George Stevens had an interesting career. He directed "Shane," one of the most classic westerns of all time, starring Alan Ladd. He directed Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year," one of the best Tracy-Hepburn comedies. He directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in "Swing Time," one of their best dance films. He directed Cary Grant in the comic Rudyard Kipling adventure, "Gunga Din." He directed Irene Dunne in the nostalgic and sentimental "I Remember Mama." He directed Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor, and James Dean in that Texas soaper, "Giant." He directed the sober "Diary of Ann Frank," and he directed the slapstick "Kentucky Kernels," starring none other than Spanky and Our Gang. That Stevens was successful in so many genres is certainly a tribute to his versatility. Even his "Greatest Story Ever Told" wouldn't have become the most mediocre tale of the Christ ever filmed had the studio not insisted on using a cast of thousands—unfortunately, all of them big-name stars in "Hey, there's so-and-so" cameos.
If there is a pattern, Stevens always gravitated toward atmospheric period films and comedies, and "The More the Merrier" is both. Set in Washington, D.C. during the housing shortage of World War II, "The Moore the Merrier" is a wonderful evocation of Forties' morality and life on the home front. There's classic footage of people crammed at diner counters, packed like sardines in ride-sharing cars, bunking in hallways of apartment buildings, and space-sharing on rooftops where, given the mayhem in the streets below, there developed an entire recreational culture. Sun worshippers tried to read books while kids played cowboys and Indians, old men played checkers, and lovers tried to, well, not much. This was 1943, after all.
Jean Arthur, most famous for her roles in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," goes to the mat this time in the spirit of patriotism. With so many people without a place to sleep, Connie Milligan (Arthur) places an ad offering to sublet half of her apartment. This kid is so patriotic she has a giant 8x10 photo of Abe Lincoln on her dresser, instead of her fiancé of two years, an older, stodgy developer (Richard Gaines) who's a minor character and a minor nuisance. Shades of Mary Poppins, her ad is answered by retired, well-to-do millionaire Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn, who won an Oscar for his performance). He walks past the lines of people waiting on the steps outside, opens the door, removes the "room for rent" sign and announces that it's been rented already. With equal aplomb and arrogance, he pretty much coerces Connie to take him in. But it doesn't take long before she wishes she hadn't—and not because of the predictable (but still fun to watch) he/she sharing of space awkwardness. When a good-looking young sergeant who had read the ad shows up a few days later carrying an airplane propeller, the eccentric Mr. Dingle offers to sublet half of his half of the apartment to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea). And so the stage is set for a hybrid comedy of manners and bedroom farce that even offers an allusion or two to that screwiest of screwball comedies, "It Happened One Night." In that classic, a sheet strung across a hotel room separated Clark Gable from Claudette Colbert. Here, the split-screen effect is accomplished by looking through the windows onto the principles as they talk through the paper-thin temporary wall that had been erected especially for the purpose of subletting. What's interesting is that Connie first experiences the awkwardness with Mr. Dingle before she experiences it all over again with Joe.
"The More the Merrier" isn't as breezy and frenetic as the best classic screwball comedies, nor does it have the breathless, rapid-fire exchanges of overlapping dialogue that propelled such films as "His Girl Friday" and "Bringing Up Baby." But Coburn certainly earned his statue, creating a believable combination of eccentric curmudgeon and resolute cupid. Once Mr. Dingle set his sights on pairing these two, you knew that not even the Army could keep them apart. Too bad there wasn't more snap and crackle to offset his pop. More chemistry between McCrea and Arthur would have made the audiences merrier. It's Dingle who really woos the camera and wows viewers. He's quite the comic actor, too.
Typical of the madcap comedies, there are slapstick moments, as when Dingle tries to leave with his pants and the suspenders catch on a doorknob, then fling the pants out the window. There are also some goofball moments, as when a twenty-something "boy scout" friend of Connie's walks in on Joe as he's trying to look at Connie and her fiancé out on the street through his binoculars to get a glimpse of the competition. Just as now people are discovering that you can't joke about homeland security, Joe makes the mistake of scaring the "lad" (was this before child actors?) who asks him why he's spying on someone. "BECAUSE I'M JAPANESE," he shouts, and ends up getting a visit from the FBI, which results in a station house scene that will remind viewers of the near-finale in "Bringing Up Baby." The theme in this wartime film is introduced early, when Mr. Dingle comes upon a statue of Admiral Farragut with the words, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" on the base. That's his business mantra, and his formula for matchmaking, and clearly the studio's message to their wartime audiences.
The picture quality is wonderful, remastered in High Definition and presented in black and white in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Film buffs will find this one a perfect example of "Vaseline close-ups," where Arthur and McCrea are always shown in slightly blurred soft-focus—which is really noticeable because images in the film are so strikingly sharp.
Predictably, the audio befits the time period—Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, so there's a lot of center-speaker action. But most of the film is dialogue, so that's not much of a problem, and the sound, for mono, has a resonant quality.
Aside from the scene selections, there are no extras.
"The More the Merrier" was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Story, Best Screenplay, and won for Best Supporting Actor. "Casablanca" won Best Picture that year, incidentally, as did its director. But Stevens eventually had his day(s), winning the Oscar for "A Place in the Sun" (1951) and "Giant" (1956). Among his movies, you'd have to rate "The More the Merrier" as solid but not spectacular entertainment.