Monday, December 6, 2010
War Stories Part 2 - "The More the Merrier"
Fair warning, I'm going to discuss pretty much the entire movie, so if you don't want to know the details, stick your fingers in your ears and sing, "La, la, la, la!" for the next half hour.
“The More the Merrier” (1943) brings the war story back to this side of pond now that the U.S. had entered the fighting and Americans had learned what it was to be, sort of, deprived. Americans had a different experience from Mrs. Miniver and family, and we handled The War with not so much with a stiff upper lip, as with a wisecrack. Tomorrow, December 7th, marks the anniversary of our reason for joining the fighting.
The main gag driving the film is the wartime housing shortage. For the first time in U.S. history, masses of people were moving all over the country at the same time. Servicemen and women were leaving home for military camps and then to points of embarkation. Young brides, those that could, followed inductee husbands to new posts stateside. Big cities called to a still mostly rural America to fill slots in war factories and civil government.
“The More the Merrier” is set in Washington, D.C., and teases us not only on the housing shortage, but on the befuddled bureaucracy of a democratic republic. The faux travelogue at the beginning reminds us we are in a city disparagingly once described as a place of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.
That used to be a joke. Son.
It also reflects wartime cheerleading to a frightened audience.
He shouts this motto so often, that one wonders if his exuberance is really because he gets to say the word “damn” with impunity. Evidently this caused less fuss than when Clark Gable uttered the cuss word in “Gone with the Wind” (1939) a mere four years earlier. You could say the dam broke.
Charles Coburn has arrived in the city too early for the hotel reservation made for him, so he tricks his way past a line of applicants to take the room for rent offered by Jean Arthur. She is also a government worker, and she has a small flat with an extra bedroom that she has chosen to rent to serve her country.
It is not until Coburn barges his way into her life that she begins to realize how empty her life has been.
She is reticent to take him on as a roomer because she prefers to have a woman living with her. She finally agrees to let him stay, but adds a caveat that they must be careful not to be seen coming and going together. Coburn’s rakish, proud, smile is so cute as he begins to understand she is afraid the neighbors will think they are shacking up, just one of the many instances they play off each other so well. He thanks her for the compliment.
Perhaps her ability to remain so deeply in character, so locked in the moment, was a defense mechanism that enabled Jean Arthur, extremely shy and insecure in real life, to do her job. Many of her roles, coincidentally or not so coincidentally, were women who found themselves undergoing a metamorphosis, responding to deeply buried passions when stimulated by challenges, crisis, and in this film at least, a strong case of sexual arousal brought on by Joel McCrea. That happens later.
First, a little slapstick. A long scene (which I would have loved to have seen in rehearsal), of Coburn’s and Arthur’s first morning together, each with a timed set of tasks to accomplish before they head off to their respective jobs. Coburn calls it the steeplechase. A running gag involving his pants that keep disappearing and reappearing is mapped out well, and looks like a silent movie scenario.
Though she looks into the mirror, it is an empty gaze. She inspects her ear as she scrubs her teeth. She looks like her mind is wandering. This is exactly what we do when we brush our teeth. Our minds wander. We are thinking about work, about picking up the kids at school, about what to wear, but the last thing we think about while brushing our teeth is brushing our teeth. She was meticulous about being natural.
“War brings people closer together,” Mr. Coburn states, and in large measure it did. We will see in the film numerous examples of crowding and inconvenience that would probably send people today, who seem to have a greater sense of entitlement, into rants and possible acts of revenge. Back then the greatest ranting, revenge, and sense of entitlement was to be found in Hitler or Mussolini. Nobody wanted to be like those guys.
Another aspect of life then that does not translate to today is the running gag on awkward grammar. Coburn shows his comic finesse with little more than dropping prepositions after a moment of wondering what to do with the leftovers, such as “because she borrowed it to go to it. In.”
He does this a few times and it’s quite funny, but today in a world of, “Uh, I’m, like, you know, whatever…” people speaking stupidly is the norm. When stupid is normal, it’s not funny. Also, breaking social rules is not an effective gag anymore when we live in a society where pretty much any behavior is accepted or tolerated. Breaking the rules is not daring or funny when there are no rules. (This is not meant to be a societal judgment, only a comment about script conventions.)
But, where was The War, exactly? Mrs. Miniver had it in her back garden, in her destroyed dining room, in the body of her dead daughter-in-law sprawled on the floor. When the enemy arrived in our country, it was as prisoners, and they were tucked safely into POW camps. Most people never saw them.
Here the war is less an effort to survive (though it would be if things got any worse), but more a sense of guilt and unrelenting responsibility. It may be difficult for younger audiences to comprehend how a war fought somewhere else could be so pervasive, could dominate every facet of daily life here, and demand personal sacrifice unheard of today.
We know of the tremendous sacrifices of service personnel in that war. What few people recall today is that a good part of the civilian population worked themselves nearly to death during those years. They had little support, only constant reminding not to complain. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
But, this is a comedy, so we hint at these subjects with typical American wisecracks. This is what makes this film so quintessentially American. We may exhibit a bit of awkwardness trying to interpret Mrs. Miniver’s wartime Britain, but here were are on home turf.
Flippancy makes things seem normal even when the world is upside down. Flippancy covers immense national anxiety, perhaps as much as Jean Arthur's smooth comic timing masks hers.
Back to Jean and her roomie. We discover a hint of loneliness in this rigid woman’s austere personality when she writes in her diary about Coburn, “At least someone around the house to break the silence.” He senses her social backwardness, and decides to play matchmaker when Joel McCrea stands out on the sidewalk with his suitcase and a large propeller over his shoulder. Coburn rents his half of his room, which has two beds in it, to McCrea.
Joel moves in, and Coburn tries to find a way to explain it to Jean. Mr. Coburn’s and Mr. McCrea’s constantly calling each other by the wrong name is also a well-maintained running gag and smoothly done.
A note here about rumba music (Yes, yes, I know. Just shut up already and talk about the “damn” movie.) A craze for Latin music began in the late 1930s and exploded during the war years, partly in response to our Pan-American re-awakening that we needed some allies in our own hemisphere. Maybe sometime we can go into the conga craze in movies. (You with the pencil, put that on our list of things to do.)
Just about everything you see in old movies is there for a reason. Well, maybe not everything…does it seem to you that the cropped top Jean is wearing in the rumba scene exposing her bare midriff is the same one she wore in the beach scene in “The Devil and Miss Jones” (1941)?
Back to Jean and Joel. Eventually each discovers the other and Mr. Coburn has some ‘splaing to do. Another cute bit with proper speech versus colloquial slang where the phrase, “six bucks” is passed back and forth between them.
“Well, give him back his six bucks.”
“I don’t have the six bucks. He gave you the six bucks.”
And Coburn dangles more prepositions, “And I’ll have the money to pay him. With.”
It’s only funny if you understand it’s bad English.
By the way, I love the dresser scarves in her apartment, that she has them. It’s such a miniscule touch that she wants things just so. She has precise standards. And the photograph of Abraham Lincoln on her desk.
She reveals she is engaged to a Mr. Pendergast, whom she always calls Mr. Pendergast. They chide her about his age, 42, and that he has kept her waiting at the altar nearly two years. We sense, and they know without meeting him yet, that Mr. Pendergast is a drip, whose career comes before Jean. When Joel gets on Jean’s nerves and the only bad thing she can think to call him is “messy”, he teases her that Mr. Pendergast must comb his hair constantly. She thinks she is putting Joel in his place when she retorts, “Mr. Pendergast has no hair!” and walks out.
Her “so, there!” moment falls dismally short of its mark, but she is saved from appearing ridiculous to the audience by stopping halfway down the stairs, glancing back, and thoughtfully half smiling to herself. They are now her boys, and they have become a kind of family.
Another wartime era moment is left to us when Jean Arthur boasts that Mr. Pendergast has had dinner at the White House, and Mr. Coburn replies, “Worst food in Washington.” By all accounts, during the Roosevelt years, it was.
One more topical war reference: Mr. Coburn uses the phrase “Eastern War Time”. Daylight saving time was established temporarily during World War I to save energy, and was re-introduced in 1942 for the same reason. We remained on daylight saving time the entire war, no changing the clocks, and this was referred to as War Time. (Somebody shut her up! Sit on her!)
On Sunday, the rooftops of D.C. become the playground of the apartment dwellers who all come up to catch some sun in an era where most people did not own cars, and even if you did, three gallons of gas per week was all you might be allotted by rationing.
previous post on wartime gas rationing in the movies.
That wasn’t going to get you to the beach or out in the country for the day, even if pleasure motor trips were not banned by law (which they were). Off in the distance, we see the Capitol Dome, which we get several glimpses of in this movie. I suppose it’s like Paris: in the movies, every bedroom window has a view of the Eiffel Tower. Here it’s the Capitol Dome.
Then Coburn really does the bratty kid brother act by reading her diary, and when she discovers, her “That was a miserable thing to do,” bleeds venom from her voice, and heartbreak because she has been humiliated. She learns what she has always suspected: it is risky to let people into her life.
She boots them out but later allows McCrea to remain because he has only a day left before he will join the Army and be shipped to Africa with his propeller.
Now we move into the romantic stage, for if it was Coburn that brought them together, his presence also keeps them apart. The family dynamic changes when a family member leaves, and both Joel and Jean grow up and discover each other now that they are on the island alone.
Don’t knock it. Someday tattoos are going to be funny.
He wants to know if he should join the Boy Scouts, and is as serious as if he were pondering joining the Army. She calls him her “fella”. Truly, they’re either too young or too old.
