The More the Merrier (1943)
Happy National Classic Movie Day! This post is my contribution to the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of this inaugural holiday on May 16, 2015. The blogathon is hosted by the great site Classic Film and TV Cafe, and you can click here to view the schedule listing all the posts in this blogathon.
I love this movie. Absolutely adore it. I can watch it over and over again, and I laugh at all the same jokes, and swoon at all the same swoon-worthy moments. You should have heard me laughing out loud as I worked on this post!
It was a pleasure and an honor to work on this review, and not just because I enjoy this movie so much. I was able to talk to Joel McCrea’s son Peter, who also gave me access to transcripts of interviews he conducted with his dad. How amazing is that?!
So between lots of images from the movie (it was terribly difficult to restrain myself as I want to share just about every moment with you) and the normal behind-the-scenes tidbits, I’ll also be sharing Joel McCrea‘s recollections of this film. (Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from the interviews Peter McCrea conducted.)
Before we begin, though, fair warning! First, Jean Arthur never appears in that striped two-piece she wears on the poster. Second, the plot hinges on a rather old-fashioned conflict that can seem silly today, so if you can’t put yourself in a 1940s mindset, you may miss some of the comic loveliness of the film. And that would be a shame! Please don’t miss Jean Arthur being adorable and scandalized (but not really), or Charles Coburn being maddeningly officious and immune to reason, or the wonderful, ironic, funny opening of this film!
But mostly, it would be a shame to miss this handsome, funny man being handsome, funny, and magnificently understated, awkward, and ordinary in one of my favorite performances of his career. It’s Joel McCrea of Barbary Coast, The Palm Beach Story, Foreign Correspondent, The Most Dangerous Game, Sullivan’s Travels, and Primrose Path.
Jean Arthur got the ball rolling on the film. She asked her friend and screenwriter Garson Kanin to turn his short story “Two’s a Crowd” into a script, with the help of Robert Russell and Frank Ross, Arthur’s husband. Arthur needed a movie to finish out her contract with Columbia (as I mentioned in my Easy Living review, Arthur’s relationship with Columbia and studio head Harry Cohn was often strained and rarely easy.)
From the very beginning of this project, Arthur wanted Joel McCrea as her romantic co-star. What a smart woman! According to McCrea’s interviews, Arthur and her husband visited the McCrea ranch with two lilac plants and nine pages of what became The More the Merrier. “She said, ‘Joel, you’ve got to do this picture with me.’ She begged me. ‘This is the last commitment I have with Harry Cohn and I want to get away from him…So, if you’ll do this picture you’ll do me a great favor and you’ll go wild about George Stevens and he will about you. You’ve got to do it.'”
McCrea didn’t want to make any more films that year (The More the Merrier began filming in September of 1942) since he usually only made two movies per year and had already shot three.
Besides being tired, McCrea was hesitant to make the picture for another reason. Even though he was a star, McCrea consistently underplayed his popularity and ability, and he remembered thinking, “I had an idea that maybe they were interested in me because it wasn’t going to be such a good part. That’s why they didn’t get Cooper or Cary Grant.” He wanted to make sure it was a good part before agreeing to make it.
McCrea viewed his movie career with a pragmatic, businesslike perspective without much awed ambition for “stardom.” He was conscious of his image, of box office success/failure, studio politics, and what made a good movie, as well as the damage a bad film could inflict on a career. When choosing a role, he said “I always stick first with the director, then try and get with a girl that was better than I was, like Merle Oberon or Miriam Hopkins, so that you came in on the gravy train with all the draw they had. I did it as a business. I wanted it to make my living, and it did fairly well.”
When McCrea went to meet with Stevens, the director asked him why he didn’t want to make the movie. McCrea answered, “Well, I’ve seen some of your work and I’d like to work with you, but I’m kind of tired. You can get a guy that’s full of piss and vinegar.”
Stevens said, “You will be,” and went on to persuade him: “Look, you’ve got to make this picture. I have to make it. Jean has to make it. We have to do it. We’ll get Charlie Coburn for the older guy.” McCrea liked Stevens and “knew [he] could count on him.” He left the meeting thinking, “Well, I’ve got to do the picture.”
Jean Arthur told McCrea that he and George Stevens would be fast friends, and she was right. They quickly bonded over their shared history in early Hollywood. Stevens had worked his way up to assistant cameraman, then lead cinematographer, then director of Laurel and Hardy films before making it big as a director in the mid-1930s. McCrea had also started film work (as an extra) in the silent era, so he and Stevens loved to share stories of the early days of Hollywood.
They also shared an interest in westerns; Stevens showed McCrea photographs of himself building corrals for Rex, “King of the Wild Horses” who starred in film serials in the 1920s and 1930s. McCrea was a cowboy/rancher at heart, and he originally got into movies because it was the fastest way to earn enough money to buy a ranch! McCrea eventually amassed a three-thousand acre working ranch, and thought of himself as a rancher with an acting “hobby!”
