Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Beware Bored Old Men

Turner Classic was doing a Jean Arthur night on Monday. I don't have a lot to say about Mr. Deeds Goes to Town other than it probably doesn't say anything good about society that that movie starred Gary Cooper, but the remake had Adam Sandler.

So to heck with it, we'll talk about The More the Merrier Instead. There's a war on, and a bit of a housing crunch in Washington D.C. Jean Arthur's character, Ms. Milligan, is a patriotic sort, so she decides to rent out one of the rooms of her apartment, preferably to another woman. But Mr. Dingle (played by Charles Coburn), basically fast talks his way into the apartment, after he tricks all the other potential boarders into giving up. And then, while she's off at work, he rents half of his room out to Joe Carter (played by Joel McCrea), without telling Milligan, who is engaged to a local, well I'm not sure what the guy did, but he was a respectable sort.

As you might expect, Milligan and Carter find themselves attracted to each other, but there's the pesky matter of her fiance, not to mention Mr. Dingle, who continues to meddle even after Milligan evicts him from her apartment. The romance parts are pretty dull, and the sound of Jean Arthur crying is like a nail file scraped across the inside of my brain.

So it's Coburn that saves the movie, even if I'm never entirely clear on his motivations. By his own admission, he's a retired millionaire (though he's trying to push through a government housing project so factory workers can save commute time), so what the heck is he doing renting a bedroom in an apartment? As near I can tell, he sets his mind that Milligan is old enough she ought to be married, and that's why he offers half of his room to Carter. But even when he learns later that she's engaged to Pendergrast, he still gets involved, albeit in ways that are meant to keep him slightly off to the side. When anyone other than Carter or Milligan is around, he plays a slightly dotty old man. With them, he can be a bit of a know-it-all windbag.

But honestly, I think he just has too much time on his hands, and enjoys playing the prankster. The key is he brings different characteristics depending on who he's around. He buddies up to McCrea, but then provokes a protective instinct in him towards Arthur. And Arthur is left generally confused and exasperated by him, like she can't quite figure out why he's there or how to be rid of him. It is interesting that in the early part of the film, he's a bit of a klutz, struggling mightily to adjust to Arthur's regimented early morning schedule. Then in the second half, he becomes the schemer, and I started to wonder how long he'd had all this planned.

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