The More the Merrier
There was no actress better in the screwball comedies of the late 1930s and early ‘40s than Jean Arthur. You want proof? How about The Talk of the Town, The Devil in Miss Jones, and that wonderful Frank Capra trio, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Joel McCrea was no slouch, either. After this one, for some reason Hollywood kept casting him in forgettable shoot-‘em-ups … probably because westerns were so popular then. But I think he was wasted there. He’s much better in a comedy like this, or Sullivan’s Travels. His deadpan delivery is not at all like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, but it works very well. And Charles Coburn was one of the best character actors in the business. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role. Put them all together under director George Stevens, who could do both comedy and drama equally well, and you’ve got one of the best comedies of the 1940s. It is set in Washington, DC, where there was a severe shortage of both housing and eligible men during the war. (Eight girls for every boy! There are several hilarious scenes where newly-emboldened women scare men to death with their brazen advances.) Coburn is an eccentric who finagles his way into the spare room Jean Arthur had patriotically made available. He then takes it on himself to break up her engagement with a stuffed shirt and match her with McCrea, who sublets his sublet. The comic situations multiply, and not a joke misfires. Stevens even plays with us: The stuffed shirt wears an incredibly bad toupee, and in one scene there are two blatant opportunities for it to come off for a cheap chuckle … but it’s funnier that it doesn’t come off.
Sadly (for movie fans, but not for her), Jean Arthur retired after two more films, as soon as her contract at Columbia was up. She had come to hate making movies, and was very happy to be out from under the thumb of crazy man Harry Cohn. She was lured back twice more, once for George Stevens again in Shane, and once for Billy Wilder in A Foreign Affair, and she made a short-lived television show, but that was it. She taught drama at Vassar (where one of her students was Meryl Streep!), and lived the rest of her life as a semi-recluse in Carmel.