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Whenever a film directed by Jacques Tourneur pops up on the radar, it's a sure bet to be an unusually interesting and sensitive movie. The top-ranked 'graduate' of the legendary Val Lewton horror film unit, Tourneur was rewarded with a promotion to "A" productions at RKO and was soon in demand at every studio. Oddly enough, 1949's Easy Living is an almost invisible movie. Its title is strongly associated with the well known 1937 Jean Arthur comedy classic. Tourneur's film stars Victor Mature, who is not exactly known as a great actor but is terrific here, almost certainly owing to Tourneur's directing style, which typically brings out the best in most every actor. The film's unusually large cast forms an impressive ensemble. Even Sonny Tufts, who when still remembered was the butt of unfair jokes, puts in a compelling performance. The sole flaw in the ointment is a disappointing final scene, which may have been dictated by the Production Code, or perhaps the quixotic new RKO head Howard Hughes.
Easy Living is an early and honest look at the business of pro football. Aging New York Chiefs star quarterback Pete Wilson (Victor Mature) realizes that his gridiron days are coming to a close. The team's owner and manager Lenahan (Lloyd Nolan) is eyeing a winning spot in the playoffs. 1 When he loses a coaching job at a big college to his buddy Tim McCarr (Sonny Tufts), Pete feels betrayed because his influence helped get Tim into the pro game. The college has chosen Tim because his wife Penny (Jeff Donnell) can be counted on to help with the job's many social responsibilities. Pete's wife Liza (Lizabeth Scott) likes the glamour surrounding her husband, but is more interested in luxuries, social climbing in the Big Apple, and starting her own interior decorating firm. Liza gets a job offer not from her talent but because her potential client thinks she might sleep with him - and Liza knows it. Pete finds out that he has a serious heart condition that requires him to quit playing ball. But he keeps the news to himself, fearing Liza's reaction. He plays far too conservatively, causing his team to start losing just as the division championship is within reach. The King of Football is now dubbed "King Cripple". Lenahan is concerned, but so is his widowed daughter-in-law Anne, the team secretary (Lucille Ball). Anne has her heart set on Pete, knowing full well that a relationship is impossible. Or is it? Liza's behavior is getting seriously out of hand.
Sports movie fans will like Easy Living's vision of life in pro football at a time before the game became a billion dollar business. The team has only one black player and travels by bus. Manager Lenahan whets the players' appetite for victory with the promise of a HUGE bonus if they make the playoffs: a whole $1,000 dollars each! The only football action we see is in the study movies showing how Pete Wilson's game is slipping. A coaching assistant tells us that various shots are from different games during the season, but the shots on screen are all taken on the same field, under identical lighting conditions, etc.. This is an interpersonal drama, not a gridiron epic.
Screenwriter Robert Schnee retains the many characters in Irwin Shaw's source novel, making Easy Living seem more realistic than similar Hollywood fare of the time. The movie has over twenty major speaking parts, with actors like Jack Paar, Jim Backus, Paul Stewart and Everett Glass in the show for little over a scene each. Most have sharp, punchy roles but some get short-changed. June Bright plays Billy Duane, the kept woman of one of Liza's clients. She's there to show how Liza is similarly prostituting herself, even if she doesn't sleep with the man. But Ms. Bright's on-screen presence is limited to a few lines and some unhappy looks.
Easy Living probably focused too closely on mundane issues to be a big success; sports films are usually escapist fantasies of glory. Nobody is happy or fulfilled in their ambitions. Trained for nothing else but football, Pete Wilson fears that he will be unemployed and lose everything; he's well aware of Liza's attitude toward 'losers'. Liza isn't very supportive of Pete, as shown when she cuts him off before he can explain his medical problem. She's rude and dismissive to one of Pete's colleagues, an aged player dropped by the team (Gordon Jones). Liza desperately wants the same kind of celebrity enjoyed by her husband and is willing to cheat on her marriage vow to do it.
Anne is faithful to Pete in her own way. Their scenes together display an adult attitude toward what are obviously mutual feelings. Anne and Pete keep their affection at bay, even after it is acknowledged; their compatibility seems very real. Even Lenahan knows the score. Rather than give Anne a soap opera lecture, he tells her he understands and that her love life is not his business. This kind of mature perspective can be counted on in almost all of Jacques Tourneur's films -- restraint, sensitivity, empathy.
The film's resolution seemed to please nobody, however. Hollywood's cure for this kind of triangle usually sees something outrageous occurring to clear the path for the more 'deserving' female to claim Pete fair and square. The less sympathetic offender (in this case Lizabeth Scott's Liza) would be shot dead or hit by a truck or a bus or any convenient lethal object. Easy Living has other ideas, and opts for a finish that instead puts the uppity Liza firmly in her place. It involves receiving not one but two painful-looking slaps, and a promise to be a submissive non-ambitious hausfrau from here on out. Audiences in 1949 probably had the same reaction as did the women I saw the picture with: anger. 2
Even if they didn't mind seeing Liza punished for having a dream, twisted though it might be, audiences were surely not pleased to see Anne's hopes for personal happiness dashed. The nostalgic affection felt for Lucille Ball in comedies now overflows into her dramatic roles, so seeing Anne's romantic needs frustrated is not at all satisfying. What can I say? Howard Hughes may have been on a real "hate women" binge that week.
I haven't seen too many sports movies but Easy Living is far better than a similar Charlton Heston vehicle from 1969, Number One. Heston's quarterback is in a comparable situation but the production is cheap and the pro football context barely thinly sketched. Far more interesting is the Burt Reynolds-Kris Kristofferson-Jill Clayburgh comedy drama Semi-Tough, from 1977.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Easy Living is a nearly perfect copy of what has become a fairly obscure picture. Harry Wild's cinematography is excellent and so is RKO's production, which fills apartments, offices, locker rooms, etc., with many speaking roles. This is definitely an RKO "A".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Easy Living rates:
1. The Chiefs, however, wear the uniforms of the Los Angeles Rams, including the distinctive helmets. The Rams are given special billing in the credits.
2. The picture has more examples of unfairness to women. The wife of a college coach is expected to work full time backing up her husband's social responsibilities, but nobody would suggest that that duty qualifies as a paid employment position. Penny is "good" because she has no personal ambition, while Liza is automatically considered on the make because she must flatter male clients to promote her business. From what we know of Liza, she isn't going to be fulfilled hosting alumni dinners in a small town. But the rules say she must stick it out with Pete. Poor Anne has no space for maneuver whatsoever. If she tries to win Pete's affections, she's a rotten home wrecker.
Easy Living makes a big deal about Billy Duane losing her self-respect when she becomes the mistress of the verminous Howard Vollmer. The millionaire believes that hiring Liza to decorate his apartment will give him rights to her body as well. At least in terms of overwhelming anecdotal evidence, that perk was one of Howard Hughes' main reasons for becoming a mysterious movie mogul. Couldn't he see the parallel?
I do need to add here that I've never read that Easy Living's ending was altered or re-shot, even though he began his editorial meddling soon after buying RKO in 1948. This conclusion may be what Shaw and Schnee intended, without Hughes' involvement. Slap that girl again, Vic, until she learns her lesson!
A similarly fascinating RKO movie made the same year (and approved by Hughes?) is The Company She Keeps with Jane Greer and Lizabeth Scott. It's equally debatable in the context of women's roles, rights and responsibilities in a male dominated society.
3.A Helpful note from Randy Byers and a link to his blog, 7.30.12:
Hi, Glenn. Just read your review of Tourneur's Easy Living, which I also wrote about recently: I don't have it with me, so I can't fill in the details at the moment, but if you have Chris Fujiwara's book on Jacques Tourneur, it's worth reading the entry on this movie. Amongst other things, he says that Tourneur and Nicholas Ray swapped movies in this case. I think the one that was originally assigned to Tourneur that ended up with Ray was A Woman's Secret, although I can't remember for sure. Fujiwara also says that the ending of Easy Living was changed from the ending in the script, which had Pete leaving Liza for Anne, as you'd expect from the set-up.
Thanks for a great write-up of an under-appreciated film. Yours, Randy Byers
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