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Easy Living

Easy Living
1937 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 88 min. / Street Date April 22, 2008 / 14.98
Starring Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Luis Alberni, Mary Nash, Franklin Pangborn
Cinematography Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté
Film Editor Doane Harrison
Written by Preston Sturges, story by Vera Caspary
Produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the best of the screwball comedies, Easy Living features a terrific screenplay by Preston Sturges. The director is Mitchell Leisen, an art and design specialist of the silent era who continued to design costumes even as his directing career flourished. Sturges and Billy Wilder considered Leisen an obstacle to their own directing careers, and Wilder especially complained about damage done when Leisen filmed his screenplays. Wilder's venom may be partly responsible for Leisen's relative obscurity today. He needs to be given some credit for a series of surefire winners bearing his name, among them Hands Across the Table, Midnight, Arise My Love, and Hold Back the Dawn.

Easy Living is a delightful picture with a clever but sweet-hearted script and a parade of lovable, nutty characters. Right in the middle of the Depression, poor girl Jean Arthur and rich boy Ray Milland fall into a fool's paradise of luxury and riches. As is typical with a Preston Sturges script, nothing is the slightest bit credible but it all makes perfect sense. No 30's comedy, not even Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, pegs the contrast between the rich and poor with such effortless good humor.


Impoverished Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is on her way to work when a phenomenally expensive sable coat suddenly lands on her head. Millionaire stockbroker J.B. Ball, the famous Bull of Wall Street (Edward Arnold), threw the coat from a rooftop to spite his greedy wife Jenny (Mary Nash). J. B. is so pleased with himself for standing up to Jenny that when he meets Mary on the street he gives her the coat outright, and buys her a new hat at a shop belonging to Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn). The coat and the hat are all that are needed to set in motion a maelstrom of mistaken assumptions. Mary is dismissed from her job because her boss assumes that the coat means she's a kept woman. Van Buren jumps to the same conclusion and sells the news of J.B.'s new girlfriend to Mr. Louis Louis (Luis Alberni), a bankrupt hotelier. Louis Louis figures he can revive his business by spreading the word that the Bull of Wall Street's mistress is residing in one of his luxury suites. Mary can't believe it when she's bullied into accepting a lavish set of hotel rooms practically for free, but Louis Louis' gambit pays off. When the word spreads, his hotel quickly fills up with swells that want access to J.B. Ball and his millions. Mary's new apartment fills with free services and goods from retailers hoping to reap big sales. Meanwhile, Mary is falling in love with J.B.'s son, the well intentioned but nearly unemployable John Jr. (Ray Milland). A Wall Street news hound thinks that 'The Bull's mistress' is giving him insider stock tips, leading to a runaway stock sell-off that may ruin J.P.'s business!

Easy Living has a peculiar take on the American economy -- the rich may have all the money, but they share the same idiotic problems with the rest of us. Jovial J.B. Ball is ignored by his wife and humored by his disrespectful servants. He tosses away a priceless coat to teach his wife a lesson, starting a chain reaction that teaches Mary Smith all the wrong lessons. Accused of exhibiting morals unbefitting an editor for a boy's magazine, Mary storms away from her job and is unknowingly assigned a new identity as a pampered mistress. Everybody in New York believes this except Mary and J.B.. Mary is a perfectly intelligent person confused by the mixed signals of vendors who offer their goods gratis but never say why. Like a 'trickle down' miracle, Mary's sudden affluence has literally fallen out of the sky.

J.B. may earn his living through speculation, but the city's high-toned merchants operate in perpetual scam mode. Franklin Pangborn profits from the false notion that Mary is J.B.'s kept woman, and leaves thousands of dollars of merchandise at her apartment on approval. Luis Alberni steals the show with his excitable, malapropism-addled Louis Louis. An ex-chef pretending to be a classy hotelier, Louis Louis says 'soot' when he means 'suite' and instructs his staff to flip lights on and off so his vacant high-rise will appear to be occupied. But his instincts are correct: a scandalous affair involving a millionaire attracts everybody. A typical Louis Louis remark: "You're a sight for an eyesore!"

The recipe for movie comedy has always depended on personalities and chemistry. The casting in Easy Living is masterful, from Mary Nash's wife with her precious closet of fur coats to William Demarest in a bit as a doubting Thomas. Eccentrics clash with deadpans and Robert Grieg's butler feels perfectly comfortable insulting J.B. to his face. Edward Arnold had been in pictures since 1916 and was finally shifting from ambitious go-getter types (Come And Get It) to domineering power players. His J.B. is a benign tyrant in need of someone like Mary Smith in his life, as a friend, not a lover.

The inimitable Jean Arthur, the lady with the tinkle-bell voice and incredulous, flirtatious facial expressions, was also a veteran of silent films. She'd made more than 70 features before Easy Living, over 50 of them in starring roles. Yet she's convincing as a guileless young woman and would continue playing 25 and under until way into her 40's. Leisen gets at least a reel of quality film out of an impossibly extravagant hotel suite set, as Mary takes a