- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

Compiling a 10-best list of comedies made during the war years of 1941-45 would be tough if you were to rule the output of two particular filmmakers out of play. The first would be the surging Preston Sturges, who wrote and directed “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” during this period. The second would be the steady George Stevens.

Mr. Stevens, the subject of a centennial career tribute at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre this month, had both “Woman of the Year,” the first of the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy romantic comedies, and “The Talk of the Town,” which matched Cary Grant with Jean Arthur, to his credit in 1942.

“The More the Merrier,” which will soon be revived at the Silver, proved a three-cornered triumph for Miss Arthur and Joel McCrea as the love match and Charles Coburn as a presumptuous but astute matchmaker. Released in the summer of 1943, it was the last picture George Stevens directed before joining the Army and commanding a Signal Corps unit that documented events from the Normandy invasion to the liberation of Dachau and the capture of Adolf Hitler’s vacation resort in Bavaria. Mr. Stevens did not resume his Hollywood career for another five years.

He never did return systematically to comedy, the genre of his apprenticeship and earliest directing efforts. During the late 1920s, he was the principal cameraman on many of the famous Laurel and Hardy silent comedies made at the Hal Roach Studio.

A producer-director by 1938, Mr. Stevens was lured to Columbia for a three-picture deal at the start of the new decade. In finalizing the contract, studio boss Harry Cohn agreed to a unique arrangement: He wouldn’t utter a word while Mr. Stevens was at work. The self-restraint paid off, because all three pictures were successful: the Cary Grant-Irene Dunne tear-jerker “Penny Serenade,” followed by “The Talk of the Town” and “The More the Merrier.”

The “Merrier” script was instigated by Jean Arthur, the leading lady in three of the prestigious Frank Capra pictures made at Columbia in the 1930s: “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” She frequently resisted scripts Mr. Cohn considered desirable. An appeal to Garson Kanin, already in the Army and idling at Fort Monmouth, N.J., before being assigned anything specific in the Signal Corps, resulted in a custom-made rush job designed to provide Miss Arthur with leverage.

A successful writer-director at RKO, Mr. Kanin had found a compatible collaborator at Fort Monmouth in a draftee named Robert Russell. They completed a shooting script in a matter of weeks, and Miss Arthur used it to her advantage at the earliest opportunity. For the joy of tormenting Harry Cohn, Mr. Kanin even insisted that the mogul travel back east so he could read the script to him face to face.

It was a sale, but the principal salesman, under exclusive contract to RKO, remained uncredited. Although “Merrier” earned Academy Award nominations in two writing categories for a quartet of nominees, including Robert Russell and Jean Arthur’s husband, Frank Ross, the party had to exclude Mr. Kanin. There was a certain justice in the fact that the authors of record didn’t win despite the double opportunity. Also nominated for best picture, actress, director and supporting actor, “Merrier” paid Oscar dividends only for Charles Coburn, who appears to nail down the award in the first 10 minutes of the movie.

Arriving in Washington for discussions with a government agency responsible for civilian housing, the Coburn character, Benjamin Dingle, is a crafty codger with an impressive whimsical ability to take command. Dingle seems to be a building contractor who has come out of retirement as a consultant, stirred to contribute his expertise to the war effort and impatient to get things done.

He quickly finesses a search for temporary quarters, outfoxing a long line of prospects attracted by an apartment-to-share ad placed by Miss Arthur’s character, a prim and winsome government staffer named Constance Milligan. She occupies a four-room apartment near the Government Printing Office and is soliciting a roommate to help ease the severe housing shortage.

Circumstances prompt Dingle to sublet his temporary room to Joel McCrea’s character, a soldier named Joe Carter who is a week away from shipping out for some kind of duty with a P-38 squadron. The younger man’s diffidence seems to harmonize with the older man’s deviousness. Joe settles in before learning that Connie is actually the tenant. Once they’re attracted to each other, three does become a crowd, so Dingle is shifted to the sidelines. By that time, he has provoked a courtship, after which he turns his attention to sabotaging Connie’s token fiance, a bureaucratic grind selflessly embodied by Richard Gaines.

“The More the Merrier” has its trite and strained aspects, reflected at the outset in an excessively facetious narration introducing wartime Washington, where the housing shortage is rivaled only by the man shortage. In exploiting the District as a comic locale, however, “Merrier” was a deft rarity. The authentic city is documented only in stock footage, but it’s fun to see vintage Diamond cabs on the studio streets.

The courtship scenes in “Woman of the Year” had achieved remarkably fresh and expectant notes of intimacy. Mr. Stevens built on that stylistic delicacy and assurance in the best romantic interludes of “Merrier.” Mr. McCrea and Miss Arthur share an exceptionally witty petting sequence staged on the steps of Connie’s apartment. The already husky and yielding tendencies in the actress’s voice grow even more humorously susceptible as Mr. McCrea persists in gentle caresses and Connie struggles to sustain a coherent line of small talk.

The romance culminates in a breathtaking spatial sight gag in the apartment, predicated on our being accustomed to conversations across a wall that separates bedrooms — and particular beds. The sequence of shots and the deceptive payoff angle that clinches the joke are superbly designed. In all likelihood, they’re throwbacks to gags used in the prime of Laurel and Hardy, brought delightfully up to date. “The More the Merrier” is frequently as good as Hollywood gets at playing Cupid.

TITLE: “The More the Merrier”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8630 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: 7 p.m. Dec. 12 and Dec. 15

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: 301/495-6720

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1943, decades before the advent of a ratings system; occasional sexual innuendo)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by George Stevens. Screenplay by Robert Russell and Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy and Lewis R. Foster, and (uncredited) Garson Kanin. Cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff. Art direction by Lionel Banks and Rudolph Sternad. Music by Leigh Harline.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

VIDEO EDITIONS: Columbia Pictures Home Video

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide