Skip to main content

Film Friday: "The More the Merrier" (1943)

My initial plan for today was to write about a Vivien Leigh film in celebration of her 102th birthday. However, since I already did that yesterday for The Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier Blogathon, I've decided that today I would honor Vivien's "birthday twin" instead. So, this week on "Film Friday" I'm going to tell you a little bit about one of Joel McCrea's most iconic films, which also happens to be the first film I ever saw with him.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Stevens, The More the Merrier (1943) concerns Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), a young goverment worker who reluctantly agrees to rent out half of her apartment to an older gentleman, Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), in order to ease the housing shortage in wartime Washington, D.C. Without Connie's knowledge, Mr. Dingle then sublets half of his half of the apartment to Sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a handsome aircraft technician waiting to be shipped overseas. When Connie learns about the new arrangement, she becomes furious and orders both men to leave, but is forced to relent her decision since she has already spent their rent money on a new hat and cannot refund it.

Connie and Joe soon find themselves attracted to each other, though she is engaged to a stuff-shirted bureaucrat named Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines). Mr. Dingle happens to meet Pendergast at a luncheon meeting and decides that Joe would be a better match for Connie. Later, he discovers Connie's private diary and reads aloud to Joe the pages that flatter him. When Connie sees them with her diary, she demands that they both leave the next morning, but Mr. Dingle takes full blame for the incident and she allows Joe to stay until he leaves for his mission in Africa in two days. The following day, Connie goes out to dinner with Pendergast and Joe follows her to the restaurant with Mr. Dingle. While Mr. Dingle distracts Pendergast, Joe asks Connie to dance and after they walk home together, they have a romantic and affectionate talk which cultimates in a kiss. As they bed down in separate rooms and profess their love, two FBI agents, Evans (Bruce Bennett) and Pike (Frank Sully), burst into the apartment and take Joe in for questioning, mistaking him for a Japanese spy, and Connie is brough along as well. When Mr. Dingle and Pendergast show up to vouch for them, it comes out that Joe and Connie are living in the same apartment, despite her engagement to Pendergast. They are eventually released, but the story reaches a reporter and Mr. Dingle advises Joe and Connie to marry quickly and file for an annulment to avoid a scandal. Upon returning home from their rushed wedding in North Carolina, the obviously nervous couple realizes that Mr. Dingle has had the wall between their rooms removed and they kiss. Dingle, who has been sleeping in the lobby with a group of roomless men, then steals up to their apartment door and changes the nameplate to read Mr. and Mrs. Sgt. Carter.

Benjamin Dingle: There are two kinds of people those who don't do what they want to do, so they write down in a diary about what they haven't done, and those who are too busy to write about it because they're out doing it!

Through repetition and accumulation of narratives, character types, conflicts and their resolution, Hollywood films made during World War II provided their viewers with ways to understand and think about the war, America's place in it, their enemies, their allies and each American's role in fighting it. Combined with other forms of pop culture and public discourses, these films helped construct the reality of the war for millions of Americans, presenting an idea of "unusual unity, of America pulling together for a common purpose." However, the various narratives working together to create this impression of unity didn't always succeed in covering up the "homefront anxieties" that existed during wartime. Some films, even the most purely escapist romances and comedies, looked beneath the façade and became about the real historical circumstances troubling contemporary everyday life, including the housing shortage in many U.S. cities, especially in Washington, D.C., the center of the nation's war bureaucracy. 

After December 7, 1941, thousands of people were suddenly relocated to metropolitan or military-base areas, due to war service, government operations or defense industry work. At the same time, the war brought about a shortage of materials and personnel for building new homes and apartment complexes. The result was overcrowding: people were forced to make eccentric and ad hoc living arrangements, often with multiple occupants staying in a single room. Although this was serious problem, one that put a strain on family dynamics and social services, Hollywood tended to use the housing crisis for its comical potential. A number of films focused on the shortage of accomodations in Washington D.C. (the joke was that D.C. stood for "Damn Crowded"), including RKO's Government Girl (1943) and Warner Bros.' The Doughgirls (1944), but the most famous, and perhaps the best, is The More the Merrier, the last of three films George Stevens made under a special contract with Columbia Pictures. 

