Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The More the Merrier (1943)
If you’ve watched the news recently, you know that everyone is living in shanty towns, using shells for currency and making homemade Apple Jack. Yes, we were making homemade Apple Jack to get drunk before the financial crisis, but it’s a factor that seems especially depressing now that we don’t have a choice. Luckily, we can take our cues on how to be properly inconvenienced from the financial situations of the past. By that account, George Stevens’s Academy Award winning The More the Merrier is just as educational as it is entertaining.
It’s World War II, and there’s a major housing crisis affecting the nation, especially in Washington, DC. Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) goes looking for a room to rent and secures one, with a little cunning, living with Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur). Like any true genius, Dingle rents out his half of the room to someone else, a hard-boiled military type named Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) who eventually falls for Connie and pries her away from a bland fiancé.
The movie is a comic masterpiece, following mostly from Coburn’s outlandish behavior that pushes Connie’s buttons and the two lovers together. He’s a subversive kind of Cupid that could get away with murder with a wink and smile. The first act is mostly Dingle and Connie trying to co-exist in a small space – a morning segment that involves locking each other out, coffee in the shower and chaos. In true 1940s comedy fashion, after the laughs die down, they up the ante to add another person to the situation with the added bonus of Dingle trying to keep Connie from realizing there’s a new man living with them. Black and white, vaudevillian-style hilarity ensues.
Then the movie takes a turn in the sweet direction as it becomes obvious that Joe and Connie like each other despite her stiffness and his rough and tumble demeanor. Jean Arthur is essentially the 1940s version of Anna Faris, able to swing from cute to gorgeous to hilarious without a moment’s notice. Of course her trademark squeaky voice helps a lot, making her even more adorable. McCrea smolders so much that it makes him even more likable when he stands up for his love’s honor. Coburn, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, has that unmistakable quality of acting rude beyond comprehension while remaining totally lovable. It’s a rare trait, but his actions start to make sense when it becomes obvious he’s only trying to bring two people together. Even if that means doing some demolition to her apartment.
The film also captures DC in a fascinating way, a way that allows the audience to get a glimpse of a nation’s capitol at a time of war and sacrifice. It also delivers on the classic archetypal romance which culminates in a scene where Connie and Joe finally kiss at the steps of her (their) apartment, his hands moving where they’re naturally drawn and hers sometimes shoving him away and sometimes egging him on. It’s sexy, funny and sweet all at once which brings the three major themes together in a great emotional moment.
Even more brilliant, the film deals realistically with Joe’s military service. The More the Merrier does a service to any audience by displaying a truly intimate love that can’t end with two people riding off into the sunset. Their honeymoon to be also comes on the eve of his departure abroad, a concept not lost on George Stevens who creates a fascinating ending that’s difficult to know how to respond to. Tears and a smile are both accepted.
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