When it comes to romantic comedy, classic Hollywood has everybody beat. If you haven’t seen a rom-com from the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s, you’re denying yourself one of life’s greatest joys. There are many I could recommend, but for my money, the gold standard may just be George Stevens’s The More the Merrier (1943). The film is unique in that its premise should render it completely outdated — it takes place during the Washington, D.C. housing shortage in WWII — yet it feels fresh, vibrant, and exciting. When Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) decides to rent out half of her apartment, she winds up with eccentric Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) as her roommate. Having taken a liking to Connie, Dingle takes it upon himself to play matchmaker for her by renting out half of his half to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a handsome young man who will soon be going overseas on a secret military assignment. Joe and Connie are clearly meant to be, but it takes an awful lot of scheming on Dingle’s part to get them together. Which leads me to a certain heart-stopping, goosebump-inducing, ten-minute-long sequence.
When Dingle and Joe run into Connie and her stuffy fiancé Charles Pendergast (Richard Gaines), Dingle masterfully distracts Pendergast, allowing Joe to walk Connie back to their apartment alone. As they stroll, they pass one cozy couple after the next. Nervous, Connie chatters away, asking Joe questions about his childhood. The conversation seems harmless enough, but the visuals tell a different story as Joe finds clever ways to keep his hands on Connie, causing her to twist out of his grasp. They soon settle on their building’s stoop. In the hopes of reminding Joe (and herself) that she is engaged, Connie prattles on about Pendergast as Joe caresses her arms and shoulders.
And then she makes a mistake. While showing Joe her engagement ring, he kisses her hand, eliciting a quiet gasp from Connie. He then grazes her neck with his lips, causing her to close her eyes and hold her breath, trying in vain to regain her composure. It’s too late, though. Joe brings her in for a kiss and she responds with a second, more passionate kiss. Dazed, they say goodnight and start to go their separate ways – until they remember they live in the same apartment.
Lying in their beds, separated only by a thin wall, the two talk about Dingle pushing them together. Always the wary one, Connie insists they must think things through. After all, she has a fiancé and Joe will be leaving in a few days for Africa. George Stevens’s camerawork is flawless in this scene. As Connie speaks, the camera lingers on her, but once she brings up the circumstances that are keeping her and Joe apart, the camera slowly pans over until it includes both of them in the same shot, their shared wall a physical manifestation of their inability to be united.
We then cut to a close-up of Joe. “I can’t sleep,” he states. “I love you, Connie. … If you felt the same way, would you tell me?” In a beautifully composed close-up, Connie admits “I love you more than anything in the world.” Joe is delighted, while she is scared to have finally said it out loud. He proposes and Connie quickly accepts, but reality sets in. In less than 36 hours, Joe will be gone and they may never see each other again. “It’s an awful problem, isn’t it…darling?” Connie tearfully says, her voice catching in her throat as she calls Joe “darling” for the first time. “Sure is…dear,” he replies.
By this point, Stevens’s camera has remained in close-up, a choice that emphasizes the vulnerability and intimacy of the scene. The audience can’t help but feel that they are right there with Arthur and McCrea, which makes the moment all the more genuine and tender. Having decided that getting married would be “no good at all,” a devastated Connie whispers, “I guess you better go to sleep, darling.” “Goodnight, dear,” Joe whispers back. Believing this to be the last time they’ll ever be able to call each other by such loving epithets, Connie begins to say “Goodnight, Mr. Carter” only to stop herself and replace “Carter” with a final heartfelt “darling.”
While The More the Merrier is unrelenting in its charm and humor, these two scenes knock me out every time. The film seems to be taking a breath as it slows down and lets us bask in Arthur and McCrea’s magical chemistry for ten gloriously dreamy minutes, minutes that encompass intense sexuality, deep love, and unbelievable heartache. From top to bottom, The More the Merrier is goofy, sweet, and enchanting, a film that begs for repeat viewings just so you can soak in all of McCrea’s subtle reactions, Arthur’s tremendous performance, and Coburn’s hilarious (and Oscar-winning!) machinations.
You can catch Joel McCrea in one of his finest late-career roles in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962), which is playing at the IU Cinema on April 22. The screening is part of The Wide, Wide West series.
Previous Jean Arthur films that have appeared at the Cinema are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Monday Matinee Classics series) and Shane (City Lights Film Series), which was also directed by George Stevens.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, Michaela has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.