Friday, October 16, 2020

The More the Merrier (1943)

 (This post is part of the The 120 "Screwball" Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema)

While Jean Arthur played a variety of roles in her career, she was perhaps best known for her work in comedy. She starred in three Frank Capra comedies,  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). She appeared in films directed by others as well, including The Whole Town's Talking (1935), The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), Easy Living (1937), and The Talk of the Town (1942). Among her most popular comedies is The More the Merrier (1943). What makes The More the Merrier unique among her comedies is that it actually originated with her.

The More the Merrier is set during World War II when there was a housing shortage in Washington, D.C. Millionaire Benjamin Dingle (played by Charles Coburn) is a millionaire working as what was called "a dollar-a-day man," an individual doing volunteer work for the Federal government. Since Federal law required such individuals be paid something, they were paid a dollar day, hence the origin of the term. Unfortunately, Mr. Dingle finds himself with any place to stay when he arrives in Washington. Fortunately, he manages to convince Connie Milligan (played by Jean Arthur) to rent him a room. Complications arise when Mr. Dingle sublets his room to Sergeant Joe Carter (played by Joel McCrea), who also had no place to stay.

While Jean Arthur had been one of Columbia's top stars for years, her relationship with the studio was often tumultuous. Columbia suspended her multiple times for refusing various projects, It was during one of her suspensions that Miss Arthur and her husband Frank Ross met their friend Garson Kanin, the playwright and screenwriter who was then serving in the U.S. Army and stationed in New Jersey. Mr. Kanin was short on money and so he offered to write a script for Miss Arthur. Jean Arthur and Frank Ross then agreed to pay Garson Kanin $25,000 for the script. To assuage any of Columbia head Harry Cohn's unpleasant feelings regarding Miss Arthur, they would offer it to him for free. It was after a visit to Washington, D.C. that Garson Kanin and up and coming screenwriter Robert W. Russell came up with the concept a story called Two's a Crowd.

Fortunately for Jean Athur, Frank Ross, Garson Kanin, and Robert W. Russell, Harry Cohn liked Two's a Crowd and accepted it. He assigned George Stevens to direct the film. Mr. Stevens had a three-film contract with Columbia. He had directed Penny Serenade (1941) and Talk of the Town (1942) for the studio. The More the Merrier would be the third film on that contract. It would also be the last film Mr. Stevens would direct before joining the U.S. Army Signal Corps and heading the U.S. Army film unit from 1943 to 1946.

As might be expected given its premise, the Production Code Administration (PCA) had concerns about The More the Merrier. Strangely enough, one of those concerns was that "nothing suggestive of homosexuality," referencing Mr. Dingle and Sgt. Carter sharing a room and a bathroom together. Among the PCA's many other suggestions were that Mr. Dingle should not be seen entering the bathroom "when Connie is in it," Sgt. Carter should be seen "strictly in his B.V.Ds., and Connie should never be seen in a nightgown. The PCA also objected to the line, "Damn the torpedoes," even though it was a quote from Admiral David Farragut, a hero of the American Civil War. Fortunately, George Stevens was able to get around many of PCA's objections.

While Garson Kanin and Robert W Russell had titled their story, Two's a Crowd, a number of titles were considered, including Washington Story, Love is Patriotic, Full Steam Ahead, and Come One, Come All. Eventually Merry-Go-Round was settled upon. The title was changed to The More the Merrier after an interoffice memo informed director George Stevens that "certain quarters in Washington" found the title Merry-Go-Round objectionable.

The More the Merrier received overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release. The film also did well at the box office. Ultimately, Charles Coburn would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dingle in the movie. The More the Merrier also picked up several Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress in a Leading Role for Jean Arthur; Best Picture; Best Director for George Stevens; Best Writing, Original Story; and Best Writing, Screenplay.

Since its initial release, The More the Merrier has remained one of Jean Arthur's most popular and well-regarded movies. At the review-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, the movie maintains a 94% rating. While some of her other movies might be better known (namely Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), for many classic movie fans The More the Merrier remains their favourite Jean Arthur film.  


Virginie Pronovost said...

Thanks for this great and highly informative review of a film that has, indeed, many admirers among classic film fans, Terence. There's something quite unique about it and, in my opinion, one of its top quality is that it mixes perfectly romance and comedy. Thank you so much for taking part in my blogathon!

Flapper Dame 16 said...

I always have loved this movie from the minute I watched it! Jean and Joel should have been a super-couple on screen doing way more movies than they actually did!

Rebecca Deniston said...

This movie is awesome--it's a shame it's not more well-known.