After talking with Stevens, McCrea’s next stop was Columbia’s front office. He met with Ben “BB” Kahane, a vice-president at the studio, to discuss his contract. It was a particularly satisfying meeting for McCrea, since ten years previously, Kahane, then at RKO, had decided not to give McCrea a contract with that studio. As McCrea remembered, at RKO “[I] was answering to him. Now he’s answering to me.”
Kahane told McCrea: “I was just looking over your contract. Do you realize that I turned you down at $1,000 a week; you’re now getting $10,000 a week?” McCrea’s answer: “That’s just kind of the way she flows…You never know. I might not have even been up for this picture, but you happen to have a girl who wants either me or Gary Cooper for any picture she would do.”
Arthur and McCrea had been paired on 1930’s The Silver Horde (only McCrea’s second leading role), and 1936’s Adventure in Manhattan. Fortunately for McCrea, (and for us), Jean Arthur really liked working with McCrea and Gary Cooper, and she had enough pull at Columbia to get her way. She’d worked with Coburn before, too, on The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).
The cast was set, and McCrea was excited: “We made some tests with Jean and Charlie Coburn. Now we were a foursome; there really was a rapport.”
“The great thing was that we all did better because George gave us such confidence. You knew that if it took five years, he was going to make it and do it right. He would never bore you. He would always add something. He would always do something.”
“All the technicians liked him. Teddy Tetzlaff, the cameraman, knew George would seldom ever have to look through the camera…He trusted Ted and he knew what he’d get.” (That “Teddy Tetzlaff” is the same cinematographer from Hands Across the Table, Love Before Breakfast, The Princess Comes Across, Easy Living, My Man Godfrey, and Notorious.)
McCrea also recalled that George Stevens “was one of the nicest guys to work with. There wasn’t anybody he took advantage of, nobody that he yelled at like a poor prop man or a poor wardrobe man or somebody. He was good to everybody, and good for everybody. He brought the best out of everybody, Cary, Irene Dunne, everybody.”
To the film! The More the Merrier opens with a faux travelogue of bustling Washington, D.C. The slightly pompous voice begins with “Our vagabond camera takes us to beautiful Washington, D.C., the national capital of our United States, situated on the broad banks of the Potomac River.”
But this “travelogue” is not played straight–no, this opening scene has layers of irony because the narration clashes charmingly with the images. “Living is pleasant and leisurely,” states the dignified narrator, as men and women run like mad from the train station, clutching their hats and bags. (This scene is projected in slightly fast motion to add to the frenzied tone.)
“It is a city of formality and custom,” he continues, pausing to allow a sailor to jump into a car full of young women when it stops by the curb, then showing men piling into a taxi and even pushing a woman out of the way.
After lauding the “many fine restaurants” and the “rare dishes of the Old South,” the narrator turns to the the larger issue driving the plot: the housing shortage in D.C. due to WWII. He intones about the gracious living and dignity of the residental sections of the city, but the sneaky image undercuts him with scenes of multiple men sleeping in one bedroom, and four men crowded into a bathroom. Then the final ironic ending to the travelogue:
And boom–here comes Charles Coburn checking in at a hotel. It’s a snazzy way to open the movie and introduce the housing shortage–you can watch it here.
Fun fact: One of the film’s possible titles, and the one that tested best with audiences, was Merry-Go-Round. But officials in Washington thought that the title, and certain elements of the story, made Washington and its workers seem too frivolous, especially when the nation was at war! Other options were Washington Story, Full Steam Ahead, and Come One, Come All, but they went with The More The Merrier.
Benjamin Dingle (Coburn), a rather important millionaire with rather important friends, arrives at the hotel two days early, and the poor clerk has to inform him that his room won’t be available for another two days. This is a somewhat obvious state of affairs, but Dingle is annoyed. He leaves, pausing by a statue of Admiral Farragut, a Union admiral who “damned the torpedoes” at the Battle of Mobile Bay in the Civil War (though the story of the torpedoes is probably apocryphal).
Coburn is a big man with an intelligent face and a jolly belly. When you first see him in this movie you think he might be a jerk, or maybe even the villain, but turns out he is a goofy teddy bear of a millionaire who has no problem cheerfully manipulating situations to achieve his ends. Fortunately, his ends are good ones.
His first project is to find lodging. Amongst the ads for “housing wanted,” Dingle sees an ad for half an apartment for rent, so he heads that way.
He sees a sizable group of potential tenants waiting patiently on the stoop, so he confidently goes “full speed ahead.” He pretends that he is the one who placed the ad, announces that the apartment is no longer available, and replaces the “Room for Rent” sign with a “No Vacancies” one.
After his victory over these poor saps, Dingle hums his signature song: “Just like Admiral Farragut said, ‘Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!'” This tune runs throughout the film score, and the quote has a prominent role in the plot. It also sums up Dingle’s philosophy quite tidily.
Fun fact: The Production Code Administration did not like the use of the word “damn” in this movie, but they eventually allowed it because it was part of Admiral Farragut’s famous quote.
The actual apartment dweller, Constance Milligan (Jean Arthur) arrives home to find Dingle waiting on her threshold.
