This classic romantic comedy made Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees want to polish up her rhumba.
"Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!"
It's a classic rule of romantic comedy: Put two people under one roof, and sooner or later they'll fall in love. Nowhere is the power of propinquity, that great facilitator of romance, more felicitously displayed than in this classic comedy by acclaimed director George Stevens (Giant). Nominated for six Academy Awards in 1943, The More the Merrier features a clever screenplay, deft direction, and three talented stars in peak form.
Facts of the Case
A wartime housing shortage has Washington, D.C. in its grip, so when middle-aged businessman Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn, The Lady Eve) comes to town to assist with the war effort, he finds himself out on the street. Fortunately for Mr. Dingle, patriotism has prompted Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to sublet her apartment. Although she's determined to rent only to another woman, she hasn't reckoned with wily Mr. Dingle, who ruthlessly dispenses with all the other would-be boarders and establishes himself in Connie's guest room. Dingle immediately takes a paternal interest in Connie, suspecting she needs some romance in her orderly, heavily scheduled life—so when he spies good-looking military man Joe Carter (Joel McCrea, Sullivan's Travels) looking for a place to stay, he sublets part of his own room to him. Sure enough, sparks fly when Joe and Connie meet—but, to both men's surprise, it turns out that their landlady is already engaged, to an earnest career type known as Charles J. (never "Charlie") Pendergast (Richard Gaines).
Dingle is determined to bring Joe and Connie together, and Joe isn't hard to persuade. But even Dingle's full-speed-ahead style of getting things done—and Joe's smooth rhumba dancing—may have met their match in Connie's stubborn practicality. After all, why should she throw away the security of a future with someone like Mr. Pendergast when Joe is about to be sent overseas, perhaps never to return? When the FBI itself begins sniffing around this unusual domestic arrangement, though, even Connie will be hard pressed to keep the situation under control.
How does one describe the particularly felicitous brand of romantic comedy that is The More the Merrier? The DVD case insert calls it a screwball comedy, but it's really more of a domestic one. Instead of following the frequent screwball formula, in which a madcap figure (often a woman) shakes a romantic partner out of a staid, hidebound existence, it takes place in a world that has already been shaken up to some extent by the war: Normal living arrangements are upset, and the shortage of men means that women now hunt men in packs (in one scene, a group of women clocking out from work greet a lone male with piercing wolf whistles). Patriotism as much as the liberating impulses of screwball are at work here, and the war itself serves as both a catalyst and plot device in key parts of the story. The More the Merrier shows the movies heading into the era when the solidity of marriage and family life, rather than the zany freedoms of romance, would be a paramount value.
Yet one can't entirely dismiss the screwball influence, and one of our lead characters comes close to the screwball protagonist: Mr. Dingle, who galvanizes the action with his cry of "Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!" and becomes a kind of wacky guardian angel to Connie. Connie, for her part, is definitely not the "full speed ahead" type: Brisk and organized, with a written schedule planned down to the minute, she is the Felix to his Oscar—and so Dingle takes it upon himself to shake up her staid life by injecting some romance into it. Instead of becoming her love interest, though, as a screwball hero would, Dingle brings Joe into the fold. As the hero, Joe unites the two worlds of romance and comedy. He's a bit of a smart-aleck, in the tradition of his screwball forebears, and he barks like a seal when he takes a shower, but he is serious in his pursuit of Connie…especially after he's met the schmoe she's engaged to. One of the funniest and sexiest scenes shows him repeatedly trying to get his arms around Connie (and his lips on her neck) while she valiantly attempts to keep up a conversation about how important a man her fiancé is. Apparently Arthur and McCrea gave Stevens the idea for this sequence when they were goofing around on the set between takes, and it's a perfect example of how the film excels at intimate yet seemingly simple scenes.
Indeed, it's small-scale scenes like this one, rather than the madcap whirlwind of screwball plot turns, that characterize The More the Merrier. As film historian James Harvey notes in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges, "Stevens's romanticism is less a liberating impulse than a nesting one." The film mainly concerns itself with one small apartment and the three people who share it, and the comedic instincts here are domestic, even cozy. The comic sequences are small in scale and even familiar, but no less funny for being so, as in an exquisitely timed set piece in which Dingle tries to prevent Joe and Connie from meeting while all three are taking turns in the tiny apartment's only bathroom. Some of the best and most joyous moments are tiny and personal, as when Connie and Joe, sitting at a nightclub table with Dingle and Mr. Pendergast, begin to react with sensuous shoulder twitches to the music of a rhumba, a reaction that links them in a way that Connie is never linked to her fiancé (he's irritated that the music makes it difficult for him to think). The threesome of Connie, Joe, and Dingle—who is himself susceptible to rhumba music—makes such an appealing ménage that we miss Dingle's presence sorely when he vanishes for a while after the one-hour mark. His absence means, however, that Connie and Joe are finally granted the privacy in which to confront their love for one another. At this point the film gains a powerful tone of romantic yearning, best evoked in a scene when Connie and Joe carry on a conversation through the thin wall that separates their rooms—and their beds. Nevertheless, Dingle is an essential part of the happiness of this unconventional but deeply satisfying three-cornered relationship, and we welcome him back when he returns to the plot, like a portly fairy godmother, to take charge and guide the two lovers into each other's arms.
The experienced stars that bring this charming trio to life are all skilled comedians, and it's impossible to see how their timing and chemistry together could be improved upon. As Connie, probably the most complex character, the inimitable Jean Arthur turns in one of her funniest and most appealing performances. Those who have yet to make the acquaintance of Arthur's unique screen presence have missed out on something truly special: She was one of a kind, just like her fluting yet husky voice, and unafraid of physical comedy, as she proves here. During the film's last act, when Connie has to engage in an almost unbroken crying jag, Arthur's genius at being simultaneously funny and touching keeps the gag from becoming tiresome. In the final moments of the film, her crying conveys without words her dawning understanding and delight at the newest turn of events, attaining a sort of wailing euphoria that no other actress could have equaled.
Of the two terrific stars opposite Arthur, Coburn has the juicer role, and he won a well-deserved Supporting Actor Oscar for it. Coburn was adept at playing heavies, like Cary Grant's unyielding father in In Name Only, but his Santa Claus figure and endearingly homely (and highly expressive) mug suited him even more for comedy. Under Stevens's skilled direction, his comic gifts really shine here. One moment the crisp, businesslike master of all he surveys, the next moment climbing around on fire escapes in his bathrobe, Coburn makes Dingle so lovable that the presence of a male romantic lead in addition to this character almost seems to be gilding the lily. Yet Joel McCrea, with his more down-to-earth bearing and all-American masculinity, provides the perfect complement to both Arthur and Coburn. McCrea brings a directness to Joe, as well as a dash of temper, that grounds the action around him when the comedy threatens to slip the fetters of realism; at times his performance is almost deadpan, so his more comedic moments (like barking in the shower) are all the more effective for being unexpected.
It's unfortunate that such a charming film isn't granted a better DVD presentation. While the visual transfer (presented in full frame, in accordance with the film's original aspect ratio) boasts the rich, deep range of blacks associated with black-and-white films of the '40s, it's a bit darker than is desirable, so sometimes the characters look a bit grubby. The print from which this transfer was taken also shows extensive dirt and age-related damage, which interfere with the viewer's enjoyment. Audio is much cleaner, and the mono mix is blessedly free of distortion or hiss, so the distinctive music of Arthur's voice and the husky tones of Coburn emerge clearly. I wish I could report an array of extras in keeping with the stature of the director and stars, but the only bonus content on the disc is a series of trailers for movies of the era, which are often of execrable quality (the trailers, not the films).
This is romantic comedy the way it should be done. The basic plot may have become a cliché, but here we can see how well it can work, and how delightful the results can be, when in the hands of experts. It also provides an interesting variation on the romantic comedy because of its wartime setting, and it's as if the remembered influence of screwball is being filtered through the sensibility of World War II. Even Dingle's energetic approach to life is couched in terms of war ("Damn the torpedoes!") and seems to be a response to the uncertainty and upset of wartime: With everything turned upside down, his attitude suggests, you've got to just push on through regardless and make things happen. It's a bracing approach to life, and to romance.
All parties are declared not guilty, but Mr. Pendergast will be subject to scrutiny by the FBI due to his suspicious toupee.
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