hopkins’ Jordan than the actual plot device of the love triangle between the two and Sylvia. Much of the plot runs on Tony believing Dorothy is Sylvia and the real Sylvia is Dorothy, but Wray’s character really feels incidental. Fay Wray is beautiful to look at but she spends a fair amount of time off-screen or throwing out a line here and there. This isn’t necessarily a role that showcases her acting and she’s little more than an impediment in the romance between Dorothy and Tony. So the love triangle never feels fully developed.
Hopkins is the one promoting it and the camera does a skillful job of showing us her character’s inner torment and anguish. When Tony and Dorothy spend a romantic night alone, the camera sticks on Dorothy’s face as Tony – laying in her lap – tells a story. Every time Tony slips back into admitting his growing love for Sylvia’s Dorothy, Hopkins’ face registers the sadness and torment of loving a man who doesn’t love her back. That being said, the movie is incredibly sexy with the two characters and Tony’s protestations about loving Sylvia’s Dorothy never come off as genuine. This is probably because McCrea’s male leads always show their love physically – the head in the lap, the way he keeps kissing Dorothy’s hands. There’s a reason McCrea snaked two spots on my most seductive moments in classic film list. His final line in the movie is so sexy I was shocked it made it in because it openly alludes to two characters having sex. Joel McCrea in rom-coms always gets me and it’s because his characters know what’s important….take that how you will.
What keeps The Richest Girl in the World from ranking higher is how much it wishes it was a pure screwball comedy. The high concept premise never rises completely off the ground and you never truly buy the love triangle. The final reunion of the lovers makes little sense and despite reading the Wiki on it I still wasn’t clear on how they ended up together. But who cares about logic when Joel McCrea and Miriam Hopkins keep reminding you how badly they want to sleep together?! The sexiest romantic duo ever!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.