“The More The Merrier” and Charles Coburn: 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon Post #3
Arguably the most well-known scene from Stardust Memories is when Woody Allen, playing a successful but unhappy filmmaker, dreams he meets aliens from another planet, and the aliens claim to enjoy his films, particularly the earlier, funny ones. Many critics of Allen have expressed this sentiment, and I’m not one of them – I think Allen his his stride with Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah & her Sisters, and other films that skillfully combined comedy and drama – and I also tend to think comedy actors and comedians are overly knocked these days if they dare try to step outside of the comedy box. I do, however, understand the sentiment – comedy is often treated as something not important (or, as Allen himself as expressed, it sits at the kids’ table while drama is for the grown-ups), which is frustrating for its fans – and in my opinion, it applies to one of the most well-known filmmakers of the studio era, George Stevens.
With the possible exception of his 1939 adventure film Gunga Din, and the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne 1943 tearjerker Penny Serenade, Stevens is probably best known today for his post-WWII films; the family drama I Remember Mama, the romantic tragedy/drama A Place in the Sun, the Western drama Shane, the southern epic Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank, and the religious epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (Something to Live For, a drama about alcoholics Stevens made after A Place in the Sun, has never been released on video or DVD, while his last film, The Only Game in Town, a romantic comedy/drama with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty, has just recently come out on Blu-Ray, but was generally ignored upon release). A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, and The Diary of Anne Frank were all nominated for Best Picture and Director (Stevens won Best Director for A Place in the Sun, and each of those films received several other nominations as well), Shane has shown up on several lists of the American Film Institute (100 Best Films of all time, 10 best Westerns, best line with “Shane! Come back!”), and that, A Place in the Sun and Giant are well-regarded in many circles. Yet, with the exception of A Place in the Sun – which, to me, is mostly bolstered by the acting of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor – these films, in general, seem to me to run on what Andrew Sarris once termed “strained seriousness”.
Stevens, of course, was one of many filmmakers who served in Europe during WWII (as part of the Army Signal Corps), and given he actually got to see firsthand the horrors of war as he photographed the concentration camps when the Allies liberated them, it’s understandable if he felt he could no longer go back to his pre-WWII movies. But though there are parts in these later films that I like – Jean Arthur, Alan Ladd and Jack Palance are all very good in Shane (Ladd and Palance are especially good in the scene where they size each other up), and James Dean’s performance in Giant (his last) is not only terrific, but shows he could have achieved great things as an actor had he lived – mostly, to me, these films lack the understanding of human nature, the attention to character, and the lightness of touch that marked his best pre-WWII films.* And my favorite of those pre-WWII films (which, to be sure, weren’t all comedies) is his 1943 romantic comedy The More the Merrier, starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and, in the role that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Charles Coburn.
Admittedly, on the face of it, the plot for The More the Merrier couldn’t be more ridiculous (while the screenplay is credited to Richard Flournoy, Lewis Foster, Frank Ross – Jean Arthur’s husband at the time – and Richard Russell, Arthur wanted Garson Kanin (Adam’s Rib) to write something for her, and though he didn’t received credit, Kanin, along with Ross and Russell, apparently wrote the bulk of the film). Benjamin Dingle (Coburn) is a retired millionaire who’s currently in Washington D.C. to serve as an adviser to the government about the current housing shortage; naturally, since he comes two days early, there are no rooms to be had anywhere. Dingle happens to see an ad for a room to rent, and he gets the room by going to the place and telling everyone who’s waiting there (the ad said to come at 5 pm) the room’s already taken, and then bulldozing over any objections Connie Milligan (Arthur), who placed the ad, may have (when she tells him she wanted a female roommate, Dingle breezily tells her since he’s not a woman, he won’t do things like borrowing her clothes without asking). While she’s at work the next day (we never learn her job, though she seems to be a secretary or clerk), Dingle, on his way out, runs into Joe Carter (McCrea), an Army sergeant and engineer, who’s looking for a room before he gets shipped overseas in a week. Dingle decides to rent Joe his half of the room. Naturally, when Connie finds out, she’s furious, especially since she has a fiancee by the name of Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines) – who, as it happens, is also working on the housing shortage problem. For no discernible reason (other than the fact Dingle feels Joe is a “high-type, clean-cut, nice young fellow”), Dingle decides Connie and Joe should be a couple instead, and he sets about to bring them together.