She tells him that the apartment is already rented, to which he replies, “Just a moment, young lady. Do you think you know me well enough to lie to me?” Her answer is a quick “Yes.” But he goes on: “Even so, you shouldn’t do it. Do you realize that practically most of the trouble in the world comes from people lying to people? Just take Hitler, for instance. He’s…” but she interrupts him. This is the only reference to Hitler in the film; “Japs” are the main villains in this WWII comedy.
This movie was filmed in September to December 1942, and it’s a light take on WWII, focusing on the inconvenience of war rather than the really awful stuff.
Connie doesn’t want Mr. Dingle to be her roommate, but he has an answer for everything:
He eventually makes his way into the apartment, with this gem of over-confidence: “Well, sooner or later I’m going to rent half this apartment. Suppose I have a look at it, eh?” With persistence and ingenuity wears Connie down. The scene ends with this amazing line and a completely flabbergasted Connie:
It all becomes official when Connie makes a new label for the front door, just the first of many in this film.
That night, Connie is confused to hear Dingle’s torpedo song coming loud and clear through the wall separating their bedrooms. The thin wall and placement of the beds becomes very key later on…
She’s even less enthused when he correctly guesses that she keeps a diary. He scolds her for staying in and writing about her life instead of getting out there and living it. We see Connie writing in her diary, and then get close-ups of Connie’s pen darting across the page.
Fun fact: it’s not Jean Arthur’s hand we see scribbling in the diary. There were people whose job it was to be the “hand”–they have lovely penmanship, of course! Here’s the woman writing Connie’s diary entries with the camera over her right shoulder, and lights in front and to the side.
A pajama-clad and braided Connie then has a conference with Dingle about the morning schedule, with each activity (breakfast, bathroom time, retrieval of paper and milk, etc.) noted down to the minute, complete with a floor plan of the apartment.
Most of this film takes place in Apartment 2B, and we get to know the place very well. It’s not claustrophobic; instead, it’s rather cozy.
We get comfortable in Connie’s chintz living room, her tidy bedroom, and the hallway that acts as the highway of the apartment. The spare bedroom with its two twin beds, closet, and dresser begins to feel like home. The kitchen and bathroom are cute and tiny, and the breakfast table is always beautifully set, though I don’t know when Connie has the time.
The admirable art direction was done by Lionel Banks and Rudolph Sternad, with set decoration by Fay Babcock. It’s very important in this film, since we hardly ever leave this apartment!
After Connie’s detailed run-through of the morning schedule, Dingle gazes at her with appraising wonderment. “I used to work in the Office of Facts and Figures,” she says, by way of explanation, as she leaves his room.
He follows her into her adorable living room to ask why she isn’t married to some “high-type, clean-cut, nice young fellow.” (We shall hear that phrase again!) Connie takes offense at this, naturally, and tells him to mind his own business. The picture of Abraham Lincoln on her desk is a nice, patriotic detail.
They might have ended the night on unpleasant terms, but Connie unwittingly gives Dingle a compliment with her final instructions for the morning. You can watch this scene here.
The next morning is a screwball masterpiece. Nothing goes according to Connie’s schedule, as one might have expected. First Connie gets locked out, then Dingle does. He climbs over to her bathroom window and gives her a fright as she brushes her teeth. Then there’s an issue with the coffee, Dingle gets sprayed by the shower, then he can’t find his clothes, and finally, Connie unknowingly knocks him down.
I love the coffee mix-up. Mr. Dingle is supposed to bring the coffee from the stove to the table, but he’s so frazzled by that point that he forgets he’s holding the pot, almost takes it into the shower with him, gets it caught in his bathrobe sleeve, and accidentally dumps its contents into the bathtub. But, as always, he has a snappy answer for Connie when he pours the few remaining drops into her cup:
Here is George Stevens directing Arthur and Coburn for this scene.
Each moment in this morning sequence is fantastic. Stevens directs with humor and a light touch, and starts several running gags. (One reason that this movie is so fun is that there are lots of repetitions and rhymes.) For instance, when Connie reminds Mr. Dingle to make his bed, he pulls the covers up over the sheets without realizing that his pants were on the bed. So he spends the next valuable minutes trying to find his hidden trousers, while dressed in his hat, shirt, tie, coat, and striped pajama bottoms.
Then Connie, in a neat little white suit with three big bows in her hair, pushes open the kitchen door to grab her lunch, unknowingly slamming into Dingle, who falls flat onto a decorative screen into Connie’s living room.
Clever, quick dialogue plus physical comedy? Sold. And to add more humor to an already amusing situation, Dingle doesn’t even have to be anywhere until 9:00, so he didn’t have to take part in Connie’s “steeplechase” at 7:00!
Dingle puts on another suit (he never did find those pants) and leaves the apartment when this handsome fellow with a propellor arrives at the door. It’s Joe Carter (Joel McCrea, finally!) answering the ad for the apartment. Dingle gives him a good look and pushes the “No Vacancy” sign back through the mail slot. Dingle says “You look like a high-type, clean-cut, nice young fellow,” and tells him the apartment is still available.
