Acteurism: Joel McCrea in "The More the Merrier"

Covering the Museum of Modern Art's series dedicated not to directors but to actors.
Z. W. Lewis

Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn, and Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier

Writing about acting is hard. Or rather, avoiding bad writing about acting is hard. When starting this article I nearly fell into that dichotomous peril of guessing which little actions were choices made by the actor himself or the director in charge. That’s a dumb, unfruitful game that would warrant nothing more than self-congratulation if some historical figure were to admit how correct I was. Yet, that dumb, unfruitful notion was the first frame of this article, likely spawned from the innumerable like-minded articles about acting.

I’m being this transparent because I’ve taken the call-to-arms from Kent Jones in the most recent issue of Film Comment. In his article, Jones lists the pratfalls critics take when talking about acting, more often than not relying on conventional wisdom about the mythos surrounding certain actors and conventional wisdom about acting in order to describe their process. I’ve generally taken a slightly worse route: avoidance of talking about acting at all. The opportunity of Dave Kehr’s on-going “Acteurism” series on the films of Joel McCrea at New York's Museum of Modern Art allows me to right this personal wrong. McCrea, an effortless charmer and a tabula rasa stand-in for all-American male, never announces personality with his body like Chaplin nor fills in a character with the timbre of his voice like Connery. He announced one regret at the end of his career: “I should have tried harder to be a better actor.” Can McCrea’s admitted slovenliness be parsed through his work? Does it work for his characters? I’ll be writing notes on each film in this series not as a solution to Kent Jones’s problem, but as a chance to remove the director’s auteur lens from a few films and focus on the process of an actor.

My only introduction to McCrea’s character comes through one melodrama (Bed of Roses [1933]) and two westerns (Stranger on Horseback [1955], Stars in My Crown [1950]). The goal-driven, indifferent gunman characters he embodies in the latter have always seemed to match his monotone expressions. Yet here he is in The More the Merrier (1943), a screwball comedy-turn-melodrama shot during the war by George Stevens. By the time McCrea walks into the picture, the important political aspect of the film has already been established: Benjamin Dingle (a screwball-ready Charles Coburn) arrives in Washington D.C. to attend political meetings on the wartime housing crisis only to fall victim to the crisis himself by being out of a room. He rents half an apartment from a rule-heavy, political worker Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur, playing up a sort of orderliness hysteria) and subsequently rents half of his part to Joe (McCrea).

McCrea’s Joe falls in line with the film’s abrupt split in tone during a pivotal scene in which Dingle (and what a name for such a silly character) is caught reading from Connie’s diary. Before, McCrea plays the straight man to the silly/serious conflict of Dingle to Connie. Dingle bellows his American wartime catchphrase “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” around the apartment as Connie tries her best to coach the boys through her morning routine in which every action is planned to the minute. There’s a proto-sitcom set-up with these three, as two forms of eccentricity butt heads while the other watches with indifference as if to confirm their behaviors’ normality. McCrea plays to his strength of the straight man: a focused pair of eyes, self-assured posture, and a masculine swagger dominates his character standing opposite the shrieking Arthur and blubbering Coburn. Though he plays his necessary bit, the character calls for several complications. Despite his manly swagger and his sexual maturity (there’s a repeated gag of young women ogling him wherever he goes, a pre-Beatlemania obsession that could be read for the actor himself, who had a "reputation as something of a playboy." Joe puts on a boyish attitude toward responsibility. He’s going to be stationed with the Army soon, but they might as well be the boy scouts as he treats his military position as an adventure instead of patriotic duty. He reads Dick Tracy comics with Coburn and scoffs at Arthur’s suggestion that they read the columnists instead (McCrea: “Are they funny?” / Coburn: “Sometimes. But no pictures.”). There’s even a gag where McCrea barks in the shower for no reason other than occupying that sweet linoleum echo. Arthur immediately assumes that it’s that silly Coburn overstaying his hot water welcome.

For the first half of the movie, McCrea plays Joe shifting between manchild and wartime masculine dream, clenching his jaws for the optimum portrait lighting one second and flailing them open to, well, bark the next. His body can walk with the gravitas of a goal-driven soldier and slump to boyish pranks depending on his nearest player—typically a woman/man divide, respectively. Given George Stevens’s reputation as the controlling mastermind behind most of his films, it’d be easy to pin McCrea’s switches on outside help. Recall his quote about not working hard enough as an actor—perhaps the effortlessness attributed to him actually is a lack of effort. But then there’s the picture’s second half.

Arthur’s shift in attitude toward the boys from disgruntled babysitter to antipathetic victim from the invasion of her privacy forces the entire film to follow. This includes Coburn’s clown's return back to its initial political figure and McCrea's earning back the respect (and affection) of Arthur. Though tension follows from the evolving relationship between McCrea and Arthur, McCrea roots himself in nearly monotone delivery. Is this his admitted carelessness seeping through, or does McCrea shoot blank expressions to counterpoint Arthur’s traditional melodramatic line readings, playing the straight man once again?

His shift to a somber romantic hero in this second half requires the same sort of instant metamorphosis as his previous soldier/boy-scout switches in the first half. However, when Arthur forgives McCrea and slyly works her way into asking him to stay, there’s almost a light bulb planted above McCrea’s head as he begins to realize the other, more obvious reason she’s asking. In one of his few close ups, the Western-patented grave stare spreads into enamored grin, light in the pupils: the whole show.  It’s the most emotion he’ll give throughout the whole film, effort abounding.


Part of our on-going series covering the Museum of Modern Art's series Acteurism: Joel McCrea.

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