But what may seem ridiculous, or, at best, schematic, in its outline comes together on-screen. Stevens and Kanin pull off a balancing act of slapstick comedy and verbal comedy, and of both of those aspects with the romantic aspect of the picture (as Connie and Joe do end up falling in love). Stevens started off as a cameraman at Hal Roach Studios for Laurel and Hardy (he also wrote gags for them), and like his colleagues Frank Capra and Leo McCarey, who also began with silent comedies (McCarey also worked with Laurel and Hardy), he never lost the ability to stage a physical gag. Take, for instance, a bit of business involving a pair of pants with suspenders; when Dingle is showing Joe his room, Joe finds the pants under the sheets of Dingle’s bed, Dingle, embarrassed, takes them away, and then, as Dingle starts to follow Joe out of the room to explore the rest of the apartment, the suspenders get caught on the doorknob and fly away. And that’s only the beginning. Later, there’s the complicated scene where Dingle tries to keep Connie from knowing he’s rented out part of the apartment to Joe; it’s a scene we’ve seen several times before, but Stevens makes it work with only a minimal amount of camera trickery. Of course, the visual gags aren’t the only good ones in the film. Each character has a distinct way of speaking; Dingle, for example, taking his cue from the saying attributed to Admiral Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”), tends to barge through conversations (summed up when he tells Connie, “There are two kinds of people – those who don’t do what they want to do, so they write down in a diary about what they haven’t done, and those who are too busy to write about it because they’re out doing it!”), while Connie is very precise and orderly (the way she always calls her fiancee “Mr. Pendergast”, or the morning schedule she has detailed to the second, to which Dingle replies, “Do we do all this railroad time or Eastern War time?”), and Joe is cryptic as befitting his job, but talks like a “regular” guy otherwise (Dingle asks if Joe’s crowded like everyone else in Washington, and Joe responds, “I’m crowded like *nobody* else”).
Then, of course, there’s the romance, and it’s here the film truly shines. The most famous scene in the movie comes about 2/3 of the way through, after Connie, Joe, Dingle and Mr. Pendergast have all encountered each other at a nightclub (Connie said she would go out with Joe if Mr. Pendergast didn’t call by a certain time, but she did, and Joe told Dingle he would join him for dinner if things didn’t work out with Connie), and Dingle has sent Connie and Joe back to the apartment while he and Mr. Pendergast (who has grown slightly suspicious but not completely) work together. As they walk home, you can see Connie trying hard not to reveal how attracted she’s become to Joe (Joe has no such reservations about how he feels), and as she asks him about his old girlfriends and his views on marriage (which he thinks is okay “if you want it to be”), he starts to play around with the cape she’s wearing. Eventually, they get to the front stoop of their building, and they sit down. As the talk moves towards the type of work “Mr. Pendergast” does, and even Joe does, Joe starts kissing Connie on her neck and moving his hands all over her, while Connie does her best to keep up the conversation, almost as if she’s too nervous to stop talking.** In his autobiography The Name Above the Title, Capra would call this one of the sexiest (and funniest) scenes ever filmed, and he’s right on target. As with all romantic comedies of this time, there was a plot obstacle to be overcome, and here, in addition to Mr. Pendergast, it’s in the form of Joe getting falsely accused of being a spy (thanks to a neighbor of Connie’s spotting Joe with a pair of binoculars), and Connie being afraid of what it looks like for an unmarried woman living with a man. Those aspects may seem dated now, but because the payoff involving those turns into a great gag (which I won’t spoil), it doesn’t matter as much to me.
