Silver Screen Standards: The More the Merrier (1943)
Lately, I’ve only been interested in comedies and musicals, the kinds of pictures that make the viewer feel happy in spite of whatever madness is at work in the world outside. Depression and World War II-era mood boosters were quite literally made for this kind of cultural moment; they exist to bring smiles to our faces and songs to our hearts as we hope for better days ahead. Now, you certainly can’t go wrong with musicals from Fred and Ginger, Alice Faye, or Betty Grable, but a screwball comedy also has a lot going for it in times like these, and one of the quirkiest and most interesting is the 1943 picture, The More the Merrier, starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea as a couple of serious young people brought together by a gleefully disruptive Charles Coburn.
Unlike films that offer a complete escape from the world outside, The More the Merrier leans into its moment, depicting life in Washington D.C. during the wartime crisis. The plot hinges on a housing shortage caused by the huge numbers of people working in the city as part of the war effort, and the picture opens by showing us the busy, chaotic world that both characters and audience share. Our heroine, Constance Milligan (Jean Arthur), is lucky enough to have her own apartment but decides it would be patriotic to take in a roommate, never guessing that the roommate she’ll get stuck with is a crafty old codger bent on playing Cupid. Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) not only moves himself in – over Connie’s objections – but swiftly adds a second renter by taking in handsome Joe Carter (Joel McCrea). With Joe set to leave for dangerous military work in Africa in just a few days, and Connie and Dingle both working for the war effort in their own ways, the picture never tries to forget the war but instead shows the audience that even trying times can bring laughter and happy surprises.
Another noteworthy quirk of the movie is its willingness to show its protagonists in very unglamorous activities, which humanizes the characters and endears them to the audience. When Connie and Joe get dressed up they look as good as Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea are expected to look, but at the moment of their initial meeting, Joe is wearing a bathrobe and socks while Connie has a face covered in cold cream. The shared bathroom of the small apartment provides a lot of comic opportunities and also ensures that we see all three characters in various states of undress, especially Joe. If shirtless Joel McCrea is something you want more of in your life then this picture is here to deliver. For some reason, Joe also barks like a seal every time he gets wet, which comes as something of a shock when we see him in the shower. Dingle, meanwhile, can’t seem to keep track of his pants, and he and Connie take turns managing to lock each other out of the apartment in their pajamas. All three characters are harried, rumpled, sometimes absent-minded, and making the best of things, just like everyone else in the country in 1943.
Most screwball comedies invest their signature “screwy” energy in the female lead – think of Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934), Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey (1936), Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941) – but The More the Merrier assigns that energy to Charles Coburn instead. Taken as a real human being, Benjamin Dingle would be downright criminal and a good candidate for arrest and a restraining order; he does basically force his way into Connie’s apartment and then refuse to leave like a geriatric cousin of Michael Keaton’s nightmare tenant in Pacific Heights (1990). Instead, it’s important to see Dingle as an agent for change, a chaotic Cupid embodying the way in which life throws us for a loop in spite of our intentions and plans. Connie is too rigid with her schedules and routines; she has become stuck in an endless, loveless engagement and the rhythm of her daily life. Joe, more shy than surly and never much of a talker, also needs a push even when there are eight women to every man. Dingle is there to shake both of them up, and the full extent of his meddling only becomes clear with the picture’s final, hilarious reveal. His gift of change comes with its own downside; Joe is still departing for dangers unknown, but the lesson of the picture is that a chance at love and happiness is worth the risk of heartbreak even in the most uncertain times.
The Academy recognized Charles Coburn’s importance to the picture by awarding him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. The movie also garnered nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Story, and Best Screenplay. For more feel-good comedy with Jean Arthur, try Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) or Easy Living (1937), and for more with Joel McCrea see Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). George Stevens directed The More the Merrier just before his departure for the U.S Army Signal Corps, where he filmed historic events like D-Day, the liberation of Paris, and horrific footage of the Dachau concentration camp, which helps explain why The More the Merrier was Stevens’ last real comedy. You can learn more about Stevens’ wartime experience and its effect on him in the excellent 2017 documentary, Five Came Back, adapted from the equally fascinating book by Mark Harris. For more of Stevens’ light-hearted work, see Swing Time (1936), Vivacious Lady (1938), and The Talk of the Town (1942).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.