Richard Gaines, George Stevens and Jean Arthur
on the set of The More the Merrier
Born and bred in California, Stevens had been one of RKO's most successful directors in the 1930s, hailed as "a master of the sophisticated light comedy." After the medical drama Vigil in the Night (1940) opened to box-office disinterest, Stevens left RKO and was almost immediately signed by Columbia Pictures, where Sam Briskin, then assistant to studio head Harry Cohn, worked out a satisfactory deal for Stevens's services. The director always said that Cohn "lured" him to the studio after realizing he was about to lose Frank Capra. In fact, Cohn was so desperate to get Stevens that he agreed to a contract stipulation that was quite rare at the time: never to talk to Stevens during production and never to come on set. The More the Merrier was Stevens's last film before going off to war as head of a combat motion picture unit that shot the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Paris and the first footage the world saw of the Dachau concentration camp. When he came back from Europe, he ceased making comedies and sought out more serious subjects worthy of the emotional and intellectual changes he had experienced during the war.

Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur
The More the Merrier, however, didn't originate with Stevens, but with his star, Jean Arthur, who had come under fire at Columbia for turning down too many projects. In order to get back in good graces with Harry Cohn, Arthur and her husband Frank Ross paid their friend Garson Kanin out of their own pockets to help them develop a suitable vehicle for her. Kanin then wrote a story called "Two's a Crowd," which Cohn liked enough to launch it into production, with Robert W. Russell assigned as screenwriter.

Arthur was happy to be directed by Stevens a second time. She had had a good experience with him on the set of The Talk of the Town (1942) and admired his fierce independence and ability to coax winning performances from his actors. The feeling was mutual; Stevens later said that Arthur was one of the most brilliant commedienes of her time. Arthur was also pleased that Columbia took her suggestion of a leading man, Joel McCrea, with whom she was co-starred in George Archainbaud's The Silver Horde (1930) and Edward Ludwig's Adventure in Manhattan (1936). According to McCrea, Arthur and Ross came to his ranch with two lilac plants and nine pages of the script, begging him to appear in what would be her final commitment under her contract with Columbia. Although McCrea was hesitant to accept the offer, deeming the role better suited to the likes of Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, his fondess for Arthur helped persuade him. McCrea, too, got along well with Stevens, considering him to be one of the nicest people he ever worked with and appreciating the fact that he trusted and respected all of his cast and crew.

Upon its initial release in May 1943, The More the Merrier proved to be one of Columbia's biggest hits to date. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times asserted that "Columbia hit a gem of a notion when it got the bright idea of having George Stevens made a comedy based on wartime housing conditions in Washington. For The More the Merrier [...] is as warm and refreshing a ray of sunshine as we've had in a very late Spring." Variety was also highly appreciative of the film, calling it "a sparkling and effervescing piece of entertainment" and "one of the most spontaneous farce-comedies of the wartime era." At the 16th Academy Awards, Charles Coburn took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and the film received additional nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Story and Best Screenplay.

Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film by Marilyn Ann Moss (2004) | Hollywood War Films, 1937-1945: An Exhaustive Filmography of American Feature-Lenght Motion Pictures Relating to World War II by Michael S. Shull and David Edward Wilt (1996) | We'll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema During World War II by Robert L. McLaughlin and Sally E. Perry (2006) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


Popular posts from this blog

Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest . Impressed by Patricia's looks, Vidor approached the young actress and asked if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist, and the studio was then considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.          Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about Patricia, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, « What's that!? » He tried to con

Golden Couples: Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck

In the mid- and late 1930s, screwball comedy was in vogue and practically every actress in Hollywood tried her hand at it. Barbara Stanwyck never considered herself a naturally funny person or a comedienne per se , but after delivering a heart-wrenching performance in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), she decided she needed a « vacation » from emotional dramas. In her search for a role, she stumbled upon a « champagne comedy » called The Mad Miss Manton (1938), originally intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as Melsa and Peter in The Mad Miss Manton .   Directed by Leigh Jason from a script by Philip G. Epstein, The Mad Miss Manton begins when vivacious Park Avenue socialite Melsa Manton finds a corpse while walking her dogs in the early hours of the morning. She calls the police, but they dismiss the incident — not only because Melsa is a notorious prankster, but also because the body disappears in the meantime. Sarcastic newspaper editor

Films I Saw in 2020

For the past four years, I have shared with you a list of all the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 and 2019 , so I thought I would continue the «tradition» and do it again in 2020. This list includes both classic and «modern» films, which make up a total of 161 titles. About three or four of these were re-watches, but I decided to include them anyway. Let me know how many from these you have seen. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favorites. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire and Joe Keaton The Crowd (1928) | Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman and Bert Roach Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) | Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady and Marjorie Weaver Brief Encounter (1945) | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) | Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman The Girl He Left Behind (1956) | Starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood Gidget (1959) | Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson an

Wings of Change: The Story of the First Ever Best Picture Winner

Wings was the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, it has become one of the most influential war dramas, noted for its technical realism and spectacular air-combat sequences. This is the story of how it came to be made.   A man and his story The concept for Wings originated from a writer trying to sell one of his stories. In September 1924, Byron Morgan approached Jesse L. Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players-Lasky, a component of Paramount Pictures, proposing that the studio do an aviation film. Morgan suggested an «incident and plot» focused on the failure of the American aerial effort in World War I and the effect that the country's «aviation unpreparedness» would have in upcoming conflicts. Lasky liked the idea, and approved the project under the working title «The Menace.»   LEFT: Byron Morgan (1889-1963). RIGHT: Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958).   During his development of the scenario with William Shepherd, a former war correspondent, Morga

80 Reasons Why I Love Classic Films (Part II)

I started this blog six years ago as a way to share my passion for classic films and Old Hollywood. I used to watch dozens of classic films every month, and every time I discovered a new star I liked I would go and watch their entire filmography. But somewhere along the way, that passion dimmed down. For instance, I watched 73 classic films in 2016, and only 10 in 2020. The other day, I found this film with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that I had never heard of — the film is Mimi (1935), by the way — and for some reason it made me really excited about Old Hollywood again. It made me really miss the magic of that era and all the wonderful actors and actresses. And it also made me think of all the reasons why I fell in love with classic films in the first place. I came with 80 reasons, which I thought would be fun to share with you. Most of them are just random little scenes or quirky little quotes, but put them together and they spell Old Hollywood to me. Yesterday I posted part one ; here i

Top 10 Favourite Christmas Films

Christmas has always been a source of inspiration to many artists and writers. Over the years, filmmakers have adapted various Christmas stories into both movies and TV specials, which have become staples during the holiday season all around the world. Even though Christmas is my favourite holiday, I haven't watched a lot of Christmas films. Still, I thought it would be fun to rank my top 10 favourites, based on the ones that I have indeed seen. Here they are.  10. Holiday Affair (1949) Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair tells the story of a young widow (Janet Leigh) torn between a boring attorney (Wendell Corey) and a romantic drifter (Robert Mitchum). She's engaged to marry the boring attorney, but her son (Gordon Gebert) likes the romantic drifter better. Who will she choose? Well, we all know who she will choose.   Holiday Affair is not by any means the greatest Christmas film of all time, but it's still a very enjoyable Yule-tide comedy to watch over the holi

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey , based on the eponymous novel by John O'Hara about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day of that year, the show brought Gene his best reviews up to that date. For instance, John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: «A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique .»   One of Gene's performances in Pal Joey was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland , who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub, at 10 East 60th Street. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after whi

Films I Saw in July & August

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in July and August, which make up a total of 18 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Resistance (2011) | Starring Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wlaschiha and Michael Sheen Siberian Education [Educazione siberiana] (2013) | Starring Arnas Fedaravi čius The Last of Robin Hood (2013) | Starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning The Water Diviner (2014) | Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yılmaz Erdoğan Holding the Man (2015) | Starring Ryan Corr, Craig Stott and Anthony LaPaglia The Last King [Birkebeinerne] (2016) | Starring Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju The Pass (2016) | Starring Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene Access All Areas (2017) | Starring Ella Purnell, Edward Bluemel and Georgie Henle

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

  In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer happened to see a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's eldest daughter, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of « Ol' Man River » that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell vehicle Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was «hot,» however, Metro made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in  Anchors Aweigh Being a contract player at the studio that boasted «more stars than there are in the heavens» gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The «g

Films I Saw in May & June

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in May and June, which make up a total of 16 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Pelle the Conqueror [Pelle Erobreren] (1987) | Starring Pelle Hvenegaard The Elementary School [ Obecná škola] (1991) | Starring Václav Jakoubek Female Agents [Les Femmes de l'ombre] (2008) | Starring Sophie Marceau Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe [Vor der Morgenröte] (2016) | Starring Josef Hader ❤ Cold War [Zimna wojna] (2018) | Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig and Borys Szyc Dreamland (2019) | Starring Finn Cole, Margot Robbie, Travis Fimmel and Garrett Hedlund Mr Jones (2019) | Starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard Official Secrets (2019) | Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith an