Of all the movies that Kristina over at Speakeasy has challenged me to watch in our ongoing series it’s this one that I was surprised the most at not having seen before. I frequently enjoy catching a screwball comedy from the genre’s golden age so I am not quite sure why I hadn’t caught up to this Oscar winner previously from director George Stevens.
Overcrowding in Washington D.C. is the backdrop for this Jean Arthur gem. It’s taking place during WW2 and the city is having a population explosion meaning there is nowhere for incoming visitors to land a room for themselves. This includes Charles Coburn whose has secured a hotel reservation but has arrived two days early. Not to worry as he’s a resourceful old codger.
Doing her part for the war effort, Arthur has decided to sublet half of her apartment through an advertisement in the newspaper. Along comes Coburn in a wonderful bit as he first cons the dozen or so people waiting in line to see it and then fast talks Arthur into why he should be allowed to stay. After all he’s just a harmless old timer. I love the clip where he looks quite flattered that Arthur suggests they shouldn’t be seen exiting the premises together in the morning.
Arthur has everything regimented for the two of them but that’s all going out the window when Coburn decides to sublet half of his half to tall and handsome Joel McCrea. Just how long can he keep Arthur from finding out is his next problem. From the moment our two young roommates finally bump into each other, hearts are skipping a beat. Coburn senses what could be and goes into his cupid act.
Like all screwball comedies there has to be an entanglement of sorts. This time out Arthur is actually engaged to stuffy Richard Gaines and seems reserved to a rather dull life in the political field. By coincidence it’s Gaines that has brought Coburn to D.C. and they are opposing figures in the world of politics. It shouldn’t take much to make Gaines out a boring lifeless fiance while turning McCrea into the man of Arthur’s dreams. One who promises romance and excitement. Arthur is really good here as deep down she knows it and her eyes give her away.
With a couple of plot twists and the word scandal tossed about Coburn’s mission is well on it’s way. Gaines of course has no room in his career for anything scandalous and from here it should come as no surprise where this is all headed.
This film reunited Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn. The pair had already filmed a first rate comedy previously. The Devil and Miss Jones in 1941 for which Coburn was nominated by the Academy for a Best Supporting Actor award. He lost that time but this role would win him the golden statuette. Charles Coburn is one of those character actors that can a turn a poor film into a mediocre one and a good one into a great one. Like Sydney Greenstreet he began his film career at the advanced age of 56. He would remain busy in film and television up to his death in 1961.
Leading man Joel McCrea works fine with Arthur and the two of them deliver one of the more sexy/steamy scenes of the era while camped out on her porch late at night as Joel goes about seducing her. McCrea is of course most familiar to fans of the western despite appearing in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. For me he’ll always be a man who just wants to enter his house justified thanks to his role in Ride the High Country.
Jean Arthur is one of the great comedy actresses of the era and one should seize any opportunity to catch her films. Comedies like Easy Living and her work in Mr. Deeds stand out as does the earlier film with Coburn, Miss Jones. The year before this film she had worked for George Stevens with Cary Grant and Ronald Colman in the comedy The Talk of the Town. She would quit the cinema after working once again with Stevens on Shane in 1953. Not a bad way to go out.
No stranger to comedy, George Stevens had a number of successful titles under his belt including Woman of the Year and Gunga Din. From here Stevens would find himself along with John Ford and company in the heat of filming WW2 battles and be the first man with a camera to enter the Dachau concentration camp as was documented recently in the non-fiction book Five Came Back. Along with Shane, Giant and A Place in the Sun were still yet to come.
Merrier is a fun film with the three leads giving us a wonderful time at the movies. While I hate to be critical I must say that I thought the film lost it’s pacing down the stretch with the latter half not matching the comedy timing of the first hour. Given a choice I’d probably re-watch the earlier Arthur/Coburn teaming The Devil and Miss Jones from 1941 but that shouldn’t deter you from catching this delightful movie.
Now please head over to see what Kristina has to say about the always reliable and somewhat underrated Van Heflin as he saddles up for a western with a couple of fifties heart throbs.