Mr. Breen, I presume…
The thing that people talk about when it comes to the American home front during World War Two, besides rationing, war jobs, and scrap drives, is how crowded the cities were. Residents of Mobile, Alabama liked to say that all someone had to do was bend down to tie their shoe and a line would form behind them. That was the case in other cities than Mobile, as well. San Diego saw its population of two hundred thousand increase by fifty percent in the first six months after America entered the war. The situation was so bad, military families were being boarded in school cafeterias.
Nowhere was more chockablock, however, than Washington, D.C. Between the regular government workers, elected officials, the temporary war workers called “government girls,” those employed in the War Department, and so on and so forth, the place was hopping. In all likelihood, the unusual conditions made for some unconventional living situations, and it was only a matter of time before someone decided to let art imitate life. George Stevens did this when he made the rollicking 1943 film, The More, the Merrier, which not only pokes sly fun at wartime life, but also at Production Code mandates concerning male-female relations.
Mr. Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) arrives in Washington to work on the housing problem, and finds that he’s arrived two days early, which means the hotel room he reserved isn’t free yet. There’s nothing for him to do but weave his way out of the standing-room-only lobby to make other arrangements, and Mr. Dingle walks around dejectedly until he spies a statue of Admiral Farragut that says, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” After that, things look up. Mr. Dingle sees an ad in a paper for a nice room in a two-bedroom apartment. He goes to the building to find only about twenty people of both sexes standing around waiting to see the room as well. Casually, Mr. Dingle walks up the steps, grabs the “No Vacancy” sign, and hangs it on the door. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but the room is already rented.”
“May I ask why you put us to the bother of coming here?” demands a middle-aged woman.
“No, you may not,” says Mr. Dingle, and goes inside, leaving the seething crowd to disperse.
Meanwhile, Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), the resident of the two-bedroom apartment, comes up to find a strange old man at her front door. She tries to fend him off by telling him she prefers to rent to a lady, but Mr. Dingle is a persuasive fella. Connie finally agrees, but with misgivings.
Even so, she tries to retain control of the situation by laying out the morning schedule. There’s no way to describe it coherently, so I’ll let Connie do her own talking:
Did you get all that? No? Yeah, me either. Suffice it to say that Mr. Dingle’s first morning in Connie’s apartment doesn’t exactly go according to plan.
Mr. Dingle asks Connie why she isn’t married to some high-type, clean-cut, nice young fellow. Connie is noticeably affronted and evades the question. After she goes to work the next morning, however, a man (Joel McCrea) holding a propeller shows up at the apartment in answer to the ad, and when Mr. Dingle sees him, the wheels in his brain start turning. Surreptitiously shoving the “No Vacancy” sign through the mail slot, he tells this guy, “You seem like a high-type, clean-cut, nice young fellow,” and long story short, rents half of his room to him. For six bucks, which was half of what Mr. Dingle paid for the week. They could do that in 1943.
Of course, Connie doesn’t know she now has two men around instead of one. She comes home after work and is blissfully getting comfortable in her room while doing the rhumba to “What Is This Thing Called Love?”. Her two roommates can’t keep still either, and with all three of them wiggling around the apartment, it’s a wonder Connie doesn’t bump into the newcomer sooner. She does, though, while wearing a bathrobe and facial mask. Nah, not awkward at all.
Mr. Dingle’s instincts were right about the new guy, whose name is Joe Carter. He’s in Washington while he gets ready to ship out, he comes from Burbank, and he works for the Tokyo Baby Carriage Company. Translation: He’s part of a bomber crew bound for the Pacific. Joe is not only the high-type, clean-cut, nice young fellow Mr. Dingle hoped Connie would meet, but he can’t seem to be in water without barking like a seal.
Joe is quite taken with his new landlady, and over breakfast the next morning, the three of them really get acquainted. Connie reveals that she’s been engaged for two years to Mr. Charles J. Pendergast of the OPL, a (fictional) government agency, but the two of them haven’t gotten married because of the war. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Mr. Dingle reminds her, giving the table a pound which makes Connie, Joe and the breakfast jump. Connie is not impressed, and she lets drop that Mr. Pendergast has been to dinner at the White House twice. Joe and Mr. Dingle exchange glances. “Worst food in Washington,” says Mr. Dingle.
Later on, Mr. Dingle meets Mr. Pendergast (Richard Gaines) at a meeting, where he rouses everyone with his now-trademark bullish attitude. Mr. Pendergast throws shade at Mr. Dingle, and Mr. Dingle chuckles at what a stick-in-the-mud Mr. Pendergast is.
Our apartment-dwellers manage to settle into some sort of tacit routine, and one day the three of them are sunning themselves on the roof of the building. Unfortunately, Mr. Dingle accidentally finds Connie’s diary, and when she discovers him reading it, she kicks him out. Poor Joe is caught in the middle, but Mr. Dingle leaves a letter behind the next morning saying that Joe is innocent of all wrongdoing. It’s a good thing, too, because Connie was going to show Joe the door as well. Joe softens her up even further by giving her a gorgeous leather travel bag, and the chemistry between them suddenly rises. So much so, that the two of them make plans to go to dinner if Mr. Pendergast doesn’t call first. He does, but not before a kid named Morton (Stanley Clements) shows up asking Connie if he should join the Boy Scouts.
Instead, Joe meets up with Mr. Dingle, and they find themselves in the same club as Connie and Charles. It’s swarming with people, natch, and Connie is already uncomfortable because Charles suddenly wants to be married right away. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” he intones, giving the table a pound like someone else we know. “With reservations, of course,” he quickly adds. Sigh.
Fortunately for Connie (or not), she and Charles share a table with Mr. Dingle and Joe. Mr. Dingle and Charles end up talking shop, but the informal, unreserved atmosphere of the club ruffles Mr. Reservations’ feathers. The two of them go back to Mr. Dingle’s hotel room, leaving Connie and Joe doing the rhumba on the dance floor. To be honest, the two of them barely notice, and Joe walks Connie home.
Yeah, about that.
Since Mr. Dingle has moved out of Connie’s apartment, Connie and Joe live together, albeit in separate bedrooms, and they both know it. Their walk home is pretty steamy, and Connie gives up trying to fend Joe off. How things resolve neither one of them see coming, but the inevitable does happen (No, not that. The proprieties must be observed, don’t you know. 😉 ).
This is a movie that not only pushed the Production Code envelope, but tore at it ever so discreetly. The sexual tension between Connie and Joe is thick enough to slice. When they get romantic on their way home, Joe is nuzzling Connie’s neck and she’s almost moaning. Seeing as physical displays of affection had to be very restrained during the Production Code era, this would have been pushing things. The fact that these two inadvertently live together must have made people nervous as well. There’s even one scene where Connie and Joe are talking through the walls of their respective rooms, and except for a noticeable black line down the middle, it looks as if they’re in a double bed–unheard of in an era when married people in movies had to sleep in twin beds. The More, the Merrier was the last film George Stevens made before he went overseas with the Army Signal Corps, and it’s hardly a bit of a coinkydink that it’s full of wink-wink moments that likely kept the Hayes Office on its collective toes.
The More, the Merrier is endlessly clever and has so much going for it. The writing is side-splitting, the acting is fantastic, Jean Arthur is terrific as always, and the cast was obviously enjoying themselves. It’s a bit dated, but that’s half the charm of it–it’s George Stevens’s timely interpretation of very real circumstances. Even today, awkward living situations have rarely been this much fun. The film is also a terrific example of how much leeway filmmakers had within the Production Code guidelines.
For more Breening and tributes to the Breen era, please see Tiffany at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society Society. Thanks for inviting me to participate, Tiffany–it was fun! Check back here tomorrow, because this is gonna start:
Thanks for reading, everyone, and hasta mañana!
This film is available on Amazon.