That was a song, by the way.
Eh, skip it. (I could sing it, but I won’t. I can see your attention is wavering.)
It’s a cute scene, and both Joel and Jean want to kill Morton for procrastinating. But Mr. Pendergast, who at last arrives to take Jean out for the evening, is the real party pooper.
He keeps Mr. Pendergast, terrifically played with delightful self importance by Richard Gaines (who does a 180-degree turn in character when he plays Patrick Henry in “The Howards of Virginia” - see previous post), busy for the rest of the evening.
Jean sees Joel being ogled by a flock of other women, and she gets jealous and territorial in a way she never was over Mr. Pendergast. I love Mr. Gaines’ officious-sounding, radio announcer-quality voice. Mr. Pendergast, by the way, has a spectacularly ugly toupee that nobody mentions. It’s just there for all to see. Like the Capitol Dome.
When Joel escorts her home, we are treated to one of the most erotic and silly seduction scenes Hollywood ever produced. They walk down the street, passing lovers clutching each other in dark corners. They glance at these couples with interest and envy, as Jean tries to pry information out of Joel about his past, particularly his former girlfriends. She is apparently jealous of them, too. He takes her hand, her arm, puts his hand on her bare shoulder repeatedly as they walk all the while she smoothly, but without apparent alarm, plucks his hands from her person. It is like a dance.
He clearly desires her, is doing everything but undressing her, but maintains a polite stream of conversation. If he just said “uh-huh” to her dialogue, as if ignoring what she is saying to him, it wouldn’t be as funny. Their equal determination to carry on the discipline of conversation despite their growing obsession with each other is a sparkling moment as comic as it is romantic. It’s like when they were doing the rumba separately, both preoccupied with their passions, but that time indulging them in secret.
The silliness never once lessens the steaminess of the scene. The sensuality never overwhelms the silliness. It’s a perfect marriage. THIS SCENE is why they call it “romantic comedy”.
Joel McCrea had, like Jean Arthur, a natural style so well suited to comedy, a quiet, light manner open to sudden dramatic shifts and surprising intensity. They were a great match, and this was their third and last film together. Another good scene, intimate and silly, is when they examine together all the compartments of the new travel bag he gives her. It’s really charming, with their low, quiet voices overlapping each other’s sentences, and you have to admire what two pros can do with a simple prop.
George Stevens directed this film, and responsible for much of its magic, worked particularly well with Jean Arthur. He also made her memorable final film “Shane” a decade later.
Yes, The War was that pervasive. It entered the bedroom as easily as it slipped into the workplace, the school, the wallet, the conscience, the subconscious. There was no escape.
It's sweet that she wears what looks like a gardenia in her hair for the evening out, and does not remove it when she goes to bed. If I wore a gardenia in my hair to bed, I'd wake up with petals up my nose.
Not that I've tried it. But I might sometime if curiosity got the better of me.
It might even be worth the embarrassement of going to the ear, nose, and throat doctor the next day to get the gardenia petals out of my nose.
There’s a bit more slapstick to go when suspicious young Morton has turned Joel into the FBI as a spy, another crowded cab ride shows us that gas rationing affected cabbies, too, who were not allowed to drive unless chair cabs were completely full of passengers, and when Joel and Jean succumb to a marriage of convenience arranged by Mr. Coburn to keep her reputation spotless. Lots of great dialogue, but this post is already stretching beyond the state line.
The last scene (yes, I know I’m telling you everything here. Don’t shush me. You’ve shushed your last shush, as Jean would say), brings the culmination of all the wartime crowding, the separation of lovers, and Admiral Farragut’s “damn the torpedoes” attitude.
Jean, miserable and crying over her cheap fake marriage, changes into a sexy negligee to sleep alone again. Joel goes dejectedly to the spare room to pack because he’s due to report for duty in a few hours. He demands she not take in any more roomers because of the riffraff she might attract, and she complains that he is already crabbing like a husband. A poignant moment when he pulls off his sprig of lily of the valley from his suit lapel (to match her wedding bouquet) and mutters, “Well, I am a husband…at least until it’s annulled.”
She cries and they lamely try to pick a fight with each other, when both suddenly realize the wall between their rooms is gone. Mr. Coburn has had workmen tear it out. Astonished, their reserve crumbles like the drywall.
Anguish turns to comedy, and then to sex when Joel and Jean, adopt slow, sly smiles. Jean’s crying has ceased, but she manufactures a few fake wails as a kind of mating call to demand comforting. Joel, who we’ve known from the beginning is her perfect mate, happily responds to the call of duty like any good bridegroom.
Full speed ahead.
But only until The War intrudes again.
Come back Thursday for our final post on “war stories” when we jump back across the pond to England and see that wartime deception has led to tragedy for Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones in “Love Letters.”
Have a look below at the silly seduction scene. Let me know what you think. (Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of the page to mute the music so you can hear the video.)