Of course, it helps Stevens had such great performers to work with as his central trio. This was the second of three films Arthur would do with Stevens (they worked together the previous year on The Talk of the Town, and her last film before she retired was Shane), and at this point in her career, at least in comedies, she was no longer playing the insouciant, cynical-with-a-heart-of-gold characters she had perfected in films like The Whole Town’s Talking, Easy Living, or the three films she did with Capra. Here, she’s playing someone serious and repressed, and given to being shocked easily. But while Billy Wilder, in a rare misstep, forced Arthur into something cartoonish when playing this character type five years later in A Foreign Affair, Stevens is gentler with her, and therefore she feels real instead of a caricature. And she has great chemistry with McCrea. This performance of McCrea’s may not be on the level of his best work (The Most Dangerous Game, Foreign Correspondent, Ride the High Country, and the two major films he did with Preston Sturges – Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story – are my personal favorites of his performances), but his combination of serenity and irascibility works well with both Arthur and Coburn. And the look McCrea gets on his face when Connie inadvertently lets it slip out that she loves Joe is priceless.
But the real force of the film is Coburn, and not just because Dingle himself is so forceful. Coburn, who started out on stage, didn’t come into movies until he was well into his 50’s, but while he certainly didn’t look like the average leading man to come out of Hollywood at the time, he had the personality that enabled him to hold the screen just as the more glamorous leading men did (in The Devil and Miss Jones, which he appeared in with Arthur two years earlier, he even played the lead role). And though Coburn was a versatile actor, who could appear in contemporary (Kings Row) and period roles (The Story of Alexander Graham Bell), he seemed most at home in comedy. He could play genial (The Lady Eve), secretly irascible (Heaven Can Wait), or someone with a hidden heart of gold (Bachelor Mother; in that film, Coburn also effectively combines comedy and pathos, as in the great line, “I don’t care who the father (of the baby Ginger Rogers is stuck with) is; I’m the grandfather!”). In addition to working with Arthur before, Coburn had also worked with Stevens before on Vivacious Lady, and seemed entirely comfortable under his direction here. Though his character is ultimately a plot device – getting the two lovers together – Coburn is able to give Dingle a life of his own, someone who, on the one hand, can speak convincingly about taking action on the housing shortage, and on the other hand, relax with Joe on the rooftop reading the comics (when Connie resignedly asks if that’s the best they can do with their time, Dingle replies, “I missed two Sundays with Superman once, and I’ve never felt right since”). And then there’s the way he uses the “damn the torpedoes” line, almost as a leitmotif (except he says “full speed ahead” instead of “full steam ahead”), and even in song. By contrast, Cary Grant wasn’t so bad, in his final film role, playing the Coburn part in the 1966 remake Walk, Don’t Run (Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton played the young lovers, and the film was set during in Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics), he wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t the driving force Coburn was. That force, as much as Stevens’ direction, Kanin’s script, and the chemistry between Arthur and McCrea, is why The More the Merrier works so well.
*-In his book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, writer James Harvey argues the heavy touch he thought Stevens had in his post-war films was present in his earlier films as well, but I don’t see it in his comedies, or even his one tearjerker, Penny Serenade (though admittedly, I never saw Vivacious Lady, the movie Harvey uses as an example). And even Harvey admits while Stevens, unlike other great directors of the time – Hawks and Sturges in particular – wasn’t that great in handling crowd scenes or scenes with several characters in it, he was a master at scenes with two or three characters interacting, whether for comic or romantic purposes.
** According to McCrea (as reported in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood), the stoop scene was partly inspired by how, between takes, McCrea would try and tease Arthur about her fear of performing (according to Capra, Arthur would throw up both before and after shooting scenes) by pretending to make a pass at her. Stevens, who liked to improvise on set (as did McCarey and other directors who came out of silent comedy), saw this and decided to use it.