Along with a full load of Tribeca Film Festival press screenings, I have also managed to watch The More the Merrier twice in two days. I’ve had some long days recently. It’s comforting to come home, flop in a chair, and lose myself in this adult comedy which has elements of a French farce (that apartment, and all those slamming doors and different entrances!) as well as a straight-up to-die-for wartime romance.
Jean Arthur, one of my favorite leading ladies, plays Constance Milligan, a working girl in Washington D.C., engaged to be married to a drip named Charles Pendergast, hilariously played by Richard Gaines. The war is on, and D.C. is overcrowded, so to show her patriotism, Constance puts out an ad to rent half of her apartment. A crowd of people show up on her stoop. An elderly gentleman named Benjamin Dingle (his first exchange with Arthur: “How do you do, I’m Benjamin Dingle.” Arthur takes one look at him and says, “You certainly are!”) is in town for a couple of weeks. He is a retired millionaire and, we learn later, is there to discuss housing laws and construction for all of the defense plants popping up around the country. But at the start of the film, he is just a dude who needs a place to stay. He commandeers Constance’s apartment, over her objections. She wanted to rent to a lady. But Mr. Dingle, as played by Charles Coburn, is a charmer, and manages to override her objections in, yes, a bossy way, but a humorous way as well. He tells her he’s neat, he’s clean, and he won’t borrow her dresses and spill cocktails on them like a lady roommate would, so where should he sleep? Well, Miss Milligan is a patriotic young lady, so she allows Mr. Dingle to stay.
On his first night in the apartment, she barges into his room, in her pajamas, and shows him a morning schedule that she has drawn out, so that both of them can be up, in and out of the shower, fed, and out of the house by 7:30. She has a floor plan and shows him how it will go: “7:01, you get the milk outside, while I jump in the shower, 7:03, you put the coffee on, 7:05: I put the eggs on while you jump in the shower …” etc. It is overwhelming. The following morning, naturally, is a screwball attempt to play out the schedule. Poor Mr. Dingle. He clutches her instructions in his hand and races around like a madman, getting everything wrong, all as she glares at him. They accidentally lock each other out. Mr. Dingle is forced to crawl around on the fire escape in his pajamas to get back in. Constance, who, in Jean Arthur’s hands, is immediately recognizable as a fussy and maybe mildly unhappy young woman, despite her strong surface, barks orders at him, moans in dismay when he does things out of order, and stands staring at him with a mouth full of toothpaste as he grins at her from outside through the bathroom window, begging to be let back in.
George Stevens directed, and he is a master at this kind of subtle and yet broad humor. It’s a tough mix. Holiday is in my Top 5 of all time, and almost every scene combines screwball elements with poignant character development, and suddenly serious and sweet communications. It’s a marvel.
Constance, all prim and dressed up for work, leaves a disoriented Mr. Dingle in the apartment and goes out to catch a ride in the most adorable and tiny car ever made, filled with young women carpooling to work. Off they go.
When Mr. Dingle finally leaves the apartment, he encounters a young man on the stoop, who obviously is there to see about the apartment. He is a handsome and yet distracted young man, deep in thought, and, oh yeah, he is carrying a giant plane propeller. (Which is never explained. I love that.) He is Joe Carter, played by the handsome, sexy, wonderful Joel McCrea. He needs a room. He is taciturn, almost grumpy. He does not respond to Mr. Dingle’s friendliness. And although it is not Mr. Dingle’s apartment to rent, he decides to rent HIS half of his room to Joe Carter, and pocket the money. Mr. Dingle! What are you DOING? He shows Joe Carter the room (and he keeps calling Joe “Bill”, because he looks like a “Bill Carter” that he knew, which is also a funny ongoing bit – “So, Bill – ” “Joe.”). He tries to find out why Mr. Carter is in Washington. Carter isn’t talking. He says the propeller is a fancy new kind of garden bench. He says he makes baby carriages. He basically implies with his silent-man behavior, “None of this is your business, old man. Where do I sleep?”
All of this goes down without Constance’s stamp of approval.
Naturally, the following morning, there are three people who need to get in and out of the shower, and Mr. Dingle, panicked, hasn’t even told Constance that another man is now staying in her apartment. He hides it from her. The set is a masterpiece. There is a living room, two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a bathroom, all connected by a small hallway, and George Stevens plumbs the depths of every corner of that set. Every single inch of it is used for comedic possibility, and by the end of the film we know that space so well that we feel that we live there ourselves. Jean Arthur is oblivious to the fact that two men live with her now, although the apartment is so small you know that it is just a matter of time before the truth is revealed. Finally, Arthur, with a face full of cold cream, walks past Joe Carter, in his robe, in the hallway, and she keeps going but then, in a goofy full-stop which makes me laugh out loud every time I see it, she stands frozen, realizing … oh … my … God … who was that …
The fact that Arthur’s face is smeared in cold cream makes the following confrontation even more hilarious. “Who furnished this apartment, who painted the walls?” she demands of Dingle. “This place is MINE.”
Earlier, when it was just Mr. Dingle and Constance, there is a moment which is eloquent of all that follows, and I think explains Mr. Dingle’s reasoning. Their bedrooms share a wall and Stevens, beautifully, shoots from outside the apartment on the fire escape, so that you can see into both bedrooms at the same time. The beds both lie against the same wall, which will become very important in a later breathlessly sexy scene.
The window is used throughout the film in so many innovative ways.
So through one window we see Mr. Dingle lying in bed reading, and through the other window we see Constance in her pajamas, sitting on her bed writing in her diary. Mr. Dingle calls out to her (and the windows are open, so they speak in a conversational decibel), “Miss Milligan?” “Yes, Mr. Dingle.” “Do you keep a diary?” She is shocked and embarrassed, and shoves the diary under the covers. She huffs, “I certainly do not.” Mr. Dingle responds, “Well, that’s good. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who write in their diaries about all the things they haven’t done yet, and those who are too busy to keep a diary because they are out there doing the things they want to do.” Ouch. Even earlier, when Constance had attacked him with the rigid morning schedule, Mr. Dingle listens for a bit, but his mind starts to wander as he considers this gloriously funny and yet 100% serious pajamaed woman before him. He says to her when she finishes, “Miss Milligan, why aren’t you married?” Again, Constance gets huffy. “I beg your pardon!” Mr. Dingle says, “A nice pretty woman like you should have been snatched up long ago.”
All I am saying is that when the handsome guy carrying a plane propeller shows up on her doorstep, I think Mr. Dingle may have motives beyond getting half of his rent paid by someone else. But The More the Merrier is so smart to not make Mr. Dingle into a kindly altruistic old man playing matchmaker. Mr. Dingle can be quite devious, as well as downright hurtful at times, and when push comes to shove, he throws Constance under the bus. But even there he has a deeper motive. The film avoids sentimentality entirely and has a real cynical edge to it, which makes the softer moments even more fraught and poignant.
Constance eventually caves and allows Joe Carter to stay, and there is a very interesting breakfast scene where the three of them sit at the table and eat eggs and talk. Joe Carter stares at her. “What are you gawking at?” snips Constance. “You,” replies Joe Carter seriously. She informs him snottily that she is engaged to be married to a “Charles J. Pendergast” and she goes on to list his voluminous accomplishments to her very unimpressed audience of two. Mr. Dingle says, “Don’t you ever call him Chuck? Or Charlie?”
In this one scene, we see the men, who up until this point have been rather distant and professional with one another, join up on the same side to gang up on the girl. It happens elegantly, swiftly, and is so realistic. That is how things go down in life. I have been in that situation so many times, when suddenly, out of nowhere, I am being teased by two men who have suddenly become BFFs in the face of the glory of teasing a lady who makes the mistake of wanting to be taken seriously. It’s such a funny scene. By the end of the breakfast, Constance stalks out, head held high, leaving behind two moronic guys giggling and making jokes at the table, leaving the lady of the house completely shut out.
The ganging up becomes more acute in a great scene on the rooftop of the apartment building, crowded with people (side note: I want a roof like that on my building!). Constance, Joe, and Mr. Dingle lie on blankets. Constance reads, and Joe and Mr. Dingle take turns reading out loud the Superman comic strip to one another, as Constance yawns and judges them from her blanket. Makes me think that some things never change.
She goes downstairs and accidentally leaves her diary behind. Mr. Dingle promptly picks it up and starts reading it, even when Joe Carter says, “You really shouldn’t be doing that …” Mr. Dingle reports to him that Constance apparently likes Joe a lot and thinks he’s an upstanding young man. Joe forgets his moral objections and gets interested. “What else does she say?”
Naturally, Constance comes back for her diary and discovers them poring over the pages together. Her hurt and her sense of betrayal is beautifully portrayed by Arthur – and there are times when she even has trouble getting the lines out. When Arthur’s heartbroken, there is no one more pathetic and yet sympathetic. She throws Mr. Dingle out. When she learns that Joe Carter will probably sleep in the park that night, she reluctantly allows him to stay.
And now things get even more interesting.
I wouldn’t dream of revealing more, just in case you haven’t seen this wonderful film, the best of its kind.
The sexual and romantic tension between Arthur and McCrea is there between them from their very first interaction. It’s primal and palpable, a genuine yearning towards one another. There’s an ache to it, an ache to their separation. She’s engaged to a careerist bore who wears a terribly obvious toupee, and yet she can’t help but be drawn to her boarder with the giant propeller. Joe Carter is clearly in the service of the government somehow, but he never reveals what exactly it is he is doing for them, although he does say that he is off to Africa in only two days. Movies like this don’t work if there isn’t a giant clock winding down on the two hopeful lovers.
And make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a young Ann Savage, belly-up to the bar in the nightclub scene, clearly recognizable, and important in setting up the ongoing conceit that in D.C. men are outnumbered by women 8 to 1. Thank you to Kent Adamson for pointing her out to me!
Jean Arthur is funny, never funnier than when she is trying to be desperately serious. Yet she always manages to suggest the loneliness at the heart of this woman, something she would never speak aloud, or allow herself to be self-pitying about. But she enjoys having company at the breakfast table. It livens her day. Her career has hardened her somewhat. She has difficulty softening up in interpersonal interactions. But Mr. Dingle sees right through her, to the loyal loving woman underneath, and when he meets Charles Pendergast at a meeting, he clocks him right away as unworthy of the glorious dame back in that apartment.
McCrea reminds me here of a young William Holden, with a dry line delivery that makes the simplest statement hugely comedic (“She’s my landlady.”). Although he keeps his own counsel, and is a serious young man, he is not so into his work that he doesn’t recognize how awesome Miss Milligan is, and how much he wants to … be with her … please her … take care of her. He admits later that he will “worry” about her when he is in Africa. He is not a mischief-maker, not like Mr. Dingle, but he can’t help his feelings. He wants this woman. You’ll never catch him saying that before it’s time, however. It’s a beautiful performance, funny, sexy, romantic, intelligent. Part of the fun of The More the Merrier is watching the plot unfold, watching the characters grope their way towards one another.
And Charles Coburn is hilarious in his role as Mr. Benjamin Dingle. Racing around the apartment in his pajamas, clutching an alarm clock, trying to please his time-conscious landlady, and managing to suggest both a goofy old man and a sharp-as-a-tack young shark. Nothing gets by him. He’s old. He’s seen it all. He knows that it is ridiculous that someone as terrific as Miss Milligan would be engaged to such a moron, and he knows that it is ridiculous that she hasn’t been snatched up already. During his first interaction with her, he takes a moment to contemplate her, shakes his head and murmurs to himself, “If I were younger …” Funniest and best part about The More the Merrier is that, even with its romance (and it is very very romantic – even erotic), the real sense you get watching it is that these three unlikely people actually become good friends over the course of the film. It is not at all a stretch to imagine the three of them going out to dinner and talking and laughing the night away once the film is over. The three actors all form relationships individually with one another, so that the film becomes a giant rotating triangle of alliances and mergings and divergings, but beneath all of that is a sense that they actually all like each other as people.
It makes what happens at the end infinitely satisfying.
There’s a famous scene in The More the Merrier where Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur walk down a street talking, all in one take. It’s famous for a couple of reasons. First of all, there’s the one-take factor. There’s a lot of dialogue, and a lot of behavior in this walk – it’s incredibly complex, and to do it in one take requires an enormous amount of focus and concentration, not only for the actors, but for all the extras, the director, the crew, the cameras … It may have been easier to break it up into smaller chunks, but you really would lose the living, breathing sense that this walk is going down in real time.
