Miriam Hopkins, The Richest Girl in the World, wants to be loved for herself and not her money, so with Joel McCrea as guinea pig, she poses as her own secretary, while her secretary, played by Fay Wray, takes on her role. McCrea is supposed to prove his true love for Hopkins -- in secretary guise, mind you -- by choosing her over what he thinks is Wray's immense fortune, but if he does, he will have a lifetime's supply of really good scotch...
What starts out as a fairy tale plot soon becomes a decimation of the very notion of secure identity, a hint that there is no such thing as individual personality. What does it mean to be loved for "yourself"? Is "yourself" a form of purity that exists only in relation to something impure, like a rich woman who could turn you into a gigolo? What if the choice is between two poor women? A scene near the end presents an inescapable labyrinth of contradictions that makes you want to tear your hair out.
McCrea has proposed to Fay Wray, and she has pretended to accept, much to the dismay of Miriam Hopkins who realizes that her chance for true love has flown out the window. The mood is grim as Hopkins and her servants prepare to, essentially, execute McCrea by casting him out of the paradise he thinks he's won. But that same night, McCrea is sitting on the stairs and sees Wray's REAL husband sneak into her bedroom. The next day, in a huff, he breaks off the engagement with her, suggesting that her wealth has made her a perverse tramp, only to be told by Hopkins, desperate to make herself as unattractive as possible and thereby more qualified for "true love" as opposed to mercenary considerations, that she had switched bedrooms and that she was the tramp. Instead of apologizing to Wray, as any normal man would do, McCrea grabs Hopkins and carries her bodily out of the house to the altar!
Now, why and how could this happen? Why doesn't McCrea, hearing that Fay Wray was faithful, stick with her, since he thinks she's rich? The movie suggests that Hopkins's supposed promiscuity has inflamed McCrea's lust to the point where he no longer cares about money, and must have her sexually for himself, even if this means losing his potential fortune. But on top of this Freudian ploy, there's a much deeper, more haunting suggestion. McCrea, the film seems to wink at us, has figured out the trick that's been played on him. And he is then returning the favor and playing another trick by pretending to be inflamed by Hopkins, because he knows that will flatter her ego and her sense of truth about herself, even though his eye is firmly on the prize -- and I mean the one that's NOT between her legs. The final shot of the movie shows the happy couple on board of a boat, both of them still pretending not to know the other's secret, while an anonymous man, some kind of spy -- but on whose team? -- affixes a mustache.
The truly sinister aspect of this movie is that everyone gets exactly what they want. Far from a slapped-on happy ending, the ending of this movie suggests that all happiness is likewise compromised, artificial, but then again, Hopkins was on the verge of spinsterhood... Isn't a fiction, any fiction, better than that?