The next few minutes are really wonderful. The dialogue is sparkling and wonderfully delivered in a low-key, understated style by Joel McCrea. From the very beginning of his career, McCrea tried to “underplay,” rather than go over-the-top or affected as some other actors and actresses did. His style works brilliantly in this movie. Lines that are funny become hilarious when delivered in his beautiful, deadpan voice.
His Joe Carter character is magnificently ordinary, just another young man coming to Washington on war business. He’s amazingly easy-going and relaxed, as though he’s in on some private joke with the world. Nothing fazes him. Even Dingle’s oddness, as first evidenced in this winning exchange, doesn’t give him pause:
Joe says his name is Carter, and then Dingle asks, “Bill Carter?”
Joe: “Joe Carter.”
Dingle: “I used to know a fellow named Bill Carter.”
Joe: “Wasn’t me.”
Dingle: “Don’t you suppose I know that?”
Joe: “What’d you ask for, then?”
Dingle: “I guess I know what Bill Carter looked like.”
Joe: “Not like me.”
Dingle: “Oh, then, you know Bill Carter.”
Joe: “No, I don’t, but he sounds like a great guy.”
This starts another running gag throughout the movie. Dingle never gets over the “Bill” stuff, as you can see below, and Joe, confused by the apartment label, sometimes calls Dingle “Milligan.”
Another thing I love about McCrea’s performance in this film is that he acts so normally that it doesn’t even seem like a performance. He does things that you don’t see a lot in movies, like scratching his nose or wiping his mouth, or doing something so subtle that you’ll miss it if you’re not looking right at him, like smiling quietly to himself. Those actions sound minor or even uncouth, but watch him! He acts like a normal guy, who would scratch his nose if it itched, and these tiny, natural actions add such believability and authenticity to the role, and to the movie. Of course, by being so ordinary and understated, he takes over the screen. You can’t take your eyes off of him.
Anyway, Joe has a look around the place, which gives us some more great Coburn/McCrea moments.
Joe, like Connie, thinks Dingle is pretty nosy. When Dingle presses Joe about his job, for instance, Joe claims that he is a mechanic in a baby carriage factory, “Tokyo Baby Carriage Corporation – plain and fancy baby carriages for carrying babies to Tokyo.” That riddle is all he offers.
At one point, McCrea throws back the blankets on the bed, revealing the missing pants! Look at Dingle’s grin and Joe’s deadpan gaze!
And because the pants joke is too good to let go, when Dingle follows Joe into the hallway, his suspenders catch on the doorknob, and the pants go sailing out of his hands and onto the window box.
Dingle can’t find them, and he’s utterly flummoxed. He pounces on the bed and rips back the covers as though the bed stole them, again. Joe thinks there’s something very weird going on when he finds them later that evening, but it’s nothing to Dingle’s confusion.
One of the amazing things about this movie is how wonderful the cast plays together. Each pair (Coburn and Arthur, Coburn and McCrea, and McCrea and Arthur) are terrific, and all three are great together, too. There’s not a weak link anywhere.
Anyway, Connie doesn’t know that she is now living with two men–one of whom is young, single, and amazing. And Joe has no idea about Connie. Once all three arrive home from work, Dingle has quite the screwball situation on his hands trying to keep Joe and Connie away from each other in this tiny apartment. Dingle is barely able to erase Joe’s handwritten “Carter” from the label on the door before Connie sees it:
Dingle can’t do much about camouflaging the seal-noises that Joe makes when he gets in the shower:
But he does his best with everything else. Dingle engineers fake heart trouble and a personal, intense chat with Joe to keep him out of the hallway when Connie gets home, and then Dingle practices ventriloquy from his bedroom to convince Connie that he is in the shower when Connie comes knocking. Joe is confused by the feminine voice he heard, though. This is just one of many instances when it is important for the viewer to understand the layout of the apartment, but Stevens and his art directors make it easy on us.
Amidst all the exits and entrances, there’s a dance break. Connie turns on some music and begins a casual rhumba in her bedroom. Joe hears it and begins his own dance in the hallway. It’s one of my favorite moments; not only is it funny to watch these two adults practicing their dance moves, especially Joe in his bathrobe clutching his shaving gear, but how adorable is it to have our two leads dancing “together” before they even meet? You know they’re perfect for each other–it’s Old Hollywood code!
Plus, it’s just about the cutest thing you’ll ever see when Joe turns around and practices his best “smoldering look” on his imaginary partner.
At one point Dingle loses Joe, and goes looking for him in Connie’s room. A thoroughly cold-creamed Connie catches him coming out of her bedroom, but she doesn’t even say anything. Her expressions are eloquent enough, and she’s clearly come to expect odd things from Dingle.
It’s a funny scene of just-missed encounters and slamming doors, with Dingle working desperately to keep the two apart for as long as he can. It can’t go on forever, though, and eventually Joe and Connie whiz by each other in the hallway.
It takes a few seconds for the encounter to sink in: Connie slides to a stop in her mules, and Joe does a wonderful spit-take before both return to the hallway. An unabashed Joe gives Connie the old up-and-down. It’s not totally fair, because Connie is cold-creamed and braided and house-coated, whereas Joe looks as handsome as ever.