It’s also famous due to how, well, hot it is. It’s one of the sexiest scenes in American film. There is so much to say about how elegantly it is done, and how beautifully it is played, but there is still something about it that shocks, even in today’s world where we’d see them fully naked in a following scene. Two nude bodies can’t come close to suggesting the eroticism of what goes on during that walk (clip at the bottom of this post). Watch his hands. Her dress is perfectly designed to up the eroticism, with its exposed shoulders. At one point, he tries to help her on with her stole, and his hands get dangerously close to a dangerous area, flesh to flesh, before she gently moves his hand away. All the while, they are talking, talking, talking, talking. That’s my favorite part about this great scene. The subtext is a primal desire to get naked … NOW. But that is never spoken. On the surface, they discuss his family, his childhood friends, a girl he goes with … everything but what is going on with his hands, which, frankly, are all over her. In an insistent and yet gentle way. And watch how she keeps moving his hands off. She keeps trying to divert the conversation, and yet he’s a smart man, and he’s also turned on beyond belief, and so he keeps at it. He never stops the conversation, but those hands, man. He is eager. He wants what he wants. He knows she wants it too. It gives him courage to keep trying.
Putting all of this across at the same time, in a rigorous one-take structure, is so difficult, so difficult. It requires real acting. This is like a scene in a play, where the physical behavior must be obvious enough to reach the cheap seats, and yet you cannot sacrifice the dialogue or the internal timing. Everything has to be right. The walk has to be timed perfectly, they have to hit their marks by the tree, they have to react to all of the spooning couples around them, they have to say their lines in the right order and also fill them up with intention and objective, and they also have to play the subtext, of desire, of his hands on her, of her desire to have his hands on her, of her conflicting fears about her fiancé. It’s perfect, how it is pulled off. I have watched it too many times to count because it is such a joy to watch these brilliant actors do their thing at such a high level of talent, focus, and timing.
When there is finally a cut, it is because they have arrived at her (their) doorstep. Watch how he pulls her down onto the steps, as though it is a big double bed. Breathtaking. Meanwhile, they keep talking. Talking about everything else that is going on besides the fact that they want to kiss, they must kiss, and yes, his hands are wandering everywhere.
A kiss on the neck in this context is more sexual than a dirty rut in a crumpled bed.
His arms keep trying to grasp her, and she never gets annoyed, she never gets huffy, although she does gently remove his tentacles from her repeatedly. Finally, in a moment that makes me catch my breath, he puts his hand around her throat, essentially holding her still, getting her ready for what is coming next. He kisses her as she is mid-sentence, and although she succumbs to the kiss, she comes out of it and picks right back up where she left off. She seems less certain now, however. Charles Pendergast never put his hand around her damn throat to kiss her, you can bet your life on that. And then, amazingly, she makes the next move, and reaches up to grab his face, and kiss him back. A powerful gesture from Arthur, both submitting to him and taking control of him, in the same moment.
Like I said, one of the hottest scenes in American film.
A kiss is not just a kiss. A kiss is an entire world. A kiss is filled with baggage and conflict and yearning and fighting. A kiss is made up of history, life stories. In a sense, Constance grilling Joe on their one-take walk about his family, his siblings, his childhood, can be seen as a Cliff Notes version of her getting the details she needs before she knows what is going to be going down between them in, oh, about 20 seconds. Arthur isn’t playing that on the nose. She doesn’t play anything on the nose. One could interpret her behavior as the typical womanly brushing-off of a too-insistent man. But things are never that simple.
His hands are on her exposed shoulder. Imagine what that feels like to her. How much she wants it, how much she loves it, how frightened that makes her because … what about Charles Pendergast? Joe Carter has the same feelings. He’s falling in love with her, dammit, and that sucks, because A. He’s leaving in two days, and B. She’s engaged to that horrible guy. But when a woman you are falling for exposes a creamy shoulder right in front of you because her stole has slipped off … it is just too much to ask that you don’t … touch it. Repeatedly.
It is a swoon, for both characters, and it carries tremendous weight.