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Stars Make Super Roommates in 'More the Merrier'

June 24, 1993|DOUG LIST

Fifty years after it first played in theaters, "The More the Merrier" remains a charming mix of romance and comedy, despite some major handicaps.

Not only does the movie manage to survive more idiotic plot devices than a week's worth of "Three's Company," but it withstands a conclusion that hinges on the incredibly dated notion that an unmarried man and woman discovered sleeping in the same apartment (not even in the same room!) must marry one another to avoid scandal.

So, how does a film with a plot so silly and a script so painfully predictable maintain its appeal after all these years? Star power.

Charles Coburn, one of the great character actors of the 1930s and '40s, plays a housing expert visiting Washington, D.C., who, amid the housing shortage during World War II, persuades government worker Jean Arthur to rent a room of her apartment to him. Coburn soon finds a suitor for the lonely Arthur--Joel McCrea, a military intelligence officer who is invited by Coburn to rent half of the room he's renting from Arthur.

Even while acting out some ridiculous scenes (at one point, McCrea is accused of spying for the enemy because he looks out the window with binoculars), the three veteran performers never let their characters become pawns of the plot. Arthur and McCrea have rarely been so natural, offering performances that smoothly glide through the film.

In one of the film's best scenes, McCrea attempts to make out with Arthur as they sit on the stairs to her apartment. Without missing a beat, she continues her conversation while halfheartedly deflecting his advances.

In another, Coburn displays his comic expertise while trying to follow a minute-by-minute morning bathroom and breakfast schedule set up by Arthur. It's a scene worthy of the great Chaplin silents.

When the film was remade in 1966 as "Walk, Don't Run," all the charm seemed to have disappeared. Even the appeal of Cary Grant is no substitute for the chemistry of Coburn, Arthur and McCrea: They turn a lackluster script into an irresistible romantic comedy.

"The More the Merrier" (1943) . Directed by George Stevens. 104 minutes. Not rated.

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