Pulling it all back down to earth is the idea that an Average Joe actually has a shot at landing the richest girl in the world. Despite our having this regular guy to identify with the movie pulls off a nice trick when it is actually the girl of the title that we wind up pulling for hardest as this story unfolds. The fella can actually be a bit of a jerk sometimes as we wonder is he or isn't he fortune hunting? Even given her unique position as richest girl she comes off as the everyman here because her dilemma boils down to the more universal idea of wanting to be loved back by the one she loves with all her heart.
Why would RKO make a movie about the richest girl in the world while its target audience is struggling through the hard knocks of the Great Depression? Why would movie patrons barely making ends meet choose to be entertained by the woes of a poor little rich girl? There were two fascinating answers, each born in 1912 just like Dorothy Hunter of The Richest Girl in the World.
Tobacco heiress Duke and Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton had each been presented as society débutantes upon their 18th birthdays in 1930. From the Woolworth side of the family Hutton's mother committed suicide when Barbara was just a child and her grandmother passed before she was even a teenager in 1924. Hutton inherited $40-$50 million at age 21. Duke came into her inheritance of $60-$100 million when her father died in 1925 with the fortune doled in in partial bequests through age 30 though a gigantic lump sum coming with her twenty-first birthday in 1933. At that moment Doris Duke was the richest girl in the world while the more gregarious Hutton was typically referred to by the press as the second richest.Between their 1930 presentations and the time of The Richest Girl in the World's release in 1934 both Hutton and Duke were popular society figures. Hutton married Georgian Prince Alexis Mdivani in 1933 in what would be the first of her seven marriages. Of course the 1934 public had no crystal ball so romance could be celebrated without so cynical an eye at that time. Duke was still single by the time of the release of our movie. A 1933 Helen Welshimer article about both women compared still eligible Duke to recently wed Hutton by saying that "the glamour and romance that the other girl [Hutton] seemed to draw out of anywhere and nowhere don't accompany the wealthier heiress."
Both women captivated the public through press coverage equating them to American royals celebrated much like our modern press hails entertainment icons today.
With Hutton off the market and married to exactly the type of man you'd expect but with no marriage having "ever been rumored" (Welshimer) for Duke at that time screenwriter Norman Krasna took advantage of a wonderful storytelling opportunity and wound up with an Oscar nomination for his efforts. His screenplay would hitch the fictional richest girl to a regular guy. A guy just like the fellows sitting in the theater. Krasna's story was fresh and in demand with RKO outbidding MGM for the script in April 1934 and the film going into production as soon as July 13 of that year with William A. Seiter directing.
The Richest Girl in the World opened September 31, 1934. Timing was good. Duke was still single and according to the press her "matrimonial prospects keep society talking" ("Doris Duke Helps").
Our fictional richest girl, Dorothy Hunter (Miriam Hopkins), was no more than two years old when the Titanic went down so she has dealt with the title bestowed upon for her entire conscious life. Dorothy protects herself by exchanging public identities with her oldest and dearest friend, Sylvia Lockwood (Fay Wray). Dorothy's guardian, Jonathan Connors (Henry Stephenson), whose wife went down on the infamous ship as well, plays along with the ploy to help protect Dorothy.
Dorothy--the real Dorothy--is engaged to be married to Don (George Meeker), but that's soon broken off. It's an amicable break up with Dorothy only asking what was wrong with her. "Being the richest girl in the world," Don tells her. He also comes from money but Dorothy's own riches are so great as to be unfathomable even to a man wealthy by normal standards. Dorothy takes the news on the chin, even finishing up the game of billiards she had begun with Don prior to the break-up conversation.
Later that night we see how upset she really is as she sits forlornly aside Connors while Sylvia dances with her husband, Phillip (Reginald Denny). When Connors asks if Dorothy would prefer to cancel the party they are hosting the next day she says, no, "Let Sylvia be Dorothy."
And so it is that our regular Joe, Tony Travers (Joel McCrea), meets Dorothy under the Sylvia alias. Now if poor Dorothy weren't saddled with all that money there wouldn't have been any problem. There's great chemistry from the first meeting of the Hopkins and McCrea characters when Dorothy hustles Tony at billiards and pockets the sixty bucks she wins from him with a smile. But Dorothy has her eyes wide open and needs to be sure any man who may love her really loves her for being Dorothy.
As Don had told Dorothy when parting from her, "When someone marries a queen does he love her, or is it just to wear a crown?"
Tony knows Dorothy as Sylvia. Just a regular girl, except she works for the richest girl in the world. Well, Tony's pretty primed to meet the girl with the money as well. The real Dorothy, the girl Tony knows as Sylvia, fell for him right away and so when she sees that Tony is also attracted to her friend she sets out to win him on her own merits.
Dorothy and Sylvia hatch a plot which Connors and, with some reluctance, Phillip agree to play along with. Real Dorothy is going to push Tony to fake Dorothy with all her might. If he can resist her charms and riches and stick by real Dorothy then the richest girl in the world may well have just met her man.
I called The Richest Girl in the World simple and despite any confusion in relaying the details of the basic story above it actually is. It's not nearly as difficult to track Dorothy and Sylvia on the screen as it is in this text. Hopefully I've kept them somewhat straight for you.
Fay Wray, as the girl Tony believes to be Dorothy, isn't exactly hard on the eyes. Miriam Hopkins, the real Dorothy, continuously gives Tony the idea that the Fay Wray model of Dorothy likes him and that eventually she'd even marry him. Poor Tony, attracted more and more to Hopkins as supposedly working class Sylvia, keeps having his pursuit of her paused by her insistence that he has a shot with fake rich girl Wray.