Joe is pretty smooth, that’s for sure, and drops a classic pick-up line, ignoring the fact that she’s clearly not making a social call!
Dingle attempts to sneak out of the apartment, but Connie calls him back. She’s angry, rightfully so, but all I can focus on is Joe’s small smile as he watches her and sips his milk. He’s enjoying himself immensely, and he seems to like this very annoyed woman.
Connie orders them both to leave, but Joe refuses to go unless he gets a refund on the week’s rent. Dingle says he hasn’t any cash on him, and Connie can’t refund Dingle because she used his rent money to buy a hat. Dingle kindly fetches it, and Connie thus looks even sillier.
Since no one can refund anyone else, everyone has to stay, and the apartment label gets changed yet again. The whole scene makes me giddy. You can watch it, beginning with Dingle’s own dance move, here.
The next morning, the men attempt to stay on schedule, but Joe has other things on his mind.
Dingle tries to push the pair together, but Connie announces that she’s engaged to Charles J. Pendergast, the youngest-ever regional coordinater of OPL. Dingle says he bets they’ve been engaged for two years. “Twenty-two months” admits Connie with a sour smile.
It comes out that Pendergast is 42 years-old, which to Joe sounds ancient. Connie protests that he is mature and makes $8,600 a year, but Dingle and Joe keep teasing her until she retaliates on her handsome roommate:
It’s kind of a self-burn, but it’s funny.
We briefly leave Connie’s apartment to accompany Dingle to a work luncheon about the housing shortage. He chuckles to himself when the pompous man in the hat who quotes statutes from memory turns out to be “Pendergast, Charles J.” I love that Pendergast (Richard Gaines) is the only man wearing a hat!
Fun fact: It’s rather amusing that such a big deal is made of Pendergast’s “advanced age,” as Jean Arthur was 42 when she made this movie! Joel McCrea was a ripe old 37 years of age, but both he and Arthur get away with playing twenty-somethings.
According to McCrea’s interviews, Arthur, who was never terribly self-confident, was very conscious and concerned about her age while filming this movie. She said things like “I’m getting so old and wrinkled. This is the last picture I’m going to do.” (She would continue making movies, sporadically, for ten more years.)
So McCrea and Stevens concocted a plan to make her feel beautiful, confident, and desired. McCrea would come to Arthur’s dressing room when he knew that Stevens was inside, and say things like “Oh, excuse me!” and act embarrassed when he saw Arthur and Stevens alone together. Stevens would “interrupt” the same way when McCrea was with her.
McCrea says, “She bit every time.” Their supportive scheme made Arthur feel as though both her handsome leading man and her handsome director thought she was fascinating and desirable, and wanted to spend time with her one-on-one.
It seems that things are going smoothly at Apt. 2B. Connie and her two roomies head to the roof for some knitting/comics reading.
Dingle teases Connie, and Connie and Joe engage in some light flirting disguised, at least on Connie’s part, as disdain for his immaturity compared to Mr. Pendergast’s sophistication.
Eventually Dingle goes too far and Connie leaves them to “laugh at each other’s jokes.” But she forgot her diary, and Dingle finds it. To Joe’s suntanned credit, he tells Dingle he really shouldn’t read it, but Dingle goes ahead and reads excerpts (about Joe) aloud. Joe is interested, naturally.
Connie arrives on this damning scene. She snatches the diary as tears well up in her eyes.
Sidenote: I love that Joe apparently brought two different robes on his weeklong trip to D.C. He has that striped number and then this white one, but I’m skeptical that both, and all of his other belongings, could fit in his one small suitcase. Movie magic!
Anyway, rain pours down as soon as Connie leaves. There’s a mad dash off of the roof, but Dingle has time to play machine-gun gangsters with two little boys on his way down. He sure is a playful retired millionaire.
Joe feels terribly, especially when he hears Connie crying through the bedroom wall.
He and Dingle feel even worse when Connie orders them to leave the next morning. It seems that the daring experiment has ended.
When Connie returns from work the next evening in her new hat, she pauses sadly at the door to gaze upon the label. It’s back to normal, but that doesn’t seem to cheer her any:
She doesn’t know it, but Joe is in the apartment packing up his things. Rather than have them meet in the hallway or something boring, we get an adorable screwball scene. Connie’s hat falls on the floor with an incongruous crash. Then she removes her shoes, but instead of small thumps as each one hits the floor, loud booms echo in the apartment. Connie finally realizes that this odd sound effect is because someone is still in the apartment, and he’s slamming drawers.
She runs to the window and meets an abashed Joe. He had to come back after work to collect his things.
They’re both embarrassed, but Joe hands her a letter from Dingle which clears Joe of any part in the diary-reading crime.
Joe asks to have the letter back “for his files” after Connie has finished reading it, which is so adorably odd!
Before he leaves, Joe gives Connie a present “no strings attached!” to make up for the misunderstanding. I love how he gives her the box–he just drops it into her arms and she sits down abruptly!
McCrea was a tall guy (6’2), and towered over Arthur (5’3), and most of his co-stars. Stevens makes good use of the height difference in this scene.
McCrea opens the box to reveal a beautiful traveling bag. Peter, Joel McCrea’s son, said that this is one of his favorite scenes. Everyone talks about the stoop scene, (coming up later!) but this is Peter’s favorite, mainly because of his father’s wonderfully relaxed and understated delivery.
Fun fact: After this film wrapped, McCrea went on a USO tour overseas. As a going-away-gift, Stevens gave McCrea a monogrammed suitcase, “the best suitcase” he ever had, McCrea remembered. It probably was much more masculine than the one that Joe gives to Connie. (McCrea got the cast and crew to chip in on a custom saddle for Stevens.)
Connie is flabbergasted and protests at this too-generous gift. Joe is immensely proud of the gift and perches next to Connie in order to demonstrate all the nifty pockets, accessories, locks, and special hinges.
It’s a cool bag–it even comes with a travel set of toiletries and cosmetics!
At first, Connie tells Joe that she can’t possibly accept such a gift, but she eventually relents. She has a grand time exploring the little jars, and Joe gets a little bit on his nose.
This scene is funny, sweet, romantic, and sexy all at once. The bag gives Joe an excuse to practically sit on Connie’s lap, and their faces are about as close as you can get without kissing…Clever Joe.
He even went the extra mile and had the bag monogrammed!
Sweet, generous, clever, and funny! I’m surprised they don’t elope right then. Anyway, the bag and Dingle’s letter help Connie forgive Joe. Then her compassion is aroused when Joe lets slip that the military is sending him to Africa in two days on a secret assignment!
Fun fact: when Joe says “Africa,” his lips don’t match the sound. “Africa” was clearly dubbed in later, most likely to keep the movie current with what was happening in the war by the time it was released.
Another fun fact: This was the last film that Stevens made before going to North Africa with the Army’s combat photography unit. He left Hollywood in February 1943, and didn’t direct another feature film until 1948’s I Remember Mama.
This movie is never completely serious, which is one reason that I love it so much. For example, Joe has the cosmetics spot on his nose during their conversation about him going to war!
When Joe says he’d better get going and find another place to live, Connie tells him that maybe it would be okay for him to stay just for the two days before he leaves D.C. His response:
Now that they’re roommates again, Joe asks if he can take Connie to dinner. Connie really wants to go, you can tell, but she has to mildly protest:
I appreciate Joe’s honesty. Connie knows she probably shouldn’t go, but she likes Joe a lot (who can blame her?), so she launches into an hopeful explanation. Mr. Pendergast is supposed to pick her up at 8:00, but sometimes he gets into a conference and can’t even telephone, so if 8:00 comes and he isn’t there, the date is off. If that happens, then it would probably be alright for her to go out with Joe!
Just then the phone rings–it’s Dingle asking Joe if he’d like to go to dinner. Joe sits down in Connie’s living room chair to talk, and after he hangs up he relaxes into the plush chintz. He forgets he is practically in Connie’s bedroom; it’s as though they are married! He is sweetly embarrassed when he realizes his mistake, and he launches himself out of the chair and back into his own room!
Connie puts on a black lace dress and Joe wears his dark suit, and they both stare out their respective windows at the giant Cinderella-esque clock, waiting for 8:00!
Once the clock strikes its final toll, both almost run out of their bedrooms to meet the other! They’re just about in love.
Joe is walking Connie to the door when there is a knock. It’s her neighbor Morton (Stanley Clements) who wants to talk to Connie about whether he should join the Boy Scouts. It’s about the worst possible timing–Joe and Connie are in a hurry to leave in case Mr. Pendergast shows up! As usual, I recommend that you watch Joel McCrea in this scene. His alternately impatient and fearsome reactions to Morton are priceless:
Then the phone rings–it’s Mr. Pendergast telling Connie he is downstairs. Joe magnanimously wishes Connie a good evening, and gives Morton a death stare as he leaves.
Then Joe uses his binoculars to spy on Pendergast and Connie getting in their car. Morton lingers on the stairs, watching him…
He confronts Joe, telling him that everyone has given their spyglasses to the Navy–why hasn’t Joe? Joe is mad, so he turns and says “Because I’m a Jap!” Morton runs screaming. This joke comes back to haunt Joe.
Dingle and Joe head to a restaurant with dancers doing a floor show. Joe doesn’t have much interest in them, but Dingle does!
In his interviews, McCrea remembered these dancers, but not for the reason you might think. Arthur had gotten upset after she saw some rushes and thought she looked old and wrinkly. She locked herself in her dressing room before they were supposed to film the restaurant scene, and Stevens couldn’t get her to come out. He asked McCrea to give it a try.
McCrea knocked on the door and Arthur opened it just a little. He told her, “Jean, I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. The only thing is that we got to do the picture. George really thinks you’re great, I think you’re great, and I think you look great.”
