In Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges made a convincing case that comedy is often the best balm for tragedy. But for his friend and colleague George Stevens, the horrors of World War II left him with little capacity for comedy when he returned home from the front lines.
From 1943 to 1946, Stevens covered the war in Europe for the Army Signal Corps—and insisted on shooting the worst of it himself rather than delegating the more gruesome or dangerous jobs to the men in his unit. He captured the only Allied color footage of D-Day, and also filmed the liberation of Paris, the Elbe River meeting of U.S. and Soviet forces, and the nightmarish conditions at the Duben and Dachau concentration camps, which served as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. The Library of Congress deemed his work “an essential visual record” of the war.
Because he was fundamentally changed by the horrors he’d borne witness to, there’s a bright line between Stevens’ pre-war films and those he made when he came home, which were more somber and in some cases deeply personal. But his last comedy—and the last film he made before joining the Army—is one of the best anyone ever made: The More the Merrier.
Actually, the movie feels a little like Sturges, as he and Stevens shared a deep affection for the absurd, including characters who could spout total nonsense with absolute conviction, eventually wearing down all comers with their righteous refusal to cave in to anything as mundane as reality.
In this case, the prime suspect is Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), a retired millionaire who comes to the capitol to advise the government on the housing shortage—and immediately becomes its next victim. His hotel has no record of his reservation, so he takes to the streets in search of that rarest of all species, a Room for Rent.
After bluffing (okay, lying) his way past all the other hopefuls, Dingle presents himself to the highly resistant, somewhat starchy Constance Milligan (Jean Arthur) as the perfect tenant to share her flat. And the battle is on, though the winner is clear from the outset:
Connie: I’ve made up my mind to rent to nobody but a woman.
Dingle: So, let me ask you something. Would I ever want to wear your stockings?
Dingle: Well, all right. Would I ever want to borrow your girdle, or your red and yellow dancing slippers?
Connie: Of course not!
Dingle: Well, any woman, no matter who, would insist upon borrowing that dress you got on right now. You know why? Because it’s so pretty.
Connie [softening]: I made it myself.
Dingle: And how would you like it if she spilled a cocktail all over it—at a party you couldn’t go with her to because she borrowed it to go to it—in?
Connie [totally caught up in the story now]: She might have something that I could wear…
Dingle: Not her.
Connie: Why not?
Dingle: Because she’s so dumpy-looking. Never has anything clean. That’s why she’s always borrowing your dresses.
Connie: How do I know you’d be any better?
Dingle [whirling around and proudly patting his belly]: Well, look at me. I’m neat, like a pin. Ah, let me stay.
Connie [not yet realizing she’s completely defeated]: Well, look, I…
Dingle: I tell you what. We’ll try it out for a week. End of the week comes, if you’re not happy, we’ll flip a coin to see who moves out.
Almost immediately after she consents—on a trial basis, mind you—Dingle leases out half his room to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a foreign-service officer headed overseas—and headed to the altar with Connie, if Dingle has anything to say about it. Never mind that they haven’t even met yet. Or that Connie is engaged to an uber-respectable bureaucrat, Charles J. Pendergast (poor Richard Gaines, who, up against McCrea, seems not only overmatched but like a totally different species).
Get any two fans of this film together and they’ll launch into a scene-by-scene lovefest: the part where Connie explains her insanely regimented morning routine and Dingle asks, “Do we do all this railroad time or Eastern war time?” The break-neck breakfast scene, where his enormous pants get sling-shot out the window by their suspenders. The part where Connie and Joe are frantically racing to escape before her fiancé calls—only to be held hostage by the whiny teen who lives downstairs, whom you want to strangle. The scene where Connie and Joe, in separate rooms, are rhumba-ing in perfect rhythm to What Is This Thing Called Love, before Connie even knows he’s moved in. (I’ve lived in apartments most of my life and have stumbled across lots of surprises. None of them was Joel McCrea shimmying in a bathrobe just down the hall.)
And then there’s one of the sweetest, sexiest, funniest love scenes ever—ranking right up there with the telephone scene in It’s A Wonderful Life for spectacularly failed attempts to thwart the inevitable:
The Stoop Scene.
