Upon the death of her millionaire father, Epifania Parerga (a breathtaking Sophia Loren) inherits a fabulous fortune alongside his advice never to marry a man who doesn’t know how to increase the sum of one-hundred and fifty pounds sterling a hundred fold in three months. Ignoring these words, Epifania hastily weds a handsome tennis player who can’t cope with her controlling ways and begins an adulterous affair, thus annulling the marriage within mere days. Being something of a drama queen, Epifania makes a showy suicide bid and jumps into the Thames river where she meets kindly Indian Doctor Kabir (Peter Sellers). Instantly smitten, Epifania resolves to win Kabir’s heart by any means necessary. But Kabir is a wholly altruistic soul who disdains money and has resolved to live by his late mother’s words: never marry a woman who can’t survive for three months on thirty-five shillings.
There are three things most commonly recalled about The Millionairess: its iconic va-va-voom image of Sophia Loren wearing skin-tight black underwear and a floppy pink hat, Peter Sellers’ in brown makeup pioneering his Indian accent, and the duo sharing vocals on the spin-off novelty record “Goodness, Gracious Me” which spawned the catchphrase that became the bane of Anglo-Asian kids across Britain and inspired the popular sketch comedy show. Of course there is a fourth memorable aspect in that the two stars may or may not have had an affair in real life. Certainly Sellers was infatuated with Loren but while Spike Milligan was of the opinion the romance was real, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2003) contends he made the whole thing up.
Ah, but what of the movie? Based on a play by George Bernard Shaw, adapted by Italian writer Riccardo Aragno and revised for the screen by British scripter Wolf Mankowitz, The Millionairess is a sex comedy not in the sense that there is anything racier onscreen than a few admittedly scintillating glimpses of Loren’s bare back, but in that it deals with need and desire. Cleverly woven amidst the standard rom-com battle of the sexes is the potent question of whether men of learning can truly oppose the will of those in power, and the observation that indifference to money is as foolish as coveting it above all else.
For a comedy it is somewhat slow-moving, which combined with its philosophical inclinations renders things more wryly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny. But while its teetering attitude towards capitalism does vex (e.g. the almost flippantly chilling scene where a lawyer buys patents for potential cures for cancer and the common cold), the film scores as a romantic fable on the strength of its leads and a charming portrait of London just as the austere Fifties were about to give way to the Swinging Sixties.
A big hit in its day, while English critics were effusive in their praise, the opulent production design led their more left-leaning Italian counterparts to dismiss this as a fashion show. Loren is really quite something to behold in her endless array of flamboyant outfits, while the camera glides along her curvaceous physique as if admiring some fantastic feat of engineering. The Sixties were very good to Loren, one of the few foreign actress who juggled successful careers in Europe and Hollywood. Though she won an Oscar for the unremittingly grim Two Women (1960), a sensually charged turn here showcases her underrated flair for comedy.
Refreshingly, Epifania has brains and guile to go along with her looks and proves more than a match for the scheming lawyers and psychiatrists out to snag her fortune. She also has a winning way with a judo flip. Loren handles the waspish one-liners and physical comedy with great skill ably matching the supporting cast of quality character actors including Alastair Sim as a shifty lawyer, Dennis Price as a caddish (what else?) psychiatrist and her mentor Vittorio De Sica as the pasta manufacturer whose business Epifania turns into a mechanized success but loses all the heart. As well as mounting a satirical attack on mechanized industry, the film assaults the dehumanized aspects of modern health care, although veteran director Anthony Asquith should have pushed this aspect a little further.
For some the mere sight of Peter Sellers in brown makeup has proven an irritant, but speaking as an Asian his portrayal of Dr. Kabir is not in the least bit offensive. The jokes stem from Kabir being a funny man, not from his race. Moreover, Kabir is drawn as a very decent, deeply moral human being who shows Epifania the poverty and suffering to which she had been oblivious. Sellers is at his most restrained and nuanced and not once does he utter the words “goodness, gracious me.”