More The Merrier, The (1943): George Stevens Oscar-Nominated Screwball Comedy Starring Jean Arthur

“The More the Merrier” is the last movie George Stevens made before his WWII service, an experience that changed the course of his career. After the War, his movies became more earnest and somber (See evaluation of his career). Using the wartime housing conditions in Washington DC as a premise, the comedy was timely when released, though what we remember the most is Stevens’ light touch and the luminous performances of the three leads, particularly Jean Arthur.

Vet character actor Charles Coburn plays a daffy old gentleman named Mr. Dingle, a retired businessman who persuades Connie (Jean Arthur), a young office worker in crowded Washington, to rent him a room in her apartment. Once he gets to know her, he’s determined to terminate her lonesomeness by finding her a husband. Unbeknownst to Connie, Mr. Dingle rents half of his room to an aviation expert, Joe (Joel McCrea), a handsome, eligible man.

As expected, many farcical complications and confusing incidents ensue in a comedy that gives a new meaning to the concept mnage a trois. There’s an interesting thematic similarity between “The More the Merrier” and Stevens’ previous comedy, “The Talk of the Town,” which also features a mnage a trios, with Arthur as the center of a triangle whose members are Ronald Colman and Cary Grant. Both comedies are about people forced to live in the same tight quarters against their wills but then learning to like it.

We ignore the fact that it’s never explained how Connie got her four-room apartment in the first place and instead enjoy the romantic fable about American resourcefulness, or as Mr. Dingle says, “No matter how tough conditions are, they are cozy.” “The More the Merrier,” like other classic comedies, is lively, charming, casually sophisticated, and well paced.

The movie is perfectly cast. Arthur plays with customary spiritedness and charm a prim and proper civil servant, a stickler for system, who’s half-heartedly engaged to Mr. Pendergast, a stiff who at 42 is “the youngest man to occupy the position of assistant regional coordinator.” One of my favorite scenes is when Connie asks Joe, “Don’t you ever brush your hair” Touching his full, thick hair, Joe remarks, “I suppose Mr. Pendergast combs his hair every hour on the hour.” After a brief pause, Connie says rather coldly, “Mr. Pendergast has no hair!”

The film’s most memorable and remarked upon scene is set during a summer night. Connie reluctantly sits down on the front steps of her apartment building, talking endlessly to Joe. He begins to touch her cape and she pretends to ignore it though she doesn’t resist. Embarrassed by her feelings, Connie tries to conceal her desire with more talk. The couple then begins to nuzzle. In a masterly touch, Stevens keeps the camera on the duo, building and prolonging the gag until it achieves its erotic possibilities.

“The More the Merrier” was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Original Story (Frank Ross and Robert Russell), Script (Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster, Frank Ross, and Robert Russell), Best Actress, and Supporting Actor (the only category in which it won). The big Oscar winner that year was “Casablanca,” which took Picture, Director (Michael Curtis), and Script (Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch). Russell and Ross (who was then married to Arthur) lost the Oscar to William Saroyan (“The Human Comedy”).

Though Arthur was an accomplished comedienne, having appeared in a number of classics, including “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Easy Living,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” she was nominated just once; the winner was Jennifer Jones, for “The Song of Bernadette.” Arthur, who began her career in the silent era in her teens, not only survived but also benefited from the transition to sound because of her distinctive voice. Her fans still lament her early retirement from acting: Arthur last big-screen appearance was in Stevens’ “Shane” (1953).

As the elderly cupid, Coburn is the comical crux of the film. Mr. Dingle wants to see that two youngsters share some moments of happiness. Often cast as Englishman, Coburn was actually a southern American. Typecast as a lovable grandfatherly type, Coburn is best known for memorable roles in two Marilyn Monroe pictures: “Monkey Business” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.”

“The More the Merrier” was remade in 1966 as “Walk, Don’t Run,” switching the housing shortage from Wartime Washington to Tokyo during the Olympics. It’s a weak remake, better known today as the very last film of Cary Grant.