Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The More the Merrier is one of the most satisfying romantic comedies to come out of the war
years. It uses tight wartime wartime housing conditions to cleverly sidestep the production code.
Hotel space and rooms to rent in the nation's capitol were so scarce that people obviously had
to make unorthodox living arrangements. What a perfect way to squeeze an unmarried couple into
the same small apartment - even if an older man is along as a chaperone.
Working from an excellent script (reportedly co-written without credit by Garson Kanin), ace director
George Stevens is in top form and coaxes terrific
performances from his actors. Joel McCrea is even more charming than in his Preston Sturges movies,
and Jean Arthur would make any man fall in love. Together they spark a lot of pleasurable, nervous
passion. Usually playing villains (King's Row) or fuddy-duddies (Gentlemen Prefer
Blondes), Charles Coburn almost steals the show as a mischievous matchmaker.
The wartime housing crunch in Washington D.C. makes getting a room nigh impossible,
so "Damn the Torpedoes" millionaire-lobbyist Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) bulls his way into
cohabiting with a local secretary, Constance Milligan (Jean Arthur), who meant to hold out for
a female roommate. Once ensconced, Dingle sublets his half of the apartment to Joe Carter (Joel
McCrea), an Army sergeant who will soon be leaving the country on an unspecified mission. Like
a superannuated Cupid, Benjamin is determined to get the young couple together, which means prying
Connie away from her stuffy fiancée, Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines).
If The More the Merrier seems slightly familiar, it was remade twenty years later as
Walk, Don't Run, Cary Grant's
swansong film. The Tokyo Olympics housing crunch stood in for the scarcity of rooms in Washington
during the war. But George Stevens' picture is superior in all departments, a movie that makes
finding even the slightest flaw a difficult task. Perhaps the reason it's not shown on television
much is one topical joke where hero McCrea makes reference to 'Japs' spying in the capitol.
The characters are almost sublime. Pushy but lovable Dingle cheats to become Milligan's tenant.
He has no qualms about nosing into her affairs to the extreme of bringing in a second unwanted
roommate, the "high-type clean cut nice young fellow" Carter. The two 'boys' are initially a pain
but Milligan soon warms up to them, especially Carter, and in no time at all her bigshot bureaucrat
fiancée is history. The best thing she can find to say about Pendergast is his impressive
yearly salary ($8,600!). When asked for his first name she replies "Charles J." The script makes
all three roommates very nice people but gives them distinctive speech patterns, with Dingle in
particular mangling his syntax to amusing effect. As pointed out by Richard Corliss in his book
Talking Pictures, Milligan's defection from Pendergast to Carter is cued by the change
in her diction, when she drops her fiancée's high tone to converse in the common trenches
with her bunk mates.
Stevens started as the main cameraman for Laurel & Hardy short subjects in the twenties, and a big
chunk of The More the Merrier makes good use of the same kind of gentle slapstick. The
morning routine in Milligan's apartment is disrupted by people getting locked out, coffee pots in the
shower and a pair of pants that boomerangs out a window. We delight in seeing the boyish flush on
Charles Coburn's face (he won the best supporting actor for the role), hearing Jean Arthur's voice
break up into squeaky sobs, or watching Joel McCrea's expression darken as his big date with his
landlady is SNAFU'd by a teenage troublemaker from downstairs.
When the movie decides to get sexy it generates a lot of heat. The script takes advantage of the
8-to-1 female to male ratio in D.C. to show a crowd of women harassing a
lone man foolish enough to walk by their time clock line. Milligan's single girlfriends
buzz like flies around the attractive Carter (one of them is Ann Savage, famous as the femme
Detour). Milligan and Carter
sleep on opposite sides of a paper-thin wall, a technically chaste evasion of the production code.
The scene is identical to the split-screen effect later 'invented' for Pillow Talk. When
their attraction becomes undeniable, there's a great scene on a stoop where Carter keeps touching
and reaching for Milligan. She's kept busy countering his moves, but is not exactly resisting
either. It's terrific hot-date stuff.
The More the Merrier gives a major boost to the idea of young boys being shipped overseas
getting something going with a girl as fast as they possibly can, a sentiment that probably didn't
jibe with official policy. When the FBI and the Army get involved in the plot developments,
the writers and Stevens have the nerve to belittle wartime security red tape. Some wartime movies
displayed a refreshing independent spirit despite all of the jingoistic rhetoric.
It's hard to believe that Jean Arthur's film career would be over just four movies
later. She's 43 in The More the Merrier but could easily pass for under 30. Stevens coaxed
her back for Shane but her last chosen role was in
Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair where she played a stuffy and unglamorous congresswoman
upstaged by the stylish Marlene Dietrich. Perhaps this is where critics got the idea that Wilder
was a brutal lout with his leading ladies. The More the Merrier is her last real romantic
lead, and one of her best.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of The More the Merrier looks fine, with only a few seconds where
source damage causes the image to become unstable. The sound is good also but there is a
dialogue line or two that are hard to make out. Surprisingly for Columbia, there are no subtitles,
not even English ones (but there is closed-captioning). The only extra are the usual vintage
trailers for From Here to Eternity and a couple of Fred Astaire musicals.
The packaging lists the film's impressive six Academy nominations, among them Best Picture. It
also overstresses the film's "roomers and rumors" theme and uses an irrelevant photo of Arthur
posed in a negligée as if she were Rita Hayworth.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The More the Merrier rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: promo trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 7, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson