Cleaning Out The DVR #7: The More The Merrier (dir by George Stevens)


After I finished with Watch On The Rhine, I decided to watch another film from 1943.  Like Watch On The Rhine, The More The Merrier is a film about life during wartime and it takes place in Washington, D.C.  However, that’s all that they have in common.  Whereas Watch On The Rhine was a serious and somber affair, The More The Merrier is thoroughly delightful little comedy.

The More The Merrier opens with a retired millionaire named Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) arriving in Washington D.C.  He’s been asked to serve as an adviser for a commission that has been tasked with solving America’s housing shortage.  (This was apparently a very real concern during World War II.)  However, as soon as Dingle arrives, he finds directly effected by the problem that he’s supposed to be solving.  His hotel room won’t be available for two days and he has no where to stay.  After a quick look through the newspaper, Ben finds an ad for a roommate.

When he arrives at the apartment, he discovers a long line of men waiting outside.  They’re all in the same situation as him and are hoping that Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) will select him for her roommate.  However, Connie picks Ben, largely because he’s old and rich and she won’t have to worry about him hitting on her on like most guys nor does she have to worry about him borrowing her clothes or getting jealous of her, like she would have to with a female roommate.  Connie is engaged to a boring but well-paid bureaucrat named Charles Pendergrast (Richard Gaines).  She doesn’t really love Pendergrast (and he has an annoying habit of shushing her) but, after growing up poor because her mother married for love, Connie is determined to not to make the same mistake.

Ben and Connie struggle, at first, to adjust to each other’s habits.  Connie keeps to an exact schedule and claims to not have any use for frivolity.  Ben is the exact opposite.  The early scenes of them trying (and, of course, failing) to stay out of each other’s way are hilarious, with both Coburn and Arthur giving brilliant comedic performances.  (I’m jealous of how wonderfully Jean Arthur could express exasperation.)  Connie’s apartment is already small and it gets even smaller once she sublets half of it to Benjamin Dingle.

However, things are about to get even more crowded.  One day, while out exploring Washington, Ben runs into Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a sergeant who has a few days before he’s scheduled to be shipped overseas and who has no place to stay.  Generously, Ben agrees to sublet half of his half of the apartment to Joe.  Of course, Ben does this without telling Connie.

When, after another hilarious and artfully done sequence of the three new roommates wandering around the apartment and just barely missing each other, Connie discovers what Ben has done, she orders both Ben and Joe to leave the apartment.  Ben agrees to do so, if she gives him back his security deposit.  Unfortunately, Connie already spent that money on a hat…

So, they’re stuck together.  Connie is attracted to Joe and Joe to Connie but Connie is also determined to marry Pendergrast.  (When Joe scornfully says that he bets Pendergrast combs his hair “every hour on the hour,” Connie snaps back, “Mr. Pendergrast has no hair!”)  Fortunately, Ben — being older and wiser — can see that Joe and Connie are perfect for each other and he starts doing everything he can to bring the two together.

As Ben says more than once, “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!”

Jean Arthur is one of my favorite actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  She had this perfect “no bullshit” attitude, mixed with an unexpected vulnerability.  In The More The Merrier, she’s just as credible when she’s ordering Ben and Joe to leave as when she’s breaking into tears after she catches Ben reading her diary.  In the role of Ben, Charles Coburn is warm, kind, and wonderfully eccentric.  (When Joe asks him what does for a living, Ben cheerfully replies, “I’m a well-to-do retired millionaire.  How ’bout you?”)  And then you have Joel McCrea, in the role of the “cute but dumb” Joe Carter.  He’s not really that dumb but he certainly is cute.  Wisely, McCrea never tries to be funny.  Instead, he gets most of his laughs just by reacting to all of the craziness going on around him.

Briskly directed by George Stevens, The More The Merrier features a snappy script from Frank Ross, who was married to Jean Arthur.  It’s full of hilarious lines but, at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to it as well.  Hanging, like a shadow over all of the comedy and the romance, is the fact that Joe is soon going to be shipped overseas.  Even while you laugh, you’re very aware that there’s a chance he might not be coming back.  That reality brings an unexpected depth to the film’s otherwise cheerful love story.

The More The Merrier was nominated for best picture but it lost to Casablanca.  However, Charles Coburn did win the Oscar for best supporting actor.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #16: Double Indemnity (dir by Billy Wilder)


The 1944 best picture nominee Double Indemnity is probably one of the most imitated films ever made.  While it may not be the first film noir, it is one of the most influential and its plot has been duplicated in countless films.  In fact, it’s such an influential film that all one has to do is say, “Indemnity” and you automatically know that they’re talking about murder.

