The More the Merrier (1943) is a pleasant romantic comedy that uses the real-life wartime housing shortage as a jumping off point for its sweet if well-worn matchmaking story. The picture marked director George Stevens's last comedy before switching almost exclusively to weighty, epic drama, and while neither the dialogue nor most of its situations live up to their full potential, Stevens' assured direction and the considerable charm of its three great stars really make it hum.
In Washington, D.C., where housing is at an especially high premium, old millionaire Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) is in town to address the housing shortage. Unable to check-in early at his hotel, Dingle talks his way into sharing Connie Milligan's (Jean Arthur) apartment, though she's very resistant to the idea. Their awkward living arrangement -- she's reticent and regimented, he's gregarious and leisurely -- is further complicated when, without asking Connie, Dingle invites serviceman Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) to share his room.
Eventually, it becomes clear to the audience (but not to Connie and Joe) that Dingle is playing matchmaker, trying to bring lonely if long-engaged Connie and good-natured Joe together.
The screenplay, probably written chiefly by Blondie series writer Richard Flournoy and Lewis Foster, is good but not exceptional. An unlikely set-up is made plausible thanks to true-to-life circumstances and played through to its natural conclusion. There's some good lines here and there, mostly little gems that enrich its characters: one scene has Dingle and Joe pouring over the Sunday comics page, reading Dick Tracy. When Connie asks if there isn't something more productive they might be doing, Dingle counters, "I missed two Sundays with Superman once. And I've never felt right since."
Coburn, a delight, was a very popular character actor often used to prop up weak material, most frequently as a Southern gentleman or statesman. But his aged, puffy face also projected a kind of dignified slyness, and he was best when playing a kind of silver fox manipulating those around him: He was great in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve and later in Howard Hawks' Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1952). Even by 1943 the old, eccentric matchmaker had become a Hollywood cliche -- Charles Laughton, for instance, had played virtually the same part in It Started with Eve only two years before -- but Coburn gives it a subtlety lacking in Laughton's performance, and Coburn deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year.
As often happens in home video, The More the Merrier's remake was actually released to DVD first. The not-bad Walk Don't Run (1964) cleverly moved the setting to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, though it failed to take full advantage of that locale and its culture. (The crampness of Japanese living space is never an issue, for example.) That film was seen mainly as a vehicle for Cary Grant, cast in Coburn's part, in what turned out to be his last film. But where Grant completely dominates Walk Don't Run over co-stars Jim Hutton and Samantha Eggar, Coburn fades into the background during The More the Merrier's second half, and the picture turns to the luminous Jean Arthur.
Arthur, pushing 45 when the film was made, always projected a wonderful balance of strength and vulnerability. Her unique, instantly recognizable voice also contributed to this, a facet of her persona carried over to more recent stars who have more or less followed in her footsteps, notably Mary Steenburgen and Renee Zellweger. No mention is made of Arthur's age, but by implication Connie is something of an old maid, which is subtly incorporated into the character (and would be again, in Billy Wilder's excellent A Foreign Affair).
Connie deceives herself into thinking she's happy living alone, engaged to a cold fish of a man (Richard Gaines, wearing an amusingly bad toupee) with a steady if bland career (he makes $8,600/year!). In refusing to admit her loneliness, Connie's built psychological walls around her as a means of protection. When Dingle and Joe literally invade her space, she feels threatened and the walls physically manifest themselves in scenes where Connie listens to the men through a thin bedroom wall. In the film's best scene, she shares an intimate, sweetly romantic conversation with Joe, even though the wall separates them.
The great Joel McCrea, an actor superb in several different genres, smartly keeps a low profile here, letting Arthur and Coburn dominate their scenes together. He was no slouch, as his hilarious, often sexy scenes with Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story (1942) prove, but in The More the Merrier he mostly defers to his co-stars. Both stars are well cast: Arthur and McCrea are attractive but not glamorous, and believable as ordinary people.
In a way it's a shame Stevens abandoned comedy for pictures like A Place in the Sun (1951) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Though he was merely changing with the times, Stevens knew how to milk comic and romantic situations cinematically, a rare talent.
Video & Audio
The More the Merrier gets off to a bad start, with opening titles so dog-eared and filled with scratches as to suggest something from the bottom-feeders at Alpha Video. The picture pops back into acceptability afterwards but then gets bad again for several seconds around the 5:50 and 8:15 mark. All this suggest a composite source; most of the film looks fine, but throughout, especially at the beginning and ends of reels and during dissolves, that the image is frequently warped, scratched and splicy. After Columbia's heavy investment in colorization, one assumes there wasn't any money left to fix the mostly fixable flaws here. With a suggested retail price of $24.96, the label is also cheaping out in other ways. There are no alternate audio or optional subtitles, and the only Extra Feature is a batch of unrelated trailers even though, among other things, George Stevens, Jr. has maintained a voluminous archive of his father's long career.
For the record, the trailers (accessible only as "Play Previews") are From Here to Eternity (4:3 but clearly meant for widescreen cropping), You Were Never Lovelier, and You'll Never Get Rich, the latter so spot-filled it appears to be suffering from chicken pox.
The More the Merrier is a near-great romantic comedy thanks to the fine direction of George Stevens and especially its delightful performances. It's a shame that Columbia/TriStar has dumped this as a no-frills release (imagine if Criterion gave this the same care it gave Sullivan's Travels), but even a bare-bones release is better than none at all.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.