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The More the Merrier

Sunday July, 14 2019 at 02:15 PM
Wednesday August, 21 2019 at 09:45 PM

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Hardship and sacrifice were daily realities of the American homefront in World War II. Hollywood films glossed over the harsher aspects, but one of the less obvious attractions of classic movies is the way even the most purely escapist romances, comedies, and melodramas can offer glimpses of real historical circumstances affecting everyday life at the time they were made.

One such reality, one that today's audiences may know little about and barely relate to at all, was the housing crisis in many of the country's cities during the war, most especially in Washington, D.C. Thousands of people were suddenly uprooted and relocated to urban areas and the environs of military bases and government operations for war service or defense industry work. At the same time, the war brought about a shortage of materials and personnel for building new housing. The result was overcrowding: people were forced to make unusual living arrangements, often with multiple occupants staying in a single room using the spaces in shifts.

This crisis, for those actually living it, was certainly no joke. It put a strain on relationships, family dynamics, civic institutions, and social services. You may pick up slight hints of those tensions and anxieties bubbling underneath The More the Merrier (1943), but Hollywood is playing the situation for humor and romance here. It's not the only film of the period to address the housing shortage, but it's generally considered the best.

Charles Coburn plays dollar-a-day man Benjamin Dingle. (There's another forgotten phenomenon of the time, the dollar-a-day man, a person doing voluntary government work who, by federal law, must be paid the minimal dollar per day.) He's a retired millionaire, newly arrived in Washington, who finds himself without a place to stay when circumstances change at the last minute. He manages to talk his way into renting a room from a reluctant office worker, Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), and then subletting half of it, without her knowledge, to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a young military man waiting to be assigned to his next post. Connie is furious at first but soon finds herself attracted to Joe, complicating her lingering engagement to a dull bureaucrat.

The film's basic premise--two men sharing an apartment and a single bathroom with a woman--brought some concerns from the Production Code Administration. The de facto censorship office also objected to the frequent use of the word "damn," even though it was repeated by Coburn quoting one of the most famous lines in U.S. history, attributed to naval hero Admiral David Farragut: "Damn the Torpedoes. Full speed ahead." Fiercely independent and ever-forceful producer-director George Stevens managed to get past all the objections, even inserting a scene of a bedtime conversation between Arthur and McCrea with only a thin wall between them so that it almost appears as if the two are in the same bed (a device used in the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman film Indiscreet, 1958).

This was Stevens' 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. The More the Merrier, then, represents the culmination of the first part of this acclaimed and influential director's career. After the war, his output of films decreased as he went in for what he felt were more serious subjects worthy of the emotional and intellectual changes he experienced during the war. Today, he is probably most revered for the "big" prestige pictures he turned out in the 1950s, the so-called American trilogy of A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), and Giant (1956). While those films were box office and critical successes in their day and considered treasured classics now, many critics feel that Stevens lost the intimacy and warmth of the comedies, romances, and adventures he made in the '30s and '40s.

Much has been made of Stevens' abiding interest throughout his career in the outsider figure, the person struggling to belong. This is an auterist take--finding that common thread through the work that marks a film distinctly as the creation of a single guiding directorial force. That's not necessarily an unwarranted approach to his career. He was known for taking his time with projects, working on those he most cared about, and exercising a great deal of control, even during the days of studio dominance over production. But a focus on this one element misses some of his other virtues, particularly in the early studio work and amply on display in this picture.

Stevens had a distinct feel for the relations between men and women, and he worked with some of the best screen couples in some of their most characteristic films: Astaire and Rogers in Swing Time (1936); Ginger Rogers with James Stewart in Vivacious Lady (1938); and Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade (1941). He had a special way with a romantic scene, creating several of the most intimate, even sexy, moments in classic Hollywood. Hepburn and Tracy (their first on-screen pairing) in the bar in Woman of the Year (1942) and Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in the "Tell Mama" party scene in A Place in the Sun are two of the best examples. Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea have such a scene in The More the Merrier, and it's a justly famous delight.

McCrea is walking Arthur home at night along the streets of Washington. They pass couples kissing and snuggling along the sidewalk, McCrea taking interest in them, Arthur trying not to notice. As she quizzes him about the women in his life, he slips his hand onto her arm, her shoulder, her back, and her half-hearted movements to extricate herself from his touch, juggling a fur wrap that at one point she lets slip off her shoulders to allow his hand against her bare skin, are beautifully choreographed and played.

When they reach her stoop, she begins to talk about her fiancé, an older gentleman with whom she boasts of a sensible relationship. McCrea's hands and lips, brushing against her, getting closer and closer, are obviously leading to something very much not sensible. Finally they kiss, and a flustered Arthur climbs the stairs to go into her apartment building (to the strains of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?"). She offers him a handshake good night, closes the door behind her, and he starts to walk off until he realizes that, in fact, he lives in her spare room. She opens the door to let him into the vestibule; they turn on the light and discover a hallway full of men sleeping on cots, grumbling about being disturbed. This sudden return to the film's comic premise--the housing crisis--is the perfect button to the quiet sensuality of the stoop scene.

This was the last film Stevens directed under a three-picture contract with Columbia that afforded him authority and control most Hollywood directors of the time could only dream about. Studio boss Harry Cohn was willing to let Stevens work without interference on The More the Merrier largely thanks to his two previous efforts for Columbia, which made money and garnered award attention (Best Actor Oscar nomination for Cary Grant on Penny Serenade and Best Picture, Writing, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, and Music nods for The Talk of the Town, 1942). The project, however, didn't originate with Stevens but with his star, Jean Arthur, one of the unlikeliest people ever to achieve and maintain major stardom over many years.

Shy, indecisive, scornful of most aspects of Hollywood, Arthur had earned a reputation for being difficult. It's one thing to be intensely private, as she was, and to refuse to cooperate with the industry's publicity machinery. It's quite another to waffle about projects for long periods of time, refuse to try approaches her directors asked of her, and vomit between scenes (as her three-time director Frank Capra alleged) due to extreme nervousness. By the 1940s, Arthur had been the top female at Columbia for several years, but she was getting on, at least by Hollywood standards (over 40 at the time of production, although she copped to a few years younger). She was already being supplanted in the favor of Cohn and audiences by the studio's newest star, her beautiful--and much younger--co-star in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Rita Hayworth. She knew she needed to do something to get back in good graces after having gone on frequent suspension for turning down numerous projects.

Arthur and then husband Frank Ross paid their friend Garson Kanin out of their own pockets to help them develop a story for her. The result was a script draft by Robert W. Russell based on Kanin's story "Two's a Crowd." Cohn liked it and put it into pre-production. Arthur was happy to be directed by Stevens for the second time. An admirer of Stevens' fierce independence and ability to coax winning performances from his actors, she had a good experience with him on The Talk of the Town. The feeling was mutual. He later said she was one of the most brilliant screen comediennes of her time.

She was also delighted the studio took her suggestion of a co-star, Joel McCrea, whose low-key style perfectly complimented her hesitant, nervous demeanor. McCrea later said in interviews that Arthur and Ross came to his ranch with two lilac plants and nine pages of the script, begging him to appear with her in what would be her final commitment under her Columbia contract. The actor was hesitant. Not one to enjoy non-stop work, he had already made three pictures that year (one more than his usual two) and wasn't in the mood for another. The always self-effacing McCrea also figured that if they weren't going for a bigger star, like Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, it must not be a very good role.

McCrea's fondness for Arthur, with whom he had co-starred in The Silver Horde (1930) and Adventure in Manhattan (1936), helped persuade him, as did Arthur's insistence that he would get along well with George Stevens. She was correct on that point. McCrea found the director to be one of the nicest people he ever worked with, trusting and respectful of all his cast and crew, and meticulous about turning out a good picture. So meticulous, in fact, that Harry Cohn, who by contract couldn't interfere with the production, reportedly asked McCrea why "that son of a bitch Stevens" was extending the production schedule and shooting so much film for multiple retakes of the same scene from different angles. McCrea claimed he told Cohn that Stevens was aiming for perfection, giving his actors the greatest confidence, and getting star performances out of them

The resulting picture delighted audiences and critics alike. The film got Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Actress (Arthur's only Oscar recognition), Original Story, Screenplay, and Director. Coburn won Best Supporting Actor for his second of three nominations (the first being his co-starring role with Arthur in The Devil and Miss Jones, 1943). Stevens won the New York Film Critics Circle award for his work.

Producer and Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster
Photography: Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Rudolph Sternad
Editor: Otto Meyer
Music: Leigh Harline
Principal cast: Jean Arthur (Connie Milligan), Joel McCrea (Joe Carter), Charles Coburn (Benjamin Dingle), Richard Gaines (Charles J. Pendergast), Bruce Bennett (Evans), Frank Sully (Pike), Don Douglas (Harding), Clyde Fillmore (Senator Noonan), Stanley Clements (Morton Rodakiewicz), Ann Savage (Miss Dalton).



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