The More The Merrier – George Stevens
World War II brought a dramatic change to the life-styles of many Americans who were still recovering from the ravages of the Great Depression. Most found the intrusion of war into their daily lives a considerable hardship to face; nevertheless, the American people persevered and set to work winning the war, just as they had conquered the Depression and returned to prosperity. As American life on the home front changed, one manifestation of Hollywood’s reaction was a curious subgenre of film—pictures dealing with conditions in wartime Washington. In some cases, filmmakers concentrated on melodrama, such as Fox’s 1942 production of Careful—Soft Shoulders, in which a Washington debutante, bored with society life, took up spying. In others, the issue of housing problems set the stage; RKO contributed Government Girl (1943) with Olivia de Havilland; Paramount’s Standing Room Only (1944) had stars Paulette Goddard and Fred MacMurray taking jobs as servants in order to have places to live; and even Universal, turning out dozens of “B” pictures, managed to squeeze the housing problem into a tuneful little gem like Get Going (1943).
The best of the films taking place in wartime Washington, however, was Columbia’s The More the Merrier directed by comedy ace George Stevens and starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn. Four writers—Richard Flournoy, Lewis Foster, Robert Russell, and Frank Ross—were credited with the original screenplay, leading one to believe that perhaps the best elements of two or three treatments were probably combined for the finished product. Stevens gave the film an “A” production, and Jean Arthur, as one of Columbia’s top stars, lent valuable audience appeal to the property. Viewed historically from afar, of course, the concept dates poorly; housing shortages related to wartime seem a thing of the past, and many younger Americans of the postatomic age have difficulty comprehending the climate of past times. Nonetheless, The More the Merrier holds up quite well in a comic sense, and is arguably Stevens’ finest comedy.
Working girl Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) lives in Washington and, against her better judgment, makes her sacrifice to the war effort by renting half of her apartment to distinguished, elderly Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn)—who bills himself as a “retired, well-to-do millionaire” in Washington on business. Dingle, obviously unaccustomed to the fast pace Connie is forced to keep, is experiencing a great deal of difficulty in keeping up with her schedules, designed to keep the two people out of each other’s way. In one memorable sequence, the befuddled Dingle tries to remove his bathrobe while holding a hot coffee pot, managing to spill most of the coffee into the bath water. Later, still hurried, he makes his bed with his pants inside.
As if matters are not complicated enough, Dingle rents half of his half of the apartment to Army sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), who is in town on special duty. This infuriates Connie, who is finding it difficult enough to share the apartment with one man. Dingle, however, sees in Joe an ideal man for Connie, who is already engaged to Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines), a rather pompous and bland government official. He convinces Connie to try the situation, and she agrees to let Joe stay for a one-week trial period. All appears to go smoothly for a short time, but then Connie discovers Mr. Dingle reading her diary; terribly upset at her lack of privacy, she asks him to leave, and to take Joe with him. The next morning Dingle leaves, but Joe remains behind, convincing Connie to let him stay. Joe, previously having professed to have little interest in women, is becoming very fond of Connie.
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