Feb 4, 2016

Damn The Torpedoes: Wartime Housing Shortage in The More The Merrier (1943)

The year is 1943, the location Washington DC; bureaucratic capital for wartime decisions. The film starts with a narrator mockingly welcoming the viewer to hospitable Washington, "eagerly throwing wide her doors," while all we see is shots of "no vacancy"-signs. Although wartime housing shortage was a very real problem, the film manages to deal with it humoristically. 

Whereas Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) was doing her Wartime duty by hosting a sailor for Christmas, Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) does her patriotic duty by subletting half of her apartment. Although she was hoping to sublet it to a girl, fate will have it that a "well to do, retired millionaire," named Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), works his way into Connie's apartment. 

Connie Milligan is a very efficient lady. When Dingle remarks this, she gives the simple explanation of having worked in the office of facts and figures. When she knocks on Mr. Dingle's bedroom door to explain the morning schedule to him, she does not let anything go unplanned. Whilst vigorously flipping her bicolored pencil to mark their movements on the floor plan, she explains to Dingle:

"At 7:01 I enter the bathroom, then you go down to get the milk, and by 7:05 you've started the coffee. One minute later I leave the bathroom, and a minute after that you enter the bathroom. Now, that's when I'm starting to dress. Three minutes later I'm having my coffee and a minute after that, at 7:12, you leave the bathroom. At 7:13 I put on my eggs and I leave to finish dressing. Then you put on your shoes and take off my eggs at 7:16. At 7:17 you start to shave. At 7:18 I eat my eggs and at 7:21 I'm in the bathroom fixing my hair, and at 7:24 you're in the kitchen putting on your eggs. At 7:25 you make your bed, 7:26 I make my bed, and then while you're eating your eggs, I take out the papers and cans. At 7:29 you're washing the dishes and at 7:30 we're all finished. You see?" A very puzzled Dingle looks up from the floor plan [below]. "It's really very simple," deadpanned Connie, making it even funnier. 


The morning schedule was created as a matter of efficiency, but of course the next morning turns into a slapsticky routine of trying to stick to the schedule. You can see the scene here: [link]

It is especially in this scene where the history of director George Stevens shows. In 1922, when he was only 17, Stevens started working as an assistant cameraman for Hal Roach Studios. By 1927 he was working as a cinematographer and gag writer for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The first 30 seconds of this scene are eight shots being cut in a fast, ping-pong like pace. The first seven shots are of Connie's bedroom and Dingle's bedroom, alternating every few seconds. Because we can envision the floor plan of the apartment, our brain goes back and forth between left and right. Then for the eighth shot, Stevens takes us outside, showing Connie and Dingle synchronously storming out of their bedrooms, seen by us through their bedroom windows.

Both flatmates start running at 7:01, trying to stick to the schedule — unsuccessfully. When Connie is headed for the bathroom she bumps into Mr. Dingle in the hallway, where he makes the mistake of going into the kitchen instead of bringing in the milk, as planned for in the morning schedule. They bump into each other in the hallway another time, when Dingle is bringing in the milk and Connie just put on the coffee. This, of course, is partly Connie's fault, as she herself isn't sticking to the schedule by taking over Dingle's task of putting on the coffee. For efficiency reasons I drew out both their movements. Connie is done in red pencil, Mr. Dingle in green. The two dots in the hall are the two times they bump into each other.

As you can see in the very clear, uncluttered floor plan above, Mr. Dingle even ventures outside of the apartment when he is locked out of the apartment by Connie. He climbs out of the window onto the fire escape, which leads to Connie's bathroom window, where she is brushing her teeth.

At 7:30 Connie is all finished, whereas Mr. Dingle is spread out on the floor, still wearing his pajama pants.

Once Connie has left for work, and Mr. Dingle has succeeded at getting dressed properly, he sees a "high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella" on the doorstep, coming for the vacancy advertised for in yesterday's newspaper. Right then and there Dingle decides to play Cupid and rents half of his half of the apartment to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), without Connie knowing (and with Connie already being engaged to a 42-year old Mr. Charles J. Pendergast for 22 months). This results in another scene where the three protagonists and the architecture of the apartment perform a beautiful choreography. The hall once again becomes the main place for passage. You can see the scene here: [click]
Remember; Connie is not to know about Carter until Dingle has told her, so when both Connie and Joe start going from room to room, Dingle has to use every trick in the book to prevent them from seeing each other. Since the apartment is not so big, this proves to be difficult. The moment Carter closes a door, Connie opens one and vice versa. This can't last, and we know it.

Eventually Connie and Joe cross the hall at the same time. The realization doesn't come until they've entered the room they were heading for. Joe spits out his milk upon realizing and Connie makes a dramatic stop before running back to the hallway and meeting each other for the first time.

There is a lovely moment in the scene, where Stevens has Connie and Joe rumba-ing together, but apart, merely separated by a wall. We know this, because we have come to know the architecture of the apartment by now. Later on in the film we get a throwback to this moment when the two are seated across each other at a table in a cafe, shimmying their shoulders. Dingle, still playing for Cupid, tells the "kids" to get on the dance floor. This is the first time the two actually get to dance with each other, without a wall or table separating them.


The floor plan scene is reminiscent of kitchen efficiency diagrams published in The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies In Home Management (1913) by Christine Frederick [below]. Frederick was a home economist, interested in applying Taylorism to the domestic sphere. In ca. 1912 she established the Applecroft Home Experiment Center in her home in New York, where she would set up experiments for domestic efficiency, mainly focusing on efficiency in the kitchen. Like Connie, Frederick would trace and time these movements, looking for labor-saving methods of preparation and use.

Kitchen efficiency diagrams published in 'The New Housekeeping' (1913), p. 52

The diagrams pictured above only have to deal with one person's movements, making it easier to make them as efficient as possible. The flow that Connie mapped out already looks rather hectic, but the floor plans in color (where I drew the actual movements) are pure chaos. The scenes wouldn't have been as funny as they are now if Mrs. Frederick would have directed it, though, for it is the architectural gags that give the movie so much of its comedy.

When discussing the morning schedule scene, I already mentioned Stevens shooting both bedroom windows from outside. This shot becomes a sort of leitmotiv throughout the movie. We get introduced to this type of shot when it is used to picture the platonic relationship between Mr. Dingle and Connie. The next time we see the same type of shot, it is with Joe and Connie.

Connie had ordered Mr. Dingle and Joe to be moved out by the time she got home from work, but Joe was somewhat delayed in his packing, which gives him an excuse to hand Connie a letter of apology written by Mr. Dingle in person. By communicating via their bedroom windows, Joe and Connie are in a way ignoring the existence of the thin wall that is separating their bedrooms. After reading the letter Connie changes her mind and Joe can stay. From this moment on the bedroom window shots aid in the depiction of the relationship between Joe and Connie.


The romance between Joe and Connie, that is not supposed to be, is growing. After their reconciliation Joe asks Connie on a date, but she is already going on a date with Mr. Pendergast. Connie's defiance has began to crumble, but she still tries to put up some resistance: "He's supposed to call at eight, you know. Sometimes he gets into a conference and he can't even telephone. So if that happens, naturally the date is off. So, I'll wait for him 'till eight, and if he doesn't call, well, then I guess it would be alright, [...]" Another window-shot shows Connie and Joe anxiously watching the clock opposite their building strike eight, hoping to go out together before Charles J. calls on his fiancée.

But Charles J. Pendergast does call on Connie and with visible disappointment she leaves Joe behind in the apartment. Joe then goes to a cafe with Mr. Dingle and who are there? Mr. Pendergast and Connie. This is where they first dance together and walk home together, thanks to another cunning Cupid-trick performed by Dingle. An intimate conversation between the two where they declare their love for each other takes place with both of them in their own bed, still separated by the tin wall between them. But the wall seems to be hardly there anymore, because of Stevens' use of photography. The wall is merely a blurry line and visually it's almost as if the two lovebirds are in bed together.

Nearing the end, after the couple had to get married due to circumstances, the camera goes outdoors one more time, this time panning along the facade. We see Joe opening the windows, without realizing that all of a sudden he is opening the window of Connie's bedroom. We, as voyeurs, are the firsts to realize the wall between the two bedrooms is gone. Only after we have been given this privilege, Steven goes inside, and it isn't until then that the newlyweds become aware of what is now their bedroom. The wall of Jericho has been broken down.


So, we can say the apartment in The More the Merrier is the architecture for comedy and romance. It is the floor plan, the slamming of doors and the windows that give us the moments that make us laugh and at times makes us swoon.


Credits:

Produced by Fred Guiol & George Stevens; directed by George Stevens; Story by Garson Kanin, Robert Russell & Frank Ross; screenplay by Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy & Lewis R. Foster; cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff; art direction by Lionel Banks & Rudolph Sternad, starring Jean Arthur, Noel McCrea & Charles Coburn.

Sources:


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