He thought she might be extra-insecure that day because of the pretty, young dancers on set: “They were all in the picture and they were something. Guys were coming off of other sets to watch them.” But he told Arthur, “George and I like you better than any of [the dancers]. We think you’re better looking.”
“Oh,” she said. “You just say that. I’m old. No one but you and Gary Cooper with all your lines should play opposite me. They wanted to put me in a picture with Tyrone Power, but they’d think it was my son.” McCrea kept talking with her, “kidded her along, got her out, and we went up hand in hand.” Stevens later joked with McCrea that he must have done something pretty special to get Arthur out of the dressing room. McCrea replied: “No, I didn’t. She wouldn’t let me. She’d only open the door a crack.”
Back to the film: Guess who just happens to be at the same restaurant?
How amazingly bad is Pendergast’s toupee? Here is Stevens directing Gaines and Arthur in this scene:
Mr. Dingle wriggles his way into a seat at Pendergast’s table, with room for his friend Joe, of course! Pendergast and Dingle start talking about the housing crisis, but Connie and Joe only have eyes for each other. They both start “dancing” in their seats:
Dingle suggests that the “young people” go dance while he and Pendergast chat. Joe is out of his chair like a rocket at Dingle’s suggestion. And off they go to the dance floor, finally dancing together, together!
Notice how the other dancers are all women. Dingle’s constant refrain to Joe that there are “eight girls to every fella” in D.C., is borne out by this scene.
Dingle’s machinations are just beginning. He tells Pendergast they’d better go to Dingle’s hotel room where they can work without the bother of music and people. Pendergast is pulled along, although he is reluctant to leave Connie with Joe! Smart man.
As soon as the song ends, women swarm Joe. Connie is pulled away by a telephone call from Pendergast saying he and Dingle are going to keep working, and Joe can take her home. Connie is pretty thrilled by this, but she’s not thrilled by the women throwing themselves at Joe.
Notice that there are exactly eight women (one is hidden in that image) at the table with Joe–Dingle was right! Joe is bewildered and overwhelmed by this attention, but you can tell he likes it! You can watch it here.
He’s very happy to walk Connie home, though. And so begins the famous stoop scene. What makes it so great is that it’s really funny and romantic at the same time. Joe and Connie talk about Joe’s previous girlfriends or Mr. Pendergast as they romance each other, so if you just heard the audio track, you’d think they were being perfectly platonic, when in fact this is a very sexy seduction scene! Joe is a master. Watch his hands.
Connie tells Joe about Mr. Pendergast’s good qualities, her engagement ring, the house they’re planning to buy, etc., and Joe makes appropriate comments, but golly! This is one of my favorite exchanges, and sums up the verbal/physical split of this scene perfectly:
Joe’s big hands (they seem huge compared to little Connie) keep moving, and he gets closer and closer, and eventually Connie can’t help herself, though she tries to keep talking about Pendergast’s work colleagues even as Joe caresses her neck!
Fun fact: Like Claudette Colbert, Arthur thought that her left side was much more attractive and photogenic than her right, so she preferred to be filmed from that side. Stevens and Tetzlaff accommodate her for most of the movie, as you can see in this scene.
After Joe kisses her, though, the Pendergast conversation is over. She kisses him right back.
The chemistry between McCrea and Arthur is magical, and this scene is perfectly written and directed. It’s funny, charming, a little bit daring, and wonderfully romantic.
After this glorious kiss, Connie says “Goodnight, Mr. Carter” and they shake hands! Then she goes into her building. Reverting to formality after a kiss like that! Comedy! Joe turns to leave, a wondering smile on his face, before remembering something:
He follows Connie to the apartment. Both are awkwardly conscious of their scandalous situation! In a really funny gag, Joe unlocks the door with a key chained to his vest. Connie pushes the door open before he can extract the key, and Joe is pulled into the apartment by the chain, right on Connie’s heels! She looks at him as though he is crazy.
You can watch this scene here, beginning with their walk home and ending with their entrance to the apartment. Please do.
They keep themselves under control and adjourn to their separate bedrooms and separate beds. That thin wall lets them engage in sweet pillow talk, though. I love how Stevens shot this scene with the wall visible down the middle, and beautiful close-ups of his stars.
Connie keeps the gardenia in her hair (it looks nice but I doubt it would be comfortable to sleep on). Joe tells Connie that he loves her, and Connie makes Joe promise that he’ll stay where he is before admitting that she loves him, too.
He proposes, and she says yes, but then they start thinking about it. He’s going to Africa in about 36 hours and they may never see each other again. Does it make sense for them to get married? They agree that it does not, even though they are in love. They try to fall asleep.
But just a minute later, two FBI agents bust into the apartment! They are responding to a report of a “Japanese” studying the government printing office with a pair of binoculars. Morton!
They’re confused because Joe doesn’t look Japanese, and he’s got a military uniform in the closet. Joe keeps his cool and even makes some cracks.
They haul Joe and Connie off, and Joe calls Dingle. Dingle arrives, but he brings Pendergast. Dingle has a plan of his own, you see. Poor Joe has to prove he is who he says he is, try not to embroil Connie in a scandal, and keep Pendergast from figuring out where Joe has been living.
