"Goodnight, Mister... Darling": Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea's Perfect Love Scene

When it comes to the romantic comedy, classic Hollywood has everybody beat. If you haven't seen a rom-com from the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s, you're denying yourself one of life's greatest joys. There are many I could recommend, but for my money, the gold standard may just be George Stevens's The More the Merrier (1943). The film is unique in that its premise should render it completely outdated — it takes place during the Washington, D.C. housing shortage in WWII — yet it feels fresh, vibrant, and exciting.

When Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) decides to rent out half of her apartment, she winds up with eccentric Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) as her roommate. Having taken a liking to Connie, Dingle takes it upon himself to play matchmaker for her by renting out half of his half to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a handsome young man who will soon be going overseas on a secret military assignment. Joe and Connie are clearly meant to be, but it takes an awful lot of scheming on Dingle's part to get them together. Which leads me to a certain heart-stopping, goosebump-inducing, ten-minute-long sequence.

When Dingle and Joe run into Connie and her stuffy fiancé Charles Pendergast (Richard Gaines), Dingle masterfully distracts Pendergast, allowing Joe to walk Connie back to their apartment alone. As they stroll, they pass one cozy couple after another. Nervous, Connie chatters away, asking Joe questions about his childhood. The conversation seems harmless enough, but the visuals tell a different story as Joe finds clever ways to keep his hands on Connie, causing her to twist out of his grasp. They soon settle on their building's stoop. In the hopes of reminding Joe (and herself) that she is engaged, Connie prattles on about Pendergast as Joe caresses her arms and shoulders.



And then she makes a mistake. While showing Joe her engagement ring, he kisses her hand, eliciting a quiet gasp from Connie. He then grazes her neck with his lips, causing her to close her eyes and hold her breath, trying in vain to regain her composure. It's too late, though. Joe brings her in for a kiss and she responds with a second, more passionate kiss.






Dazed, they say goodnight and start to go their separate ways – until they remember they live in the same apartment. Lying in their beds, separated only by a thin wall, the two talk about Dingle pushing them together. Always the wary one, Connie insists they must think things through. After all, she has a fiancé and Joe will be leaving in a few days for Africa. George Stevens's camerawork is flawless in this scene. As Connie speaks, the camera lingers on her, but once she brings up the circumstances that are keeping her and Joe apart, the camera slowly pans over until it includes both of them in the shot, their shared wall a physical manifestation of their inability to be united while also a winking visual that makes it appear as though Joe and Connie are in the same bed.

We then cut to a close-up of Joe. "I can't sleep," he states. "I love you, Connie. … If you felt the same way, would you tell me?" In a beautifully composed close-up, Connie admits, "I love you more than anything in the world." Joe is delighted, while she is scared to have finally said it out loud. He proposes and Connie quickly accepts, but reality sets in. In less than 36 hours, Joe will be gone and they may never see each other again. "It's an awful problem, isn't it… darling?" Connie tearfully says, her voice catching in her throat as she calls Joe "darling" for the first time. "Sure is… dear," he replies.




By this point, Stevens's camera has remained in close-up, a choice that emphasizes the vulnerability and intimacy of the scene. The audience can't help but feel that they are right there with Arthur and McCrea, which makes the moment all the more genuine and tender. Having decided that getting married would be "no good at all," a devastated Connie whispers, "I guess you better go to sleep, darling." "Goodnight, dear," Joe whispers back. Believing this to be the last time they'll ever be able to call each other by such loving epithets, Connie begins to say, "Goodnight, Mr. Carter" only to stop herself and replace "Carter" with a final heartfelt "darling."

While The More the Merrier is unrelenting in its charm and humor, this sequence knocks me out every time. The film seems to be taking a breath as it slows down and lets us bask in Arthur and McCrea's magical chemistry for ten gloriously dreamy minutes, minutes that encompass intense sexuality, deep love, and unbelievable heartache.

From top to bottom, The More the Merrier is goofy, sweet, and enchanting, a film that begs for repeat viewings just so you can soak in all of McCrea's subtle reactions, Arthur's tremendous performance, and Coburn's hilarious (and Oscar-winning!) machinations.

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This is my entry to the 120 "Screwball" Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Check out all of the tributes to the marvelous Ms. Arthur here!

Comments

  1. Thank you for this informative look at a memorable love scene. Great pictures too! Jean and Joel are just perfect.

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    1. Aren't they? I can't believe this was the only film they made together! Given the film's success, it's kind of surprising they weren't paired up again.

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. Your dissection of this perfect scene is glorious. The More the Merrier is indeed the gold standard. I haven't been as eloquent, simply referring to it always as THE romantic comedy.

    I suppose in some ways, this combination is lightning in a bottle, but I think the true magic is from George Stevens. So much of his work feels unique and personal, if not to him than always to the us in the audience. Certain movies and scenes feel like that are ours.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! I agree about George Stevens. I don't think we talk enough about what a talented man he was -- and I'm including myself in that "we!" He is definitely someone whose contributions I often find I've taken for granted.

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  3. "Mr. Pendergast has no hair!" This film is sooooo good. I only saw it once but would definitely watch it again. I loved that you chose to focus on a particular moment in the film. In my opinion, these moments between Arthur and McCrea shows perfectly that George Steven was one of those directors that made comedies that gave place to reflection while, if you look at the rest of the film, are indeed sweet and goofy as you mention at the end of your article. (Woman of the Year is another good example of that). I'm so glad you were able to participate to my blogathon with this beautifully written article!

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    1. Thanks, Virginie! I actually didn't love this film on my first watch, which surprised me since everyone talks about how great it is, but thankfully I gave it another chance. And you're right about Stevens. He really was such a talented filmmaker!

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  4. This is one of the sexiest scenes I have ever viewed on film! Now I wanna go watch it again!

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    1. Right?! It is astounding to me that this entire sequence got by the censors.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  5. I haven't seen this one, but now I definitely need to! It sounds steamy!

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    1. It's so good! And steamy, haha. I haven't heard of one person yet who hasn't enjoyed this movie.

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  6. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Although Dingle is the scene-stealer, I'm happy you chose to focuse on this particular and beautifully crafted scene. George Stevens is truly underrated and his camerawork in here is outstanding.
    Cheers!

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    1. So true! Stevens's camerawork is perfect throughout this film.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  7. Now I want to watch this again, lol. It's surprising how much Stevens got away with in this movie--these scenes must have really made people goggle.

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    Replies
    1. Right? If we think it's steamy now, I can only wonder what audiences back then thought!

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete

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