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The More the Merrier

The More the Merrier
Columbia TriStar
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 104 min. / Street Date November 2, 2004 / 24.96
Starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn, Richard Gaines
Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction Lionel Banks, Rudolph Sternad
Film Editor Otto Meyer
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster and (uncredited) Garson Kanin
Produced and Directed by George Stevens

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 fatale of 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: promo trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 7, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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