52 Before 62 – #35 The More the Merrier (1943)

The More the Merrier - poster.jpgDirected by George Stevens

Screenplay by Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster, Frank Ross, and Robert W. Russell, based on the story “Two’s a Crowd” by Garson Kanin

Starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn

War really messed with George Stevens – I’m pretty sure I noted this during my entry on I Remember Mama, but if I didn’t, I’ll say it here for the first time.  And if I did say it there, it’s good to say it again.

War really messed with George Stevens.

Before Stevens went off to work with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, he was primarily a director of comedy and lighter fare – he came up through Hal Roach Studios and kept right on doing comedies, with the occasional Gunga Din thrown in for good measure.

During the war, though, Stevens saw no comedy.  Instead, he encountered all sorts of gruesome things, including Dachau, and when he returns to America in 1946, he’s not the same man who left.  No longer a comic director, now he was drawn to dramas and tragedies.  And epics.  Yes, it’s possible this shift might’ve happened anyway, that maybe he would have matured to it if given time, like others do, but because it didn’t happen that way, we’ll never know what might’ve been.

Either way, the last movie Stevens made before doing his war service was The More the Merrier, which carries the imprimatur of being a sign of what the rest of his career might have been, but also, what never could be.

What’s It About?

World War II is on and there’s a housing shortage in Washington D.C. – hell, there’s a shortage of everything in D.C.  To help out, regular folk are sharing cabs and taking roommates.  One of those doing their part is Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), who advertises a room for rent.  Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn), a retired man with connections to the government, answers the ad, but because she’s a single gal, Connie isn’t sure she should be renting to a man, even an old one.  There could be talk, you see.  Still, Dingle is convincing and she allows him to rent from her.  What she doesn’t know about Dingle, though, is he’s a meddler, and when he finds out she could use a solid man in her life, meddle is what he does.  The best candidate?  Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), who Dingle winds up renting have his room to.  After some comic hijinks, and near-misses, Connie and Carter eventually get together.

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Arthur, McCrae, and Coburn

How Was It?

For what is a essentially a screwball comedy, The More the Merrier exceeds comedy length, to its detriment.  Comedy, in my humble opinion, plays best at 90 minutes, because beyond that point comedy directors almost always lose their sense of humor and start to fill out the plot with drama and sentiment.  George Stevens proves no different because at the point where the film should be accelerating to a breathless finish, it shifts gears and instead becomes a soppy romance.  As if it can’t fathom the possibility of being a comic romance.  In the process, it leaves the film a little too long for its own good.

Jean Arthur is lovely and sweet as Connie, a single girl in the city doing her part for the war, while also a little anxious to be married.  Arthur plays Connie as a woman in her late 20s or so, maybe slightly older, who is coming right to the end of her ingenue years.  For the most part Arthur succeeds here and it is only occasionally, when the film pulls in a for a closeup, and the lightening stops being so soft and flattering to he, and you see the age around Arthur’s eyes, that you realize she’s more than a little too old for this role.  After all, Arthur was 42 when this movie came out, and while she plays the hell out of the part, there is no denying she is just too old for this particular role.

McCrae is fine, and he and Arthur have real chemistry.  Not chemistry in the sexy and smoldering way – though there is some of that.  Rather, they have the breathless sort of chemistry where two people look at one another and are so scrambled by their own attraction they lose all semblance of speech and thought.

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Coburn, trying to determine where he left his pants

Charles Coburn is especially good as the older man, Dingle, who rents the room from Arthur, and pairs her up with McCrea.  He steals just about every bit of the movie he’s in.  He pushes the plot forward.  And, when physical comedy is required, he holds his own.  The best bit is the morning after Dingle moves in with Connie, and he’s doing his best to live up to the complicated morning schedule she’s set forth, but still manages to turn into a low-key disaster.  First, he repeatedly misplaces his pants.  Then, when he gives that a rest he struggles to take off a robe while holding a coffee pot.  Why is he holding the coffee pot?  It’s all part of the schedule.  Anyway, the sequence is silly, to be sure, but the comic bits of it are gold.  Plus, you can see a sequence this had to inspire a similar sequence in Elaine May’s film, A New Leaf, when Elaine May struggles with a night gown on her wedding night, only to tie herself in knots with it and have to be rescued from it by Walter Matthau.

All that said, because Coburn steals every scene he’s in the movie feels a bit empty when he disappears for a long stretch of the back half, as the focus changes to Connie and Joe.  It’s not that his absence makes the movie worse, it’s just that if he were there, it makes the movie better.  Coburn deservedly won an Oscar for the role.

The only other thing I’ll say about Coburn is that, if you feel an actors off-screen right-wing politics ruins his movies for you, maybe stay away from Coburn’s Wikipedia page and try to ignore his membership in a white supremacist organization.

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Richard Gaines

While the three leads of the film are good, the standout from the supporting cast is Richard Gaines as Connie’s long-time fiancé, Mr. Pendergast.  In the movie he’s an officious man who won’t marry Connie until the time is right, which seems to be never.  While Gaines is good in his little bits of screen time, he really shines in the scene in the FBI office, when he comes to the realization that he’s been thrown over by Connie for Carter.  The evolution of the looks on his face as he finally puts two and two together are perfect.

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Grady Sutton

I Know You

No, this isn’t going to be one of those instances when I point out somebody being in both this movie and It’s A Wonderful Life.  Rather, it’s to point out the bit of delight I felt near the end when Grady Sutton shows up as to serve dinner to a crying Connie after she and Carter are married.  Sutton is an actor in the dopy, Gomer Pyle mode, if a bit more of the dandified version of that character.  Probably his most memorable role was as ‘Og’ Oggilby, the put upon, and would-be son-in-law, to W.C. Fields’ Egbert Souse’ in The Bank Dick.

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