There’s screwball comedy, and then there’s great screwball comedy. In order to make a screwball comedy move from the average up to the brilliant, there seems to be one sure fire ingredient necessary: a strong leading lady. Of course when choosing a female lead for screwball comedy, it always helps to pick one of the best, like Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, or my personal favorite, Jean Arthur. Her career included more than just screwball comedy, but it was these roles where Jean Arthur would shine. In films like Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), Easy Living (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and Talk Of The Town (1942), Jean Arthur combined her brilliant comic timing with a natural chemistry with her co-stars, and ended up being in some of the funniest movies from that era. Even when you look at her supporting role in the serious Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), Jean Arthur fills her scenes with light-hearted comedy and helps the film not seem as heavy and somber.
Perhaps more than any of her other films, the Best Picture nominated The More The Merrier (1943) stands out as the funniest performance of her career. Jean Arthur plays Constance Milligan, a single woman living alone in a two bedroom apartment in overcrowded Washington D.C. Because of the housing shortage, she decides to sublet out her extra room.
Retired millionaire, Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), is in town for some meetings about future housing projects, but since he came early his hotel room is unavailable. He convinces Constance to sublet her extra room to him, even though she was hoping for a female roommate. Constance lives a very scheduled life, as Dingle quickly discovers, and he decides that what she needs in her life is a husband that will help shake things up. Dingle meets Sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), who is waiting to be shipped out at the end of the week, and decides to sublet half of his room to Carter (unbeknownst to Constance). Comedy ensues while Dingle pulls out all the tricks in his bag, in order to get these two lovebirds together before Carter has to leave.
To say that The More The Merrier is a funny movie is an enormous understatement. Every scene is filled with nonstop laughs, and each performance is wickedly entertaining. Charles Coburn gives the performance of his career, and he won the much-deserved Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his work. He is the highlight of the film, and if you are unfamiliar with his work, this role and performance will cement himself into your mind from this point on.
While watching The More The Merrier it becomes obvious that the film works so well because of the incredible cast. All three of the stars had careers filled with comedic performances, and this film feels like a culmination of their vast experience in Hollywood, as well as the screwball genre. It’s interesting to note (at least to me) that between 1937 and the release of The More The Merrier in 1943, all three actors appeared in different hilarious films that were written by one of the greatest comedic writers of all time, Preston Sturges. Charles Coburn starred in The Lady Eve (1941) and Joel McCrea was in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), both of which were also directed by Sturges. Jean Arthur starred in Easy Living (1937), which Sturges wrote before his directorial career began. In coming together, all three actors understood the type of film that was being made, and therefore knew exactly what was going to generate the most laughs.
Something that surprises me about The More The Merrier is that it was directed by George Stevens. When I think about Stevens and his illustrious career there are many films that come to mind, like A Place In The Sun (1951), The Diary Of Anne Frank (1959), Shane (1954), or even Giant (1956), but I never think of him as being a comedic director. Obviously this is just an oversight on my part, because The More The Merrier is one of my favorite comedies, and a film that everyone should see. That is, as long as you like to laugh.
In total, The More The Merrier was nominated for six Academy Awards. Coburn’s win for Best Supporting Actor is the only victory it scored, but it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Writing: Story, and Best Writing: Screenplay.
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