In 1942, Jean Arthur’s career stalled out. She refused the roles her studio offered, which put her on the guano list with her boss, Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn. So Jean and her producer-husband Frank Ross lobbied Garson Kanin, whose credits included the hits Bachelor Mother and My Favorite Wife, to whip up a comedy for Jean to pitch to Cohn. Best of all, Jean and Frank offered to pay Kanin $25,000 upfront for his services (the equivalent of $439,000 today).
There were just two teensy problems: Kanin was toiling full-time for Uncle Sam (having been drafted into the Army), and since he was under contract to a rival studio (RKO), Kanin would have to work anonymously. Wait – make that three problems: Jean feared that Cohn would reject any project she proposed (just to spite her), even a great screenplay like the one Kanin and his co-writers concocted.
Kanin came up with the perfect strategy: He would give Cohn the script for free, knowing that Cohn couldn’t turn down a sweet deal like that. (He was right.) In fact, Kanin had barely finished reading Cohn the opening scenes from The More the Merrier when Cohn blurted out, “I’ll take it.” And that, boys and girls, launched the Oscar-winning smash that became Columbia’s #1 blockbuster of 1943.
In his autobiography Garson Kanin’s Hollywood, Kanin outlines the funny premise of the flick: “A girl in an overcrowded city rents half of her apartment to an elderly gentleman. The elderly gentleman, in turn, rents half of his half to an attractive young man. Now all three are sharing a single apartment. Take it from there.”
And “take it” was exactly what Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn did...all the way to the top of the box-office heap.
The genius tweak was to set the story in wartime Washington, D.C., where the influx of soldiers, diplomats and government workers in the 1940s caused severe overcrowding. As TCM.com notes, “People were forced to make unusual living arrangements, often with multiple occupants staying in a single room, using the spaces in shifts...[The More the Merrier] isn’t the only film of the period to address the housing shortage, but it’s generally considered the best.”
Behind the camera, The More the Merrier was the last picture that director George Stevens would make before starting his military service. Within days of wrapping the shoot, Stevens reported for active duty. Four years later, having witnessed the heroism of D-Day and the horrors of Dachau, Stevens returned to Hollywood a changed man. Once known for his comedies (Alice Adams, Woman of the Year), Stevens never made another – he preferred to helm dramas like A Place in the Sun, Shane and Giant instead.
Lucky for us, Stevens’ rom-com swan song turned out to be The More the Merrier. Savor the Oscar-winning performance by Charles Coburn as the geriatric Cupid for Jean and Joel. From Coburn’s “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” catchphrase to his physical comedy skills, he steals every scene.
But equally hilarious is Jean and Joel’s steamy seduction on the front steps of their building, which stokes an amazing amount of screen heat, despite Production Code restrictions.
By the way, in the end, that gratis script Harry Cohn green-lit earned Columbia six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and Jean Arthur’s career came off life support. Need a good laugh? Catch the full movie for free here.