A fellow classic film enthusiast lent me her copy of The More the Merrier which I found awesome and coincidental because it was on my TCM Top 12 way back in November. The More the Merrier is another housing shortage film and I can’t seem to get enough of them. Much like Apartment for Peggy, we follow a young couple falling in love alongside a domineering older man who causes personal kerfluffles along the way. The More the Merrier veers a bit too much into improbability in the third act, but the comedic stylings of Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn turn this into a frothy romantic adventure you’ll want to move in with!
Benjamin Dingle (Coburn) is looking for a place to stay in Washington, D.C. and tricks his way into renting the spare bedroom of single lady, Connie Milligan (Arthur). Complicating matters further, Dingle decides to rent out said room to a single man named Joe Carter (McCrea) and ends up playing Cupid along the way.
I’ve reviewed at least two movies focused on the housing shortage of WWII, Love Nest and Apartment for Peggy; Love Nest was a dull affair, but Apartment for Peggy was a sparkling romantic comedy. I can’t explain why these movies appeal to me. My disregard for war movies is well-known, but subgenre focuses on the domestic element of the war, as well as allowing women to sit at the front of their stories. The protectors of house and home aren’t the best roles for women, but considering WWII movies were regarded for their machismo, it’s intriguing to watch how women worked through the troubles of the war, especially with housing being so hard to come by. The war ended two years after this movie and the documentary opening of the film introduces, and shatters, the belief that all is well in the US of A. For all the narrator’s talk of civility and manners there’s overcrowding and a general distrust for people. In fact, Connie’s fear of renting her room to Mr. Dingle is relevant today; the idea of renting out a room’s in one’s house to a man you don’t know. Of course, Mr. Dingle’s intentions are entirely innocent and result in everyone’s life turning upside down.
You’d assume Charles Coburn is the lead, and you’d be wrong. He’s introduced first and proves his darling selfishness by tricking all the prospective renters of Connie’s room to leave under the guise he owns the apartment and has already rented it out. He even turns away a family with children because Mr. Dingle gets what he wants. A sly nod by director George Stevens telling you not to like Mr. Dingle, but that you will by the end? Later on, he makes a deal with Connie that if she doesn’t like living with him “We’ll flip a coin to see who moves out!” Oddly enough, he moves out halfway through the movie to draw Joe and Connie closer together. He returns towards the third act to complicate the plot, but he’s superfluous by then. Charles Coburn is delightful as the lovably arrogant Benjamin Dingle. As mentioned previously, when he sends that family packing you should despise him, and it would be easy for Coburn to play the curmudgeon whose heart is changed by the woman he lives with. Instead, the plot reverses the formula, making Dingle the rascal who compels Connie to fall in love. Throughout, Dingle is the smart aleck 8-year-old living in an old man’s body (complete with tendency to read your diary).
“Most of the trouble in the world starts from people lying to people.” Does Mr. Dingle hit the nail on the head or what? There are a few moments where elements are gotten to purely to further the plot. Joe and Connie’s introduction is funny, but is a comedy of unnecessary errors. Why does Joe take to howling in the shower? Because there’s no other way to alert Connie to his presence. No man would mimic the sound of a dying dog in the shower (at least none I know) and for the movie’s authenticity preceding it, it comes off as incredibly hokey. Even worse, the third act revolves around fears Joe’s a Japanese spy, a thread only included to marry the couple. Again, there’s so much amazing naturalistic comedy that there’s little reason to resort to tactics pulled from a comic book. The spy plot, especially, dates the movie more than anything.
Thankfully, the script contains enough comedy for the actors to pull it off so you forget the flaws of the movie. Connie Milligan is the type of woman the opening narrator dreams of: conservative, polite, and overly pragmatic with a schedule planning her day to the second. My prior Jean Arthur filmic experiences were her turns as ditzy socialites in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford and Too Many Husbands. As Connie Milligan, Arthur is down-to-Earth but still able to elevate her voice into a high register when things get tough. She calls out Mr. Dingle for his flaws just as he calls her out for hers, and their first morning together is comedic gold you identify with. Fast forward to the three-minute mark to see what I mean.
The movie’s second half is a plain romantic comedy between Arthur’s Connie and McCrea’s Joe. Joel McCrea was good in Sullivan’s Travels, but he’s magnetic as the average Joe (literally) of the film. I was mesmerized by his ability to seduce Connie (and me!) with a simple “You look nice.” The two characters are made for each other, as evidenced by their dancing to the same music, and the addition of a fiancée for Connie is, again, a device instigating conflict and easily removed during the hokey climax. A tender moment when Connie and Joe talk to each other through the walls is steamy, especially when the movie goes into split-screen, the wall gauzy and barely perceptible, to give you the belief these two characters are lying in the same bed. George Stevens certainly knew how to skirt around the Production Code!
Joe appears in the know about the ridiculousness of the spy twist, proving this movie is self-aware of the conventions of the period and makes the best of them. The More the Merrier lives up to the title as the more characters there are, the higher the comedy goes. The trio of Coburn, Arthur, and McCrea is dazzling and this is easily the best movie about the housing shortage I’ve encountered.
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