It takes a little while for Pendergast to notice who is sitting in the back of the room, but he does eventually:
Then Joe is forced to give his address and the whole business comes out, except it sounds much worse than the innocent, (mostly) platonic truth. Pendergast is confused:
Dingle refuses to admit that he lived in Connie’s apartment, too, so it sounds as though Joe and Connie have been living in sin!
Once Joe’s name is cleared (from the spying charge, at least) the whole gang hops in a cab and discusses the scandal. Pendergast cares more about his career than Connie’s reputation, so she breaks up with him then and there. Joe can’t help but smile at this.
What the group doesn’t realize is that the little man in the corner is a reporter. He gets the whole story, and poor Pendergast does a spectacular prat fall chasing after him:
Connie starts to cry because her name will be “mud by morning,” plus, she’ll lose her job. Joe is upset because of Connie’s situation, and Dingle isn’t upset at all. Everything is going according to plan. He says the only thing that will save Connie is for Joe to marry her right away. They can get a quiet annulment later, but they must get married at once to kill the scandal!
Dingle just happens to have an airplane schedule in his pocket, and he sends Joe and Connie to South Carolina where there is no waiting period for a marriage license.
So off they go to Charleston. This isn’t how Connie envisioned her wedding, and neither she nor Joe are thrilled about the catfish blue plate special at the airport restaurant. Connie completely loses it when the waiter brings boiled rice:
Anyway, cut to D.C and the Carters in a taxi. Connie sleeps on Joe’s shoulder, and Joe is very happy, though a little embarrassed when the other passengers catch him kissing his wife and grinning.
Joe intends to drop off Connie at the apartment and then spend the night wandering around D.C., but Connie says that it would be fine for him to stay, pointing at the marriage license:
They say goodbye in the hallway. It’s sad and tender:
Joe goes to his bedroom and starts packing, and Connie goes to her bedroom and starts crying. She forgot to take her beautiful bag on her honeymoon!
Connie changes into a rather daring black lace nightgown as she and Joe talk. Joe tells Connie that he doesn’t want her taking in any more roomers: “You know what happened last time. Let that be a lesson to you.” She protests, and he turns to her and says that as long as she is married to him, she won’t be taking in boarders! He turns back around…
And realizes something rather major. The wall between the bedrooms is gone! It’s an extra fun scene because we see that the wall is gone long before Connie and Joe do!
They stare at each other in shock, and then Connie starts (fake) crying, and there’s nothing for Joe to do but cross the old wall-line and comfort her!
Cut to clever, devious Mr. Dingle, who replaces the apartment label for the last time. I love how the remains of the wall are piled in the hallway!
What a movie! The cast is perfect, and Stevens does such a great job. Thank goodness Arthur and Stevens were able to convince McCrea to make it!
McCrea later said that:
The reason I never saw myself as an individual star until I got into the little westerns that had to be commercial was because I didn’t want to carry the whole load. I wanted to work with Claudette, I wanted to work with Ginger, I wanted to work with Loretta, I wanted to work with Stanwyck. When you’re the costar with Jean Arthur, like in The More The Merrier, as Harry Cohn said, ‘There’s a certain chemistry that comes off and so together you’re great. If I tried to star either one of you alone I might not make a hit, might not make any money.’ It didn’t mean we weren’t any good, but it was easier to get the box office chemistry.
He and Arthur sure have it in this movie, and Stevens helped make them sparkle. According to his son, this was McCrea’s favorite comedic performance out of all of his films!
Like William Wyler, George Stevens liked to shoot multiple takes and film the same scene from several angles. He used to get in trouble for using so much film and extending the production schedule.
Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, used to ask McCrea: “‘What’s that son of a bitch Stevens doing making all that film? He used more exposed film in one picture than in any five pictures I’ve ever made.'”
McCrea would explain to Cohn that Stevens was “trying for perfection, just like Willy Wyler was. He’s so great for me and Jean Arthur, believe me, he’s great for us. You could put a director who didn’t have near as many takes or near as much exposed film, but we wouldn’t be as good. What he tells us and what he brings out of us, that’s something that stars are made of, although you can’t put your hand on it.”
Stevens told McCrea that he was being such a perfectionist because he wanted The More the Merrier to “be one of the ten best pictures of the year.” And it was! This film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Story, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor for Coburn. Coburn was the only winner.
In 1966 they messed with perfection and tweaked the story, setting it in Tokyo during the Olympics to justify the housing shortage. Cary Grant is the Dingle character, Samantha Eggar is Connie, and Jim Hutton is Joe in Walk Don’t Run. It’s fine, I guess. It was Grant’s last appearance in a feature film. Otherwise it’s rather unremarkable, and Jim Hutton is no Joel McCrea. Also, worrying about innocent cohabitation in 1966 feels less urgent. I believe Connie when she says she’ll be fired and have to leave D.C. if people find out that Joe is renting half of her apartment, but somehow I don’t believe that in 1966.
Thanks again to Peter McCrea for talking with me and giving me access to his father’s interviews! What a treat!