Oscar So Serious: Jean Arthur and The More the Merrier
February 13, 2016
This piece is my contribution to the 4th Annual 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. The event runs Feb. 6-27, and there are a handful of participants and a variety of topics that will be covered. Please visit any of the three sites to expand your Oscar knowledge!
I've managed to write about most of my favorite films on this blog - from I See A Dark Stranger (1946) to Dear Heart (1964) to Gun Crazy (1950) to The Innocents (1961). However, there's one I haven't gotten around to yet: The More the Merrier (1943).
...and it may still be a while until I write an in-depth post on the picture, but in the meantime a piece on Oscar snubs that focuses on the film and its star, Jean Arthur, seemed fitting.
To be honest, the Academy did not overlook The More the Merrier in 1943. In fact, the movie snagged a total of six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture,* Best Director (George Stevens), Best Writing - Original Story,** Best Writing - Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Jean Arthur), and Best Supporting Actor (Charles Coburn). Out of those six nods, the film nabbed one statue - or more accurately, Charles Coburn did - an acknowledgement that was certainly well-deserved.
But I'm really here to talk about Jean Arthur. Despite appearing in several beloved classics - 1936's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1938's You Can't Take It With You, 1939's Only Angels Have Wings, 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1948's A Foreign Affair, and 1953's Shane, to name a few - and clocking in long hours in the business since the early 1920s, Arthur only garnered one - yes, ONE - Oscar nomination. And as I've already noted, that was for The More the Merrier.
[Note: In my opinion, any of the above performances could have been nominated for an Oscar. And 1937's History is Made at Night. Because that's one of my all-time favorite Arthur roles.]
Don't even get me started on Jean Arthur's costumes in The More the Merrier. (One word: jealousy)
Did Arthur elude the Academy's adulation because her most well-known performances land squarely in comedy territory, a genre the Academy traditionally did not - and still does not - bestow accolades on? Was it because Arthur was famously reclusive and hated interviews, avoided publicity, and eschewed the Hollywood scene, as her biographer John Oller pointed out? Was it because she was labeled the "Least Popular Woman in Hollywood" by Hedda Hopper and received the "Sour Apple Award" as the "least cooperative actress" in the industry by the Hollywood Women's Press Club - both bestowed in 1942? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I mean, an Oscar is supposed to be awarded for work but you never know what and how outside influences can sway a vote.
Interesting fact: Though Arthur earned a slightly unpleasant reputation behind the scenes, due in part to some of what I noted above, director John Cromwell once stated that, "Every movie star is disliked by some people... but everyone liked Jean Arthur." Furthermore, Oller noted how The More the Merrier actually marked a shift in Arthur's screen perception from "cynical, wise-cracking idealist" to the "proverbial girl-next-door" who was "intriguing and irresistible." What a chameleon, when you take into account her personality when the cameras were turned off...
So did Arthur deserve to win in 1943? Let's take a look at her competition, ahem, the nominees:
Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette
Jean Arthur, The More the Merrier
Ingrid Bergman, For Whom the Bell Tolls (not Casablanca, which was widely released in 1943 and also nominated that year)
Joan Fontaine, The Constant Nymph
Greer Garson, Madame Curie
In the interest of full disclosure, the only nominated performance I haven't seen from this list is of course the winning one, Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette.
Backstage at the Oscars that year with winners Paul Lukas, Jennifer Jones, Katina Paxinou, and Charles Coburn.
Despite my ardent admiration of Fontaine and Garson and my fondness for their roles that year, in all fairness they were the two previous winners in this category: Fontaine for Suspicion in 1941 and Garson for Mrs. Miniver in 1942. So in theory I'm fine with their losses. As for Bergman, while I didn't love For Whom the Bell Tolls, she certainly turned in a fine performance...but, she also went on to win the following year for Gaslight and two more times, in 1956 for Anastasia and a Best Supporting Actress statue for 1974's Murder on the Orient Express. And I suppose it should be mentioned that this was the first of Jennifer's Jones' five nominations... and also the first of four right in a row. Consequently, with all these facts on the table and with the benefit of knowing both the past and the future (in 1943 terms), I would personally have awarded Arthur the honor for The More the Merrier.
There's also another reason I picked Arthur, one that doesn't have to do with the fact that she was the only woman nominated for Best Actress that year who never ended up winning. In fact, this rationale is actually based on what the honor is supposed to be awarded for: acting. As I've noted, Fontaine, Garson and Bergman all contributed some wonderful dramatic characterizations in their respective pictures, and from what I've read, I'm going to go ahead and assume Jones' gave a moving performance as well. That makes Arthur an instant standout in this category solely due to the comedic nature of her role and the film's genre itself (there's also the belief that many deem comedy harder to work within than drama). Yes, it's true that Arthur's blend of charm, quirk, and (just barely) subtle command undoubtedly treaded on far lighter ground than the more serious-minded roles her nominative peers tackled, but nonetheless, she still created a nuanced character who operates well beyond the comedic scenes and turns out to be more complex than she appears.
Sigh. Another Jean Arthur outfit from The More the Merrier that I would love to own. Here she is in a scene with Dingle (Charles Coburn).
Oh, and in case you haven't seen The More the Merrier, here's a quick synopsis: In wartime DC, Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) considers it her patriotic duty to rent out part of her apartment due to the housing shortage. Instead of a female roommate, she finds herself stuck with mischievous middle-aged bachelor Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), who weasels his way into the sublet. Unbeknownst to Connie, Dingle leases part of his room to engineer Joe Carter (Joel McCrea). Connie conveniently hides Joe's existence from her stuffy, boring fiancée Mr. Charles Pendergast (Richard Gaines), and it isn't long before Dingle spots an opportunity to put his sly devilry to good use to remove Charles from the picture and play cupid for Connie and Joe.
