[Middle-aged businessman Benjamin Dingle is trying to convince Connie Milligan to sublet her apartment to him instead of to a woman]
Connie [played by Jean Arthur]: “I've made up my mind to rent to nobody but a woman.”
Benjamin Dingle [played by Charles Coburn]: “So, let me ask you something. Would I ever want to wear your stockings?”
Benjamin: “Well, all right. Would I ever want to borrow your girdle, or your red and yellow dancing slippers?”
Connie: “Of course not.”
Benjamin: “Well, any woman, no matter who, would insist upon borrowing that dress you got on right now. You know why? Because it's so pretty.”
Connie: “I made it myself.”
Benjamin: “And how would you like it if she spilled a cocktail all over it... at a party you couldn't go with her to because she borrowed it to go to it... in?”
Connie: “She might have something that I could wear.”
Benjamin: “Not her.”
Connie: “Why not?”
Benjamin: “Because she's so dumpy looking. Never has anything clean. That's why she's always borrowing your dresses.”
Connie: “How do I know you'd be any better?”
Benjamin: [spinning around and patting the clothes he has on] “Well, look at me. I'm neat, like a pin. Ah, let me stay!”
Connie: “Well, look, I...”
Benjamin: “I tell you what. We'll try it out for a week. End of the week comes, if you're not happy, we'll flip a coin to see who moves out.”— The More the Merrier (1943), screenplay by Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy, and Lewis R. Foster, directed by George Stevens
Seventy-five years ago this week, the warm and witty wartime comedy The More the Merrier was released in U.S. theaters. The script took its cue from the housing crisis then occurring in Washington, D.C., as this once-sleepy peacetime Southern town was transformed virtually overnight into the epicenter of the national-security complex. (For a valuable nonfiction account of this situation, see journalist David Brinkley’s history-memoir, Washington Goes to War.)
This crisis has shut industrialist Benjamin Dingle out of the capital’s hotels, landing him on the doorstep of Connie Milligan. Much against her inclination to sublet her apartment to another woman, she yields to his pleading—and is annoyed when he turns around and sublets his part of the apartment to another male, the more taciturn, taller, younger, and better looking Joe Carter (Joel McCrea).
The film was created as a vehicle for Jean Arthur, who did indeed come away with her only Oscar nomination in her accomplished career. (You can see my account of a last, sad coda to her retirement years—her abortive role in the theatrical run of the Supreme Court comedy First Monday in October—in this post.) It didn’t hurt that one of the writers was her then-husband, Frank Ross.
But Charles Coburn was the actor who actually emerged with the Academy Award (Best Supporting Actor). You can see why in the above passage: He got the best lines, all establishing quickly and hilariously how Dingell became such a well-heeled industrialist—a combination of wheedling persuasiveness with unstoppable energy. Coburn might have received secondary billing to Arthur and McCrea, but his avuncular character instigated most of the action in the script.
No account of the success of the movie should fail to mention the contribution of director George Stevens, who choreographed the most memorable scene in the film: a five-minute walk by Arthur and McCrea to her doorstep, marked by diversions, put-offs, stumbling, his hand touching her arm and back, her fur wrap nudged up toward her bare shoulder, each step punctuated by a hilarious delay, until the payoff—a kiss that sent the audience that saw it with me in a New York revival house three decades ago cheering lustily. (See this YouTube clip for this example of the marvelous chemistry Stevens realized between his co-stars.)
Over the years, I’ve grown increasingly to appreciate McCrea as an underrated but versatile leading man. But the great reason to see The More the Merrier for me has always been Arthur. While what she called her “foghorn” voice signaled alternating currents of strength and vulnerability, her face and eyes radiated a warmth and tenderness that made her career girls well worth the effort of winning in romantic comedies of the Thirties and Forties (especially in the films of Frank Capra).
After Arthur’s death in 1991, film critic Charles Champlin wrote this tribute in the Los Angeles Times:
“To at least one teenager in a small town (though I'm sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be – ought to be – judged by her spirit as well as her beauty. … The notion of the woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur.”
Two decades after the release of The More the Merrier, Hollywood remade this classic as Walk, Don’t Run, based on a different, more recent housing shortage: at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Walk, Don’t Run didn’t fare as well as The More the Merrier, even with the ageless and incomparable Cary Grant taking over Coburn’s role as the comical older man among the trio in the overcrowded apartment.
Not only were leads Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton unable to match the box-office appeal of Arthur and McCrea, but I suspect that audiences wanted a different ending for Grant in what proved to be his cinematic swan song: Rather than gracefully yielding to youth, sweeping the “girl” away himself—even though, with a nearly 40-year age gap between him and Eggar, such an outcome would not only seem improbable but even dicey.