If ever a film disproved the maxim that ?the old ones are the best?, The Millionairess is it. This irritating, star-ridden train-wreck of a film might have the visual glamour of Oliver! and My Fair Lady, but it carries none of the moral baggage or feel-good family appeal to balance out the fripperies. In this the glamour and the visuals are a thin and pathetic veil, designed to gloss over the film?s shallow celebration of all things vain, self-centred and greedy. It takes a potentially edgy play by the great George Bernard Show, removes all the edges, misses every irony and thus creates a really unlikable piece of work.
The central problem with The Millionairess is that the actors, writers and director simply don?t have a handle on the source material. So many of Shaw?s plays, but especially Pygmalion (from which we get My Fair Lady and a whole host of similar films), are about characters who undergo a radical transformation through the compassion of outsiders, making the world a better place for all concerned. Like his contemporary Oscar Wilde and successor Noël Coward, Shaw presented the concerns and customs of the rich and famous in extravagant detail with subtly satirical intentions. His plays poke fun at the idle rich and in doing so make deeper political points about the inherent flaws in British society.
There is virtually none of this subtext, or subtlety, in The Millionairess. Certainly there is no great transformation that Sophia Loren?s horrible character undergoes. She is frosty and unlovable from beginning to end, a spoilt brat with an irritating pout and smarmy gaze which does not so much seduce as repel. You simply don?t care, and aren?t made to care about her character, which is a major problem considering she?s the lead. It doesn?t matter how many tantrums she has or how many different hats she wears, we are never convinced that her character is in any way worth our time, our empathy, or our belief that she can change.
Rather than being a socialist story of redemption through honest work and human compassion, this is a film which is totally in love with the ideas of capitalism, inequality, self-worth and privilege. The filmmakers clearly didn?t get the irony of Shaw?s work, and simply made a film which looked and sounded like a celebration of rich culture and industrial production over the selflessness of ordinary people. This is a film which is ultimately more interested in what the women are wearing than in the moral dilemmas which face the characters. There are at least three glimpses of Loren?s stocking tops, along with two scenes of her disrobing and the infamous shot of her wearing ?that corset?, perched on the doctors? couch. It?s so shallow you?d swear you were watching Sex and the City.
This becomes even more surprising, and insulting, when we find that the film is helmed by Anthony Asquith, who also directed Pygmalion, The Winslow Boy and The Importance of Being Earnest. How did a man of such clear talent drop the ball so far?! The answer is not immediately clear, although looking at his subsequent output he was certainly past his prime as a filmmaker. It may be due to the fact that Shaw mediated the other adaptations of his work, and that without that stern and guiding hand Asquith simply retreated into flashy convention.
It is very difficult to put Peter Sellers on screen and make him unfunny, but Asquith manages it just fine. Sellers seems lost in the role of the Indian doctor, and he is given very little to work with beyond the odd half-decent scene (for instance, him handing out money in the street, a la The Magic Christian). Whereas Blake Edwards? The Party did something interesting with the Indian character, deriving comedy from good slapstick rather than simply the voice, here his ?Indian-ness? serves as a lazy shorthand for his selfless nature and nothing more. It?s as though the director listened to the Indian characters on The Goon Show, removed all the jokes and put Sellers on screen. The film occasionally tries to bring up religion to justify its choice, but in the end it doesn?t seem to care, preferring to focus on Loren?s latest slightly see-through gown, while Sellers shambles around trying to figure it all out.
The film is further spoiled by very lazy editing which does nothing to help the narrative and on at least two occasions is just plain annoying. There is a scene in which Sellers takes Loren?s pulse, and the camera rapidly cuts back and forth from that scene to another over a soundtrack of African drums. To what end? It?s certainly never explained by the characters, and when it is used again in the ending we?re even more confused and annoyed. Elsewhere there are too many dissolves from one scene to the next. Not only does this make the film languid, but it confirms that the filmmakers are more interested in the beauty and fashions than the plot. Many of these dissolves allow us to focus on Loren?s face long after she has stopped being interesting, as if the director is saying: ?I?m not starting the next scene until you admit that she?s gorgeous.? At the rate I was going, we would have stayed in the same scene for the whole film.
We do get occasional moments in which things fleetingly improve. There is a passable supporting performance by Alastair Sim as the executor of Epifania?s estate. His voice does become annoying by the end, and his scenes are incoherently staged, but he has a great deal more presence than either of the major stars. There is also a pleasant cameo by Alfie Bass, who plays the kipper salesman. He is given very little to do either by the script or the director, but if nothing else he manages to distract our attention from the annoying Loren for a little longer.
In sum, though, The Millionairess is a stupid and shallow film, which is unfunny, unmemorable, badly constructed and completely full of itself. It is testament to all that was wrong with post-war cinema, in its construction, narrative, contrived dramatic devices and bad casting. The ending is insulting and makes no sense, there is no romantic tension between the characters, the editing is ludicrous and neither Sellers nor Loren are in the least bit charming. For all the problems of My Fair Lady, or Oliver!, or even Mary Poppins, at least those films had something in the way of mass appeal or genuine charisma which made you remember them in a positive light. The Millionairess has nothing of the sort, being instead one of the most repulsive and sickening films of the early-1960s.