Tony comes closer and closer to landing real Dorothy, but always manages to stick his foot in his mouth by telling the Hopkins character that Wray's Dorothy probably wouldn't have him anyway. Or that he couldn't afford to have her. Excuses to keep himself from the richest girl in the world rather than a declaration that he wants our real Dorothy. That's not what Hopkins' Dorothy wants to hear!
After mounting obstacles for Tony she eventually explains herself to a dumbfounded Connors saying that, "I love him so much that I want him to come to me as I'd come to him. Over everything."
Joel McCrea is wonderful with Miriam Hopkins and, as should be, lacked any romantic chemistry whatsoever with Fay Wray. Wray is no more animated than a doll with McCrea, but Hopkins is a vibrant chatterbox whose eyes campaign for him with a mounting longing. The Hopkins-McCrea banter is like a private joke that we're secretly let in on and able to understand the humor and growing attraction that comes with every word passed between the two.
In the Adirondack scene finding Hopkins and McCrea alone together in a darkened room near the fireplace, each having just had a little too much punch, McCrea reclines with his head on Hopkins' lap and tells a silly story that I swear I haven't heard a word of yet because of the intensity of Hopkins' gaze down at him.
McCrea gives his usual somewhat sleepy performance, and that's not a knock. There's a nonchalance about him that is totally appropriate for his Tony as it is for most of the characters he plays. He's a cool customer. Hopkins meanwhile is up and down with her speech punctuating her most humorous lines perfectly with an almost musical tone. She almost catches you off guard at times as she stresses unexpected words and somehow gives her character more personality in doing so. With a few drinks in her she's practically manic!
Fay Wray has a pretty thankless role on the whole, her best work coming through the quizzical facial expressions she makes towards the others as McCrea's character is pushed on her more and more. Her highlights are subtle, such as when she stands face to face with McCrea and we see her body leaning back further and further away from him. Wray's character never goes for McCrea. She's happily married to Denny's Phillip. This is all just a favor to help her friend weed out potential fortune hunters.
With Wray only able to play along to the situation that she has voluntarily submitted to with McCrea most of the funny lines are left to Reginald Denny as her husband. Denny, who worked numerous times under director Seiter during the silent era, has the much more easily appreciated role of reacting to the ridiculous position his wife has been put in as Hopkins' best friend. Denny is especially hilarious the morning after McCrea has spotted him slipping to Wray's bedroom. He bounces in his chair full of cheer as he asks Hopkins if she slept well last night before turning to Wray and saying. "I know you did."
Henry Stephenson is solid as always in his role as Hopkins' protector. He more or less acts as narrator expressing thoughts of the audience throughout. "He's only human. She's giving him too hard a test," he says to Wray about McCrea at about the same time I have the exact same thought. Stephenson becomes gradually more and more upset by how easily the Hopkins character pushes McCrea towards Wray giving voice to our own growing concerns as it seems our heroine is about to lose the man who could have loved her. It's a nice way around having us all yell at Dorothy on the screen in the theater!
Beyond those five main characters the supporting cast is mostly invisible. Whether they be butlers or maids or high powered executives they don't do much that matters. The Richest Girl in the World is all about Hopkins finding a man who really loves her while its greatest laughs come courtesy of Hopkins and Wray pulling the wool over McCrea's eyes with Denny and Stephenson mostly innocent bystanders playing along in the know.
Miriam Hopkins was the only cast member to be billed over the title of The Richest Girl in the World. And she earns it. Joel McCrea is fine but it's the Hopkins-McCrea pairing that deserves mention above and beyond Joel himself in this one.
A 1937 article by Robbin Coons names The Richest Girl in the World as the first in a cycle of films followed by Bette Davis in The Golden Arrow, Joan Crawford in Love on the Run, and at that moment in time both Doris Nolan in Top of the Town and Loretta Young in Love Is News, to feature "what has become the screen's most frequently recurring heroine. She has appeared in different characters, and been done by different stars, but down underneath she has remained the same." Coons continues writing that:
"The movies always insist elaborately that 'characters in this picture are fictitious,' and so they are. Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton, whose beauty and fortunes set the scenarists' minds and typewriters clicking, can still take a bow, however. Beauty and fortune, which they share in common with the cinema heroines, are prime ingredients in the making of these tried-and-true characters."
Beauty and fortune, check, but Dorothy Hunter in The Richest Girl in the World works almost despite her advantages. She's just a woman, a person, who wants to be loved for who she is. And taking on the charm and wit that Miriam Hopkins shows at her best she becomes someone we can all root for.
As for the real Doris Duke, who as a big movie fan possibly even saw this film, she would marry the following year, 1935. According to Frances M. Kelly, in contrast to other celebrated heiresses of the period:
"The thrill of being a titled lady or of having a brilliant wedding did not lure her across the Atlantic to choose a husband. She preferred a quiet ceremony and one of her own countrymen, James H.R. Cromwell, whom she married for love alone" (Kelly).
They divorced in 1943.
- Coons, Robbin. "Hollywood Sights and Sounds." Salamanca Republican-Press 2 January 1937: 6.
- "Doris Duke Helps Open Club." The Centralia 17 October 1934: 7.
- "Gold Already Has Restricted Liberty of Doris Duke Soon to Be World's Wealthiest Woman." The Zanesville Signal 12 November 1933: 5.
- Kelly, Frances M. "Doris Duke, the All American Girl." Charleston Daily Mail 31 March 1935: 50.
- Welchimer, Helen. "Now Everybody Wants to Know How Those Mdivani Boys Do It." The Lima Sunday News 16 July 1933: 3.