Historical Circuit: There is Plenty of Room for Love in 1943’s ‘The More the Merrier’

Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea & Charles Coburn in 1943's "The More the Merrier"
Columbia Pictures’ “The More the Merrier”

TITLE OF FILM: “The More the Merrier”
FILM YEAR: 1943
DIRECTOR: George Stevens
WRITER: Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster, Frank Ross, Robert W. Russell
STARRING: Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn, Richard Gaines

SYNOPSIS:

“The More the Merrier” takes place in Washington, D.C. in the midst of a housing shortage. An eccentric millionaire named Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) arrives in town to help deal with the crisis. When his hotel arrangements fall through, he goes looking for an alternate place to hang his hat.

Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) is a hard working woman. Tightly wound and obsessed with schedules, she is looking to sublet a room in her apartment. Despite Connie’s misgivings, Mr. Dingle manages to talk her into renting the room to him. And being a decent man himself, when Mr. Dingle happens upon a military man (Joel McCrea) with nowhere to stay, he offers up half of his room.

At first unaware that she now has two tenants, Connie ultimately begins to see the positives of her new roommates. The goofy pair of men work to coax Connie into unwinding her tightly wound clock. And their efforts just may lead Connie to discover what it truly means to fall in love.

OBSERVATIONS:

“The More the Merrier” is a wonderfully joyful film. Despite being almost eighty years old, the comedy is as true as ever. The jokes still feel fresh and worthy of today’s audience. The comedy relies on quick-witted dialogue, as well as physical play. The talented trio of actors have a beautiful rhythm. There is not one cheap laugh or weak moment.

Two-time Academy Award winner George Stevens had a lustrous career directing well-known classics, including “A Place in the Sun” (1951), “Shane” (1953), “Giant” (1956) and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959). Stevens may be most famous for his dramas, but he seems quite at ease directing this lovely romantic comedy.

Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea have lovable chemistry as two misfits who just may fit together. Arthur was one of the most sought after film stars throughout the 1930s and 40s. Three of her most famous pictures were directed by the great Frank Capra- “You Can’t Take it With You” (1938), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). She played physical comedy among the best in the business, putting her slender frame and high pitched voice to amusing use.

Joel McCrea is easy on the eyes as our good-natured romantic lead. McCrea’s career culminated in many successful westerns, but he never quite gained the level of success as other leading men of the time. He proves in “The More the Merrier” that he is more than capable of securing a swoon or two as good as that of Cary Grant or Gary Cooper.

Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur

Charles Coburn is an absolute hoot as our meddling matchmaker. While the leads remain in the dark, Mr. Dingle puppeteers each situation in hopes of leading these potential lovers into each other’s arms. Here, Coburn is ever charming and lovable. He is the heart of this film.

CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:

“The More the Merrier” knows its place in the pantheon of film. It is ultimately a love story rooted in comedy. However, the film does take it upon itself to have fun with gender stereotypes. World War II brought about many changes to the “normal” order of things. The women had to step up to the plate because many of the able-bodied men were overseas fighting a war. It is the women that go to work and run the homes. It is the women that must take charge of securing the lives that they want.

Two amusing scenes stand out in regards to this role reversal. One shows a long line of impeccably dressed women waiting to clock into work. As an errand man walks down the line, it is the women who hoot and holler at this “piece of meat.” There is a shortage of eligible bachelors, and the women have no interest in being demure. The second scene shows our leading man being bombarded with female suitors at a restaurant. Again, the women take it upon themselves to make the first move. And our leading lady is forced to play her hand as to not miss out on the man she desires.

RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:

The Academy nominated “The More the Merrier” for six awards in 1944. The film was nominated for Best Writing- Original Story (a since-discontinued category), Best Writing- Screenplay and Best Director. Jean Arthur scored the only nomination of her career (Best Actress). The Best Supporting Actor Oscar was awarded to Charles Coburn.

Among the reviews from 1943, one article by The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther jumps out. Crowther speaks fondly of the film, writing that, “You’ll love Mr. Coburn’s Benjamin Dingle if you have a heart in your breast. And you’ll love “The More the Merrier” if you have a taste for fun. It even makes Washington look attractive—and that is beyond belief.” What sets the review apart from its brothers is that it also discusses the featured newsreel from the Office of War Information.

Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn & Jean Arthur

In order to relay information to the American people about the ongoing war, the government used motion pictures as a platform. Propaganda, some may argue, but also the definitive morale booster. The film that ran before “The More the Merrier” focused on doctors in the military and ended with the then Surgeon General of the Army asking for people to not request “luxury medical care” during trying times. This blurb is a worthy reminder of an unwaveringly patriotic time in our American history.

COMPARISONS TO OTHER MOVIES/TELEVISION/THEATRE:

“The More the Merrier” is as grand as ever because of its incorporation of screwball comedy. Much of the film’s hilarity is set in Connie’s apartment. The three leads play off each other with great amusement, often while dealing with over the top situations.

The film uses classic farce superbly. There is the choreographed dance of characters entering and exiting through various doors without knowledge of the others. The audience is often in the know while the characters are left in the dark. There is also a play on scenery and camera angles where the characters appear to be in the same room or lying next to each other, but they are actually in separate spaces.

The technique of farce can be found throughout the performing arts. Theatre has put it to great use in productions like, “Hello, Dolly!” and “Noises Off.” There are also sit-coms that use farce for excellent comic theatre. Television shows like “Frasier” and “Cheers” excelled at the rhythm and delivery of farcical comedy. Filmmakers  have often relied upon the use of improbable, exaggerated situations to generate laughs. Recent films like “Tropic Thunder” (2008) and “Game Night” (2018) are upstanding examples.

WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:

On the day before Valentine’s Day, we should never forget that romance still has a place in the movies. In an era where film is increasingly relying on the green screen and big-budget action to make a profit, we must make an effort to appreciate the simple stories of love. The lightheartedness and whimsical feelings that can come from watching two characters dance around each other is still a worthy reason to go to the movies. No matter the size of the screen, when done well, the romantic comedy can be just as marvelous as a Marvel film.

“The More the Merrier” is available for rent/purchase on Amazon Prime, VUDU, YouTube, Google Play.

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