Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #21 (31 Days of Oscar edition)

The More the Merrier (1943) – I realize that I have a tendency to put actress Jean Arthur up on a pedestal at the ol’ blog, but if you’re curious as to whether there’s a film of hers that I have difficulty warming to, this is the one. It’s considered a screwball masterpiece by many: Arthur is Connie Milligan, a young woman living in Washington, DC who sublets her apartment to government advisor Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn)…who, in turn, sublets his half to returning G.I. Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) and then spends the rest of the film playing Cupid by trying to get Connie and Joe together.

I don’t know why I’ve never cottoned to Merrier, but I suspect one of the chief reasons is that I find Coburn’s character particularly irritating; Coburn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for a role that basically requires him to be a meddlesome buttinsky. Coburn and Arthur are far, far better together in The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), an excellent comedy that also earned Coburn a Supporting Actor nom (knowing what I know about Oscar politics I’d be willing to wager he won the award for Merrier as a consolation prize) as well. (The two performers made a third film together entitled The Impatient Years [1944] which I have not had the pleasure of seeing.) Arthur and McCrea make a pretty swell couple—but (SPOILER WARNING) in the scene at the end of the film, when Arthur starts caterwauling after discovering that the wall that separated her and McCrea’s beds has been removed, I would have not held it against McCrea if he had proceeded to strangle her at that point (her throaty, chirpy tones can only be charming for so long).

George Stevens directed Merrier and also worked with Arthur on two of his other productions, The Talk of the Town (1942) and Jean’s last theatrical film, Shane (1953)—and because I saw Town before Merrier that’s another reason why I’m just not one of the film’s big fans (I think Town is one of the best screen comedies of all time). Still, I’ve always been positively gobsmacked that Merrier was the only film Arthur ever got an Oscar nomination for (though her reputation for being difficult could have contributed to that as much as anything else), when she turned in so many fine performances in films (including the ones I’ve already mentioned) like History is Made at Night (1937), Easy Living (1937), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and A Foreign Affair (1948).

My Sister Eileen (1942) – As a rule, I tend to cling to the notion that remakes of movies rarely outpace the original material—but there are, of course, exceptions. I prefer the 1955 musical-comedy version of Eileen to the 1942 original…even though online pal and frequent TDOY commenter Pam makes a very strong argument that the two movies are two entirely different animals that approach the material from separate angles. In the 1955 film, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood are plopped right into New York without so much as a by-your-leave; the Roz Russell-Janet Blair version, on the other hand, takes the time to establish the small-town-girls' backstory with appearances from their father (Grant Mitchell) and grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson, one of the high points in the ’42 version). Also, the ’55 take places a lot more emphasis on the girls’ various romances than the one in ’42; the characters of Frank Lippincott (Richard Quine, who would direct the ’55 Eileen) and Chick Clark (filmdom’s favorite heel, Allyn Joslyn) are given much more prominence in the Betty Garrett-Janet Leigh version and are just minor characters in the original.

Probably the biggest plus in the 1942 Eileen is that the Bob Baker character is merely a magazine editor (the 1955 version features Jack Lemmon, whose—as Pam describes it—“wolf” boss doesn’t fit the actor at all; it’s like asking him to play the Fred MacMurray role in The Apartment [1960]) who has to answer to a higher boss (Clyde Fillmore). Baker is played by Brian Aherne, an extremely underrated actor who (and I mean no malice by this) only seemed to be called upon when they couldn’t get Errol Flynn (Aherne did some first-rate work in concoctions like Skylark [1941] and the neglected screwball gem A Night to Remember [1943]—which is also about a basement apartment in Greenwich Village!).

Eileen has other facets to recommend at least one viewing: Roz is aces in her role (Blair is more…eh…) and some of the supporting cast members are fun to watch: George Tobias (who seems to be channeling Bert Gordon’s “The Mad Russian” as the girls’ landlord), Gordon Jones, June Havoc, Donald “Jumping butterballs!” McBride…and a funny bit by Arnold Stang as Roz’s co-worker in the movie’s opening scene. But the main reason why I enjoy the ’42 Eileen is that wonderful gag at the end of the film…if you’ve seen the movie, you know why it’s so special for me.


Edward Copeland said...

While I'm not as critical of Coburn in More the Merrier as you are, I do hate his Oscar win because it robbed Claude Rains of his deserved prize for Casablanca.

The Maiden said...

'The Talk of the Town' really is a brilliant comedy, I agree... I must add, I adore 'The More The Merrier' to no end, really.

David Fiore said...

nice observations all around here!

I certainly prefer Talk of the Town, Easy Living and Devil and Miss Jones to More the Merrier, which, while it does have some great moments ("Mr. Pendergast HAS no hair!") really loses momentum in the second half


Jerry Beck said...

Re: the 1942 Eileen. Any film with bit parts by Kirk Alyn, Arnold Stang and The Three Stooges can't be bad.