The More the Merrier, 1943, Columbia Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 104 minutes.
An improbable housing situation combines with instant attraction in this tale of an exacting young woman whose future is securely in place…until she does her patriotic duty.
Constance Milligan (Jean Arthur) wishes to help alleviate the housing shortage in Washington, D.C. during WWII by subletting her apartment, preferably to a woman. Instead, enter Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), a congenial man and retired millionaire. Despite the influence one would assume his wealth would have, he finds himself without a room for the night.
He sees Connie’s ad and talks her into letting him take the spare room. Much to her chagrin, he then sublets half of his space to Sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), who’s waiting for orders to go overseas.
Connie and Joe find themselves immediately drawn to each other, even though Connie is engaged to Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines), a man guaranteed to provide her with a safe, secure, if not exciting, future.
Tempers flare and passions ignite as Dingle connives to bring the two together in one way after the other. He’s helped by an unpredictable and comical mistake that has a lasting impact on all involved.
This movie is clever and original, not surprising as it is based on a short story by Garson Kanin. Arthur and her husband, Frank Ross, went to him looking for a vehicle to boost her shaky career. He wrote the story, Two’s A Crowd, specifically for that purpose.
McCrea later called The More the Merrier his favorite comedy, saying he hit it off immediately with George Stevens. When he discovered the director could have had Cary Grant or other, more famous actors, for the part, he said it “instilled the kind of confidence I needed.”
Joel McCrea’s laid-back style is a perfect foil for Arthur’s nervousness, and Coburn’s comic sneakiness justifiably won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film was also nominated for Best Picture (losing to Casablanca), Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Arthur, Best Writing – Original Story and Best Writing – Screenplay.
You may notice — but likely won’t recognize unless you’re a true fan of classic cars — the sporty little vehicle Connie and her colleagues use as their mode of transportation to work, a Fiat 500 A Topolino.
This movie was re-made in 1966 as Walk, Don’t Run with Cary Grant in the Charles Coburn role. It was Grant’s last role in a feature film. As you might guess, it was The More the Merrier’s original popularity, and its lasting success, that gave producers (and Mr. Grant) the confidence it was worth the remake.