World War II brought a dramatic change to the life-styles of many Americans who were still recovering from the ravages of the Great Depression. Most found the intrusion of war into their daily lives a considerable hardship to face; nevertheless, the American people persevered and set to work winning the war, just as they had conquered the Depression and returned to prosperity. As American life on the home front changed, one manifestation of Hollywood's reaction was a curious subgenre of film—pictures dealing with conditions in wartime Washington. In some cases, filmmakers concentrated on melodrama, such as Fox's 1942 production of Careful—Soft Shoulders, in which a Washington debutante, bored with society life, took up spying. In others, the issue of housing problems set the stage; RKO contributed Government Girl (1943) with Olivia de Havilland; Paramount's Standing Room Only (1944) had stars Paulette Goddard and Fred MacMurray taking jobs as servants in order to have places to live; and even Universal, turning out dozens of "B" pictures, managed to squeeze the housing problem into a tuneful little gem like Get Going (1943).
The best of the films taking place in wartime Washington, however, was Columbia's The More the Merrier directed by comedy ace George Stevens and starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn. Four writers—Richard Flournoy, Lewis Foster, Robert Russell, and Frank Ross—were credited with the original screenplay, leading one to believe that perhaps the best elements of two or three treatments were probably combined for the finished product. Stevens gave the film an "A" production, and Jean Arthur, as one of Columbia's top stars, lent valuable audience appeal to the property. Viewed historically from afar, of course, the concept dates poorly; housing shortages related to wartime seem a thing of the past, and many younger Americans of the postatomic age have difficulty comprehending the climate of past times. Nonetheless, The More the Merrier holds up quite well in a comic sense, and is arguably Stevens' finest comedy.
Working girl Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) lives in Washington and, against her better judgment, makes her sacrifice to the war effort by renting half of her apartment to distinguished, elderly Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn)—who bills himself as a "retired, well-to-do millionaire" in Washington on business. Dingle, obviously unaccustomed to the fast pace Connie is forced to keep, is experiencing a great deal of difficulty in keeping up with her schedules, designed to keep the two people out of each other's way. In one memorable sequence, the befuddled Dingle tries to remove his bathrobe while holding a hot coffee pot, managing to spill most of the coffee into the bath water. Later, still hurried, he makes his bed with his pants inside.
As if matters are not complicated enough, Dingle rents half of his half of the apartment to Army sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), who is in town on special duty. This infuriates Connie, who is finding it difficult enough to share the apartment with one man. Dingle, however, sees in Joe an ideal man for Connie, who is already engaged to Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines), a rather pompous and bland government official. He convinces Connie to try the situation, and she agrees to let Joe stay for a one-week trial period. All appears to go smoothly for a short time, but then Connie discovers Mr. Dingle reading her diary; terribly upset at her lack of privacy, she asks him to leave, and to take Joe with him. The next morning Dingle leaves, but Joe remains behind, convincing Connie to let him stay. Joe, previously having professed to have little interest in women, is becoming very fond of Connie.
Although Mr. Dingle no longer lives in the apartment, he still manages to play Cupid by engineering an evening in which he manages to get Connie away from Pendergast and alone with Joe. In one sequence, she reminds the soldier that she is engaged to Pendergast since he becomes somewhat amorous, kissing her neck; Connie continues to speak fondly of Pendergast, but it is apparent that her emotions are weakening toward Joe. Inside the apart¬ment later on, they admit that they love each other but Joe is scheduled to leave Washington the next day.
At this point the fates seem to take the upper hand as-the FBI shows up to take Joe into custody. Apparently, in a rash moment, Joe has scared away a pestering neighborhood boy by claiming that he was a Japanese spy, and the boy has reported him to the authorities.
Joe's denials avail him little, and he finds himself and Connie at the police station trying in vain to explain the situation. In the ensuing confusion, both Dingle and Pendergast turn up, with the latter horrified to see his betrothed in custody. As he hears the story, however, he becomes less interested in the claims that Joe is a spy, and more, interested in the revelation that he has been sharing Connie's apartment. It is a development that he can scarcely tolerate. Simultaneously, one of the newspapermen, knowing that Pendergast is a government official, sees the making of a great story as Pendergast sees the making of a great scandal; his future would certainly be ruined by being linked to such a scandalous woman. Pendergast therefore steadfastly maintains that the only solution to this sticky situation is for Connie to marry Joe quickly and then get an immediate annulment. This is a side of Pendergast that Connie has not seen before, and she finds it distasteful. She agrees reluctantly to his idea, however, and she and Joe, cleared of the charges that he is a foreign agent, return to the apartment, where they regretfully agree to play out Pendergast's scheme. Mr. Dingle, however, convinces them to get married but not have an annulment, leading them at the film's finale in a chorus of his favorite saying: "Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!"
The role of Connie was one of Jean Arthur's best; her winsome charm suited the working-girl character perfectly, and a more glamorous star in the same role might have robbed it of credibility. McCrea, another successful "Everyman" type of character, is likewise effective as Joe. Most, however, agreed that the film was stolen by Charles Coburn, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his rich comic performance. The film's other nominations included Jean Arthur for Best Actress, Stevens for Best Director, Ross and Russell for Best Original Screenplay, and the film for Best Picture. The basic plot of The More the Merrier was updated and remade as Walk Don't Run (1966), starring Cary Grant in the Coburn role, with the romantic leads Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton. Capitalizing on the housing shortage in Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics, the remake was a pale shadow of the original, lacking the innate charm given it by the stylish direction of George Stevens.