The legendary film director George Stevens is primarily known for three movies he made in the 1950s: “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane” and “Giant.” Those pictures — all now regarded as classics — were built around serious, even majestic themes that revealed much about our national character and shifting values during times of upheaval in our history. Which is why they are often referred to as Stevens’s “American Trilogy.”
With or without that lofty rubric, there is no doubt that Stevens himself viewed those three films as the crowning achievements of his distinguished career.
Fair enough, but as much as we appreciate those triumphs, we should not overlook the more lighthearted films he made during an earlier phase of his career. Back in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, Stevens’s forte was comedy, and his best work in that genre may well have been a delightful romp called “The More the Merrier,” which will be shown at Movies at the Library next Tuesday evening, March 4, at 7 p.m.
“The More the Merrier” was released in 1943 when World War II was raging on battlefields around the globe. Here on the “home front” (as it was called), the center of action was Washington, D.C. Thousands of Americans from coast to coast were summoned to the nation’s capital to contribute to the war effort in one way or another, and that led, inevitably, to a severe housing shortage.
That’s the dilemma that drives the plot of the film. A young woman, Connie Milligan (played by Jean Arthur), is willing to do her bit for the cause, and so she places an ad to share her small apartment. What she envisions for a suitable roommate, of course, is another woman. (This is, after all, the 1940s.)
But yielding to the adroit manipulations of a retired millionaire named Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), Connie reluctantly agrees to sublet half of her apartment to him. Soon thereafter, Dingle runs into Sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), who has no place to stay while he waits for orders to be shipped overseas. So Dingle generously rents him half of his half, and somehow persuades Connie to go along with that deal.
Connie’s struggles to adjust to sharing her home with two male strangers — one of whom is old enough to be her father and the other close to her own age — are hilarious. In particular, scenes depicting their morning preparations for the day ahead turn into frantic scrambles of confusion worthy of comparison to French farce at its best.
But Dingle — and Stevens — have more on their minds than living arrangements in cramped quarters. Dingle turns out to be an elderly Cupid, and he soon begins to work his wiles on Joe and Connie, nudging them toward a romantic alliance.
The two of them are clearly attracted to each other, but there’s a problem. Connie is already engaged to a high-level bureaucrat named Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines), who happens to be a dull and pompous stuffed shirt — as Dingle discovers when he meets Pendergast at a business luncheon.
That encounter spurs the old fox to pursue his matchmaking efforts with renewed vigor and determination. There remain a few more amusing complications to overcome, but in the end, thanks to Dingle and his stratagems, Connie and Joe get married.
The picture’s three stars are all at the top of their form, but Coburn pretty much steals the movie. His character is an avid admirer of David Farragut, the Civil War admiral, and at critical intervals in “The More the Merrier,” he bellows, in a thundering voice, Farragut’s famous command: “Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!”
For his performance, Coburn received an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, and Arthur was nominated in the Best Actress category. As for Stevens, the movie brought him his first of five Best Director nominations, two of which led to his winning the Oscar — for “A Place in the Sun” and “Giant.”
Shortly after “The More the Merrier” was released, Stevens joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and headed a film unit under General Eisenhower from 1943 to 1946. Then, following his return to civilian life, he turned his attention to more serious themes and created the classic films for which he is justly celebrated.
So “The More the Merrier” was Stevens’s last pure comedy and, it must be said, his parting shot in that genre was a home run. And that’s your cue to join us next Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. in the library’s community room. The more of you who attend, the merrier it will be for all of us.