“Damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!”

The More the Merrier (1943)
and The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Airing noon and 2PM EST

Jean Arthur has always been one of my favorite actresses. To look at her–and to listen to her–you might wonder how on earth this woman managed to succeed in Hollywood.

She’s lovely to look at, true, but at her peak, Arthur was well into her 30s (though she didn’t look it, did she?) and making top-grossing films in a town that, to this day, values youth over age and experience. She walked away from film soon after reaching the pinnacle of her career (only returning to the screen twice more in celebrated roles), reportedly because she suffered from such severe stage fright that, according to her frequent director Frank Capra, she would vomit between takes–an issue that likewise caused her to fervently avoid interviews. She became a virtual recluse after retiring from acting for good in the 1960s, though she would spend some of her later years as an acting teacher at Vassar (where one of her students was a young Meryl Streep). And, through it all, there was that voice–sometimes high-pitched, sometimes husky, a little smoky, the slightest bit squeaky–certainly a far cry from the homogenized vocal tones of many of her contemporaries. An odd voice, to be sure, but memorable above most others. This clip, from 1937’s Easy Living, highlights that quirky voice brilliantly.

It’s this essential quirkiness that makes Arthur such an enigma, and so fascinating a figure in the history of cinematic women. Unlike many of her more ambitious counterparts, it was almost as if Arthur had simply stumbled into the profession; as she stated herself in a rare 1971 interview, “I guess I became an actress because I didn’t want to be myself.” Thankfully, despite her apparent lack of cutthroat drive, she had the talent to thrive on the silver screen in every role she tackled. And while Arthur was a talented dramatic actress, to be sure (for evidence, just watch her turn as the cynical chief of staff in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), with a nimble wit and impeccable timing, Arthur was an extraordinarily adept comedian.

Two of her most winning comedies are playing today on TCM, starting with 1943’s wartime comedy The More the Merrier.

In the second of three films for director George Stevens (the first being the previous year’s The Talk of the Town with Cary Grant; the third, Arthur’s final film, the classic 1953 Western Shane), Arthur plays Connie, a single woman looking for a roommate to share her apartment in the midst of the Washington housing shortage (a real problem in D.C. during World War II). The retired and wealthy Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) finds himself without a place to stay and answers Connie’s ad; against her better judgment, Dingle convinces her to let him stay. When Dingle allows a young serviceman, Joe Carter, to move in and share his half of the apartment, Connie becomes angered but cannot ask them to leave as she has already spent Dingle’s rent money. The three share the apartment somewhat uncomfortably, but despite the fact that Connie is engaged to an uptight politician, she and Joe begin to fall in love, and an already complicated situation becomes ridiculously convoluted …

You can imagine that the Production Code had quite a bit to say about this film’s premise, what with two bachelors living in the same apartment with a young, unmarried woman. Still, any expression of disapproval on their part did not alter the film’s content, and the somewhat cheeky camera setup, in which the film viewer sees McCrea and Arthur sleeping in twin beds side-by-side, the thin wall between them barely visible on the screen, remains a sly wink at salaciousness.

[Side note: this film was remade in 1966 as Walk, Don’t Run, which has the distinction of being Cary Grant’s final film; still, the original is definitely superior.]

Arthur is hilarious as the put-upon Connie; her confusion and inability to argue the situation are played to great comic affect, and for someone who was 43 at the time the movie was filmed, she looks remarkably young and fresh. This film also marks Arthur’s only Oscar nomination, though she lost to Jennifer Jones (for The Song of Bernadette). McCrea is also typically wonderful as the stalwart young sergeant waiting to head to war. But Coburn steals the film as the meddlesome millionaire. As he enters a scene, yelling, “Damn the torpedos, full steam ahead!” you can’t help but laugh with delight. Deservedly, after a long career of memorable character roles in some amazing movies (including the next film discussed here), Coburn finally won an Oscar for Supporting Actor for this film.

Though Merrier marks perhaps their best-known collaboration, Arthur and Coburn had previously appeared in two other films together, and their agreeable affinity was evident from their first pairing, in 1941’s The Devil and Miss Jones.

In Devil, Arthur plays Mary Jones, a shoe clerk working for a store owned by John P. Merrick, the wealthiest man in the world. In an attempt to unmask employees who are secretly trying to organize a union, Merrick goes undercover in his own store and befriends Mary and her friend Elizabeth (Spring Byington). In the process, he is introduced to Mary’s boyfriend, Joe (Robert Cummings), who turns out to be the ringleader of the union movement (and who had previously hung Merrick in effigy in front of the store). His friendship with the three workers eventually opens Merrick’s eyes to the difficulties faced by the working class, but his new friendships–and his budding romance with Elizabeth–are threatened as he continues to conceal his true identity from them.

This film really is an ensemble piece; though Arthur and Coburn, the titular pair, are the centerpiece of the film, the supporting turns by Cummings (an underrated comedic actor) and Byington (a reliable character actress whose presence graced many a classic picture) are essential to the success of the movie’s premise. The quartet is enjoyable and capable, and the pairing of Coburn and Byington, particularly, is sweet (it also bears mentioning that the film features a supporting turn by my favorite character actor, “Cuddles” Sakall, as Coburn’s hapless butler). And the film’s deliciously arch humor is evident from the start, as the opening credits conclude with the plea: “Dear richest man in the world: We made up the character in the story out of own heads. It is nobody, really. The whole thing is make-believe. We’d feel awful if anyone was offended. Thank you, the Author, Director and Producer. P.S. Nobody sue. P.P.S. Please.”

If you’re looking for some laughs, with just a touch of romance, make sure you watch these great films today. The Devil and Miss Jones is unavailable on DVD, and The More the Merrier is still relatively expensive, so best to catch these while you can!

Oscar checklist:

The More the Merrier

Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Coburn)

Nominations: Best Actress (Arthur), Best Story, Best Screenplay, Best Director (Stevens), Best Picture

The Devil and Miss Jones

Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Coburn), Best Screenplay

One thought on ““Damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!”

  1. My tip for an Academy Award would be her marvelous western ARIZONA.

    I think it’s Jean’s greatest film.

    “Easy Living” is a great Comedy. But since I have “History Is Made at Night” I like this one very-very much.

    But it’s too late anyway. Jean was ‘too intellectual’, ‘too individual’ and ‘too critical’. Hollywood felt they had to punish her for all that. And with this they took something away from us: The world would be a better place if we had more Jean Arthur films….

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