Joe walks Connie home, and they park on the front steps before heading inside. Almost the second they sit down, his intentions are clear, as he gently nuzzles her neck, her bare shoulder, the top of her lacy sleeve… but Connie somehow manages to prattle on frantically about the sober Mr. Pendergast, stamp collecting, and the joys of budgeting as Joe keeps his mind fixed firmly on the mission at hand (or hands).
“Take my engagement ring,” Connie blurts. “Don’t you think it’s nice—not gaudy, I mean?”
“You bet,” Joe murmurs, seizing the chance to caress and kiss her sensibly clad fingers.
And long after any mortal woman would have surrendered, she stumbles onward: “You know, with those older men like Mr. Pendergast… a girl gets to appreciate their more mature…” <Joe goes in for a full-on kiss> “…viewpoint.”
And that’s when she finally just gives up, grabs his face and kisses him back. But then, reaching back for that one last pesky shred of common sense, she pulls away. “I’d better go,” she says unconvincingly, as her knees buckle beneath her.
Oh my God. This is one of the most sizzling scenes ever filmed, and almost all of it happens above the collarbone.
Aside from being just plain fabulous, the stoop scene, as well as earlier ones of her sunning on a rooftop and dancing around the living room in a midriff top, show what a criminally underappreciated hottie Arthur was. In fact, before this film, she was feeling overlooked in general—turning down sub-par scripts at a rate that made Columbia boss Harry Cohn even crankier than he already was.
So she and her husband, producer Frank Ross, hired their friend Garson Kanin to whip up a vehicle for her. And Two’s a Crowd, co-written with Robert Russell and Ross, eventually morphed into The More the Merrier.
Stevens loved the script and, as usual, reveled in the chance to ruffle the suits in the Breen Office—skittering along the edges of Production Code propriety. The stoop scene, where you really should light a cigarette afterward, is Exhibit A. In another head-swimmingly tender scene, Joe and Connie, side by side in separate bedrooms, finally confess their love for each other—but somehow the wall between seems a bit, well, blurry. Meanwhile Dingle’s favorite word is “damn” (gasp!), but always in the context of quoting Admiral Farragut’s oath about torpedoes.
One of the Breen Office’s oddest demands was that bachelors McCrea and Coburn never be seen using the bathroom together. (No really.) Stevens found this homophobia so hilarious that during the nightclub scene, he made a point of putting several female couples on the dancefloor, which allowed him to poke fun at the wartime shortage of eligible males—another running theme in the film—and tweak the censors at the same time. (The band is also all-girl.)
As you might expect, this was a very merry film set, even though, astonishingly, McCrea felt miscast at first, telling anyone within earshot that Cary Grant could’ve carried it off better. (Ironically, poor Cary got saddled with the Dingle role in the highly missable remake, Walk Don’t Run.) He’d just belted it out of the park in two of the best screwballs ever —Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story—but still didn’t feel comfortable in this trip to the plate.
Which is pretty much what made him perfect. Because the last person you want in a screwball comedy is someone who wants to make a screwball comedy. In his work with Sturges, McCrea was the relatively sane, benevolent linchpin for all the screwy goings-on around him, much as he is in The More the Merrier. And with a little help from a sensitive director and a generous leading lady, McCrea quickly loosened up and settled in on the set. To no one’s surprise but his own, he was perfect again.
Stevens, who called Arthur “one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen,” had just seen her with Coburn in The Devil and Miss Jones—where she played the dreamer and he was the starchy one with all the answers. That they could flip roles so completely and still crackle with the same quirky chemistry is testament to what a great “screen couple” they were.
Arthur, Stevens, the screenwriters and the producers all snagged Oscar nods for The More The Merrier—but McCrea, who went his entire career without so much as a nomination, was overlooked as usual. Coburn went home with the Supporting Actor trophy, back in the days when the Academy occasionally rewarded comedy. This was one of several films, including Together Again and Heaven Can Wait, where he impishly played the busybody who helps clueless couples get out of their own way, which became something of a mini-specialty for him.
On the opposite coast, the New York Film Critics tapped Stevens as Best Director. Truer words, never spoken. Though his reasons were unassailable, I wish he’d never made a last comedy. But if he had to say goodbye, there could not have been a higher note to go out on than this brilliant, lovely, loopy, tender film.