19 March 2010
It’s simply wrong to remember the screwball and romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s as wholly innocent or de-sexed. Sure, the Hollywood Production Code eliminated a lot of the open sexuality of the earlier era, forbidding all on-screen representations of sexual contact. Yet those rules led screenwriters to create a host of scenarios that nominally adhered to the rules yet found ways to make them erotically charged and even risky.
I can’t think of a better example than Jean Arthur in my favorite film of hers, “The More the Merrier” (1943). To use an apt phrase of David Thomson’s, Arthur had a “rare querulous quality” onscreen that, he suggests, resulted from her ambivalence about acting and Hollywood more generally. After serving as a forgettable ingénue in several dozen silents and early talkies, she remade herself in the mid-30s by bleaching her brunette hair and utilizing that distinctively froggy voice to great effect in films such as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” By that time, her unique combination of innocent idealism and worldly wisecracking seemed perfectly pitched for the era’s films.
“The More the Merrier” has a slow start, but viewers shouldn’t give up: the film really starts to jell after a somewhat belabored first twenty minutes of antics. Premised on the wartime housing shortage in Washington, D.C., young working girl Arthur rents her spare room to the elderly Charles Coburn, who presumptuously determines to improve her love life by finding her a “high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella.” Coburn promptly rents half of his room to the wry, laconic, tall and handsome GI Joel McCrea, who beautifully underplays his part. The film starts to cook as soon as McCrea appears onscreen, and is propelled by the tensions over sexual propriety between the two roommates—highlighting Arthur’s delicate querulousness. It consistently returns us to its favorite image: a scene shot through the windows of the apartment’s two adjoining bedrooms, with each room’s bed sharing the same wall, showing us how close Arthur is to McCrea as they lie in bed—even as the wall assures us they’ll behave themselves.
The best scene comes when Arthur and McCrea are wandering slowly back to the apartment one night after a night of cocktails and dancing, passing through what appears to be a sea of couples necking on stoops and sidled up against trees. Nervous, she natters on with questions about his previous girlfriends and transparently false assertions of confidence in her engagement to the awful Mr. Pendergast. McCrea responds only in the most cursory way, fixing his attention on getting some small touch of her skin—what amounts to small physical battle between them. It’s a scene equivalent to those choreographed Fred and Ginger dances enacting the pleasurable friction of resistance. McCrea doggedly tries to put his arm around her, touch her arms, run his hand along her neck; Arthur dodges. His arm snakes underneath her cloak; Arthur evades, yet positions herself for more. When they finally clunk down on the steps to her apartment building, McCrea’s offensive begins in earnest. Now offering mere grunts for responses, he insistently caresses her arms, her shoulders, her back.
In a perfect movie moment, Arthur succumbs. Her chatter is interrupted by the pleasure she takes in his increasingly successful kisses—and when he hits the sweetest spot on her neck, she simply has to pause mid-sentence: her eyes close, her neck extends, and her chin lifts as she concentrates fully on the kiss’s delight. At the end of the kiss, her eyes widen, her absurdly long false eyelashes bat a few times with brilliant comic disconcertion, and she stutters as she completes her meaningless sentence. The die is cast: she reaches for his face and indulges in a long, passionate kiss on the lips. Arthur’s great knack here is to remind us that we’re watching a comedy, yet still leave no question about the passion between them. As they slowly walk upstairs to the apartment—that dangerously private, intimate space, where only a wall separates their beds—the tension continues to rise, and the film must create a crisis to relieve it.
Post-Code films attain their delicious tension all the more because they could show such delimited physical contact. Considered in that context, the motif of the wall between the two beds becomes all the more sexy, enhancing desire while demanding physical separation. McCrea and Arthur whisper pillow talk to one another through the wall and display to us in highly intimate closeups that all the boundaries between them have crumbled; only the wall sustains their chastity. Even at the height of the Code’s influence, writers and actors undermined it with images of erotic intimacies all the more effective for the walls that fell, Jericho-style, only after these movies ended and the theater lights came back on.