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Synopsis: Benjamin Dingle, a retired millionaire, arrives in Washington, D.C. to meet with a senator, only to find his schedule changed with no place to stay. Confronted with the acute housing shortage in the wartime capital, he fast-talks his way into renting a room from a reluctant Connie Milligan, a young woman who is engaged to a successful but dull Washington bureaucrat. Without her knowledge, Dingle rents out half of his room to Joe Carter, a handsome military man waiting to be shipped overseas. Initially angry, Connie becomes attracted to Sgt. Carter, throwing all her plans for the future into question.
The More the Merrier (1943) was the last of three films that George Stevens directed under a special contract with Columbia Studios; the other two were Penny Serenade (1941) and The Talk of the Town (1942). Harry Cohn, who was eager to have Stevens on board at Columbia, agreed to give him a degree of freedom rare for Hollywood directors at that time and never interfered on the set. Stevens repaid the favor by directing three solid films that each earned Academy Award nominations. It was also the last film that Stevens made before heading off to North Africa as the head of the Army's combat photography unit; he departed in February of 1943, less than a month after completing the production. When Stevens had enlisted, his agent warned him that he would be "finished as far as films are concerned." In fact, he didn't direct another feature until I Remember Mama (1948).
Jean Arthur biographer John Oller notes that the project originated because Arthur, who had come under fire at Columbia for turning down too many projects, needed something to put her back in good graces with the studio head Harry Cohn. Arthur and her husband Frank Ross invited a friend of theirs, Garson Kanin, to write a vehicle for Arthur and paid him out of their own pocket. Kanin developed the script, entitled Two's a Crowd, with Robert W. Russell. Cohn liked the story and agreed to launch it into production. According to George Stevens biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, other titles considered included Washington Story, Full Steam a Head and Come One, Come All. The title that tested best with audiences was Merry-Go-Round, but some officials in Washington objected that the title, in addition to certain plot elements, "indicates frivolity on the part of Washington workers" and requested that it be changed.
The Production Code Administration expressed concern about the delicacy of the film's basic setup, in which a woman and two strange men shared the same apartment, including the bathroom. They also objected to the repeated use of the word "damn," here motivated by Dingle repeatedly quoting Admiral Farragut's famous saying, "Damn the Torpedoes. Full speed ahead." However, the film's most delightful tweak at the Production Code is undoubtedly the bedtime conversation between Arthur and Joel McCrea, with only the thinnest of walls separating the two beds onscreen.
Upon its initial release, The More the Merrier proved to be one of Columbia's biggest hits to date; surely no small part of this was due to the engaging chemistry between the three leads. Jean Arthur, in fact, had originally requested Joel McCrea to play opposite her in the film. Unquestionably, his low-key style of line delivery works well against Arthur's own hesitant manner, particularly in intimate scenes such as when he gives her a traveling case or when the couple sits together at night on the steps outside the apartment. The romantic aspect of the film is beautifully balanced with the more frenetic "screwball comedy" material, particularly in the tart exchanges between Arthur and Charles Coburn. Arthur and Coburn had previously appeared together in the classic RKO comedy The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). This time around Arthur received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and Coburn took home a statuette for Best Supporting Actor. Other nominations for The More the Merrier included Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Story and Best Screenplay. It was remade in 1966 as Walk Don't Run, with Cary Grant and Samantha Eggar. In the remake, the Tokyo Olympics are the new justification for the housing shortage that sets the wheels in motion.
Producer and Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster
Photography: Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Rudolph Sternad
Editor: Otto Meyer
Music: Leigh Harline
Principal cast: Jean Arthur (Connie Milligan), Joel McCrea (Joe Carter), Charles Coburn (Benjamin Dingle), Richard Gaines (Charles J. Pendergast), Bruce Bennett (Evans), Frank Sully (Pike), Don Douglas (Harding), Clyde Fillmore (Senator Noonan), Stanley Clements (Morton Rodakiewicz), Ann Savage (Miss Dalton).
by James Steffen