Most people assume that the film is the story of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance agent who thinks that he’s smarter and smoother than he actually is.  When Phyllis Deitrich (Barbara Stanwyck) approaches him with questions about how much her husband’s life insurance would pay off if his death was accidental, Walter immediately figures out that she’s talking about murder.  At first, Walter tells her that he’s not interested but actually he’s very interested.  Soon, he and Phyllis are lovers (though Walter, from the start, seems to know that Phyllis is just using him) and he’s plotting out her husband’s murder.  After he does kill Phyllis’s husband, Walter makes it look as if he fell from a train.  At first, the death is ruled a suicide but, just as Walter hoped, his best friend and fellow insurance agent, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), announces that it wouldn’t make any sense for a suicidal man to jump from a slow-moving train.  Instead, Keyes successfully argues that the death should be ruled an accident and, as a result, the life insurance pays out for double of its value.

However, the money makes Walter paranoid.  He starts to worry that Phyllis will betray him.  Even worse, he’s approached by the dead man’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather).  Lola tells Walter that she believes that Phyllis not only killed her father but her mother as well.  Soon, Walter is involved with both Lola and Phyllis.  Walter claims that he feels guilty and protective of Lola but MacMurray’s wonderfully ambiguous performance leaves us wondering just how much we should trust anything that he has to say.

Now, as I said before, the film may be narrated by Walter Neff and it may be set into motion by his affair with Phyllis but ultimately, the film is not about his relationship with Phyllis.  Instead, it’s about Walter’s friendship with Barton Keyes.  When we first see Walter, he’s recording a confession specifically for Keyes to hear and the film ends not with Walter and Phyllis but instead with Walter and Keyes.

In many ways, Keyes is the opposite of Walter.  Whereas Walter is slick and amoral, Keyes is rather nerdy and ethical to a fault.  Walter respects Keyes for his brilliant mind and, to a large extent, he does what he does because he wants to prove that he’s just as smart as Keyes.  Keyes is the type of man that Walter aspires to be while Walter is the dark side of Keyes’s own obsession with mystery.  It’s only appropriate that the film ends with Walter and Keyes because, ultimately, their friendship is the heart of the film.

Double Indemnity is a classic.  Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray set the standard by which all future illicit couples would be judged.  But really, the film is stolen by Edward G. Robinson.  Over the course of his long and remarkable career, Robinson was never once nominated for an Oscar.  Watching Double Indemnity, you can’t help but wonder how such an injustice could have happened.

Now Showing On The Shattered Lens: Flight to Mars (dir by Lesley Selander)


Are you lucky enough to have an extra 70 minutes free today?  Why not spend them watching an entertaining little B-movie called Flight to Mars?

First released in 1951, Flight to Mars is reportedly the first American film to ever be made about traveling to the red planet.  At the start of the film, a rather phallic spaceship is launched into space.  Aboard the ship are cynical reporter Steve (Cameron Mitchell), brilliant scientist Jim (Arthur Franz), token female scientist Carol (Virginia Huston), and a few other scientists who all kind of blend together.  Steve is attracted to Carol but Carol is more interested in Jim.  However, Jim isn’t interested in anything other than his work.  When the spaceship does reach Mars, it turns out that Mars is a lot like Earth and the Martians are a lot like us.  The main difference between humans and Martians appears to be that Martian women wear miniskirts.  Among those Martian women is Alita (Marguerite Chapman), who falls in love with Jim.  The rest of Mars, however, is not quite as infatuated with their intergalactic visitors…

Flight to Mars is definitely a product of its time.  This is one of those films where the men are all blatantly sexist and the women are usually just happy to be noticed.  Carol, for instance, is overjoyed to discover that they have kitchens on Mars and, while the men spend all of their time making plans, Carol usually just stands in the background, eating Martian snacks and pining for Jim.  Of course, Jim only has eyes for Alita, who, upon meeting the virile males of Earth, has absolutely no problem betraying her entire planet.  Beyond the sexist attitudes, Flight to Mars is also distinguished by presenting space travel as being the equivalent of a long flight on a small airplane.  This is definitely a low-budget B-movie that has absolutely no relation to science fact (or, for that matter, any other type of fact).

And, to be honest, that’s why I like the film.  It truly is such a time capsule that just watching it will make you wonder if Eisenhower is still in the White House.  I’ve always felt that the best way to learn about history is to experience it personally and one of the best ways to do that is to watch a movie that could only have been made during a certain period of time.  And trust me, Flight to Mars is pure 1951.  As for the film’s low budget — well, this film proves that you don’t need CGI to create an alien world.  Sometimes, cardboard and colorful costumes work just as well.  And, as for the film’s science — well, facts are boring.  That’s one reason why good people have often turned to science fiction.

So, if you’ve got 70 minutes to kill, why not experience Flight to Mars?