Arthur certainly let her characters loose when the role called for it (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and 1935's The Whole Town's Talking come to mind), but in The More the Merrier the bulk of the comedy emanates from the short/basically nonexistent emotional leash Connie is tethered to; it is heartily assumed that she leads a relatively simple, self-contained life within the rather fast-paced, chaotic capital (and during wartime, at that), but all that uncoils and hilariously starts to spring all over the place once Dingle and Joe walk through her door.
This roommate situation with Joe (Joel McCrea), Dingle and Connie seems to be going well, right?
It's also interesting to note, as I briefly touched upon above, just how paralyzed Arthur could become in front of the camera. Director Frank Capra spoke of working with her: "Never have I seen a performer plagued with such a chronic case of stage jitters...Those weren't butterflies in her stomach. They were wasps. But push that neurotic girl forcibly, but gently, in front of the camera and turn on the lights - and that whining mop would magically blossom into a warm, lovely poised and confident actress." George Stevens, who helmed The More the Merrier and directed Arthur in 1942's The Talk of the Town and later in Shane, noted that she "seemed to be rising above her personality" while performing, especially when tasked with making a charge against another character or defending something. "You had to treat her like a child when you directed her - she was terribly anxious about everything," he affirmed.
Taking Stevens' comments on Arthur into account, it's even more amazing to me that she could create such a distinct character and keep her relatively grounded in a film that, as Marilyn Ann Moss notes, "is a fluid series of physical and verbal gags that run smoothly enough to appear operatic...with action that is rhythmic, lyrical and urgent." And add to that rather chaotic setting the fact that Arthur shared a dynamic chemistry with both her leads in diverse ways: with Coburn, she reluctantly played the straight (wo)man to his eccentric father/grandfather figure pushing her out of her comfort zone, and with McCrea she cautiously leaned on her softer side as McCrea's forthright romantic prospect began pursuing her, full speed ahead.
George Stevens, right, directing Arthur and Coburn in one of the film's funniest scenes.
In my opinion, two scenes excellently highlight Arthur's Oscar-worthy performance. The first concerns Connie's morning routine that she introduces to Dingle via a tirelessly precise tour of her floor plan - on a piece of paper, no less. Dingle attempts to follow Connie's play-by-play, but naturally when it's go time the next morning, he finds himself in the middle of an intricately orchestrated and perfectly executed ballet that he riotously fuddles up exponentially with each passing minute. (A similarly comedic and excellently choreographed episode occurs later when Dingle tries to hide Joe's existence from Connie after work).
Dingle trying to follow along. It's not going well.
Personally, I'd maintain that Coburn's on-point blundering here helped earn him his Oscar. At the same time, though, Connie's reaction to the disorder that Dingle drags into her orderly life by his wildcard interruption to her meticulous procession - such a classic, relatable episode that a WW2 audience could surely connect with - beautifully balances Dingle's actions; though certainly not as outwardly physical as Coburn's performance, Arthur drew upon her superb comedic timing and masterful command of her body and facial expressions to hilariously keep Connie teetering on the edge without jumping out the window.
I invariably chuckle everytime I watch this movie at how messy Connie's toothpaste is.
Though I always crack up at Dingle's few drops of coffee and his deadpan excuse at the end of the scene: "There's a war going on Ms. Milligan," Connie's bewildered stare and silent accepting of the chaos is the image that stays with me.
This is your life now, Connie. No more coffee with Dingle around.
The second scene lands at the #1 spot on my imaginary list of sexiest scenes in cinema history. Obvious spoiler alert: because this is 1943, all participants are fully clothed. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about: the (once again) excellently staged and lensed stoop sequence with Connie and Joe. The blend of playful persuasion, roving hands (both those from Joe), hilarious physical attempts at constraint, and the blandest babble ever (both those from Connie) makes for an explosive scene that on one hand scorches but on the other completely melts the viewer's heart (OR SO IT SHOULD IF YOU ARE HUMAN).
Arthur excels at balancing discretion and longing in this scene, tenderly replacing Joe's hands while maintaining her sweet disposition and attempting to quell her desire.
The lines of prudence and lust that Connie precariously dances in between her relentless chatter (about Mr. Pendergast, naturally) hilariously and finally give way to a little action. Basically on the sidewalk. How much more romantic can you get, really? Arthur shouldered a bulk of the comedy and a conflicting range of emotions in this surprisingly energetic sequence that keeps both characters grounded, literally, restricted to a few steps and contained to very expressive upper body movement.
I'm betting Mr. Pendergast is no match for this...
In the above two sequences and indeed, throughout the whole picture, Arthur displayed a hearty mixture of refinement, apprehension, humor and eventually warmth as Connie balances the demands of comedy, romance, and drama in the story. Arthur's seamless navigation through the diverse tonal landscapes; the firm grip she had on the character; and, put plainly, the number of laughs she garnered throughout are ample illustrations of a Oscar worthy performance, in my humble opinion.
* This was the last year until 2009 that 10 films (or a number between 5-10) received Best Picture nominations. If it had been five, I'm not sure this movie would have landed among the pack.
** Those two Best Writing nods are in fact real. The Oscar for Best Writing - Original Story was handed out until 1957 when the category was scratched in favor of Best Writing - Original Screenplay.
Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.
Cronin, Paul, ed. George Stevens: Interviews. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Moss, Marilyn Ann. Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.