Sunday, June 2, 2013

The "Damn the Torpedoes" Admiral Farragut Statue sculpted by Vinnie Ream in "The More the Merrier" (1943)

For my fiftieth blog post, I’m choosing to write about a great little film that stars one of my favorite comediennes of the ’40s, the lovely Jean Arthur. I’m referring to a brilliant little film from 1943, The More the Merrier costarring Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea and directed by George Stevens. The More the Merrier features a wonderful example of existing public art playing a large part in a film. But we’ll get to that later.
I think The More the Merrier has more or less fallen into relative obscurity. If people are going to watch a Jean Arthur film, they chose more well-known films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, or You Can’t Take it With You, films with better well-known supporting casts. But Jean Arthur, a brilliant comedienne who brightened every film she was in, makes The More the Merrier worthwhile. The More the Merrier doesn’t really lack in any way, it’s more a victim of time and neglect, but it really highlights Jean Arthur’s strengths: her comedic wit and her ability to convey independence and innocence.

The More the Merrier’s plot hinges on the housing shortage in Washington, DC during WWII. Jean plays Connie Milligan, a confident, independent working girl, who believes it’s her civic duty to let out part of her spacious apartment. Unbeknownst to her, she lets it to the elderly, troublemaking Mr. Dingle (Coburn), who then lets out half of his half to a handsome young devil, Joe Carter (McCrea). It’s a situation that spells romantic-comedy any way you look at it.
The film begins when Mr. Dingle, who is actually supposed to talk about the housing shortage in city, arrives in Washington. As he’s walking the streets alone, he passes Farragut Square, where he spies a statue of the famous Admiral David Farragut. Reading the inscription, Farragut’s famous quote: “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!” Dingle is instantly inspired. 
He composes a little song about the quote and then acts according to this new mantra. Basically, this attitude prompts him to try to set up the lovely Connie with Joe after he rents half of her apartment. You could claim, without too much exaggeration, the statue moves the entire film forward. Just the kind of piece I love!
(As an aside, Farragut is one of my favorite Civil War figures. He worked himself up the US navy, eventually becoming an admiral. He is most famous for his quote, “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!” which legend states he uttered during the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War.)
Farragut Square as it appears today
Farragut Square is obviously a real place in Washington, D.C. and that statue actually stands in its center. It is not too much a stretch of the imagination to think that Dingle could have passed it. There is a catch though- no inscription, past the name “FARRAGUT” appears on the statue. There is certainly no quote, despite the fame of that particular quote.
Coburn reading the quote
The quote was added in by clever camera work. In one scene Dingle looks at the statue, cue close up of statue, followed by a separate shot of the inscription. In fact, when you think of it, the quote appears on stone that exists only at the base of the statue. I think Stevens could have photo-shopped it in a little nicer! Still, even though the statue is re-purposed a little, it is really not that much of a stretch. 

The Farragut Statue as it appears today
This statue is a real example of monumental art. It features the famed Admiral, clutching a telescope, standing atop a pediment, that features, as I said earlier, only his name. It was sculpted by a very interesting figure, Vinnie Ream. Vinnie famously sculpted President Abraham Lincoln when she was only 18 during the Civil War. Vinnie was one of the earliest and most important American female artists, who achieved great success during her lifetime. Her statue now sits in the Capitol Rotunda and earns her lasting fame. Vinnie won a commission from the US government, facing stiff competition from many other Washington artists. The statue is a massive ten foot bronze that Vinnie worked for years on, basing her work on photographs she received from the Admiral’s widow. Interestingly enough, the bronze was melted down from the propellers of Farragut’s flagship, the USS Hartford. The monument was received with great popularity and acclaim when it was unveiled in 1881 by President Garfield. The result is the heroic, impressive statue of one of the most heroic and impressive figures in American naval history.  
Vinnie Ream with a model of her Lincoln Statue
But I digress: the statue embodies an idea, a philosophy that plays an important role in the film. More importantly, it embodies a spirit that Stevens believed all Americans should take during the war. It seems that Stevens believed, in typical American fashion, that in times of trouble, you just got to “damn the torpedoes”, do what needs to be done, and everything will work out. Dingle’s actions serve as a microcosm of this spirit. This would have struck a nice chord with the contemporary, wartime American audience.
In the film itself, it propels forward the plot at several points in the plot, as it provides a setting for the quote itself that inspires Dingle throughout. Dingle is so humorously unashamed to do what he thinks is best, even when it gets him in trouble. This philosophy creates trouble, and thus humor, but it also accomplishes things that need to be done because…spoiler alert, his ends justify his means in the end!


In my own way, I’m also inspired, just as Dingle was, by Admiral Farragut’s words. You, my loyal readers, can be assured, when times are tough (or more likely, short), I’ll “damn the torpedoes”, and keep posting away! 

1 comment:

  1. I just saw "The More the Merrier" (1943) and seem to recall Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn) sang a little song about Jimmy Doolittle (http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/james-h-doolittle) just once; don't recall what triggered that response; does anyone remember the reference or the words to that little song?

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