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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.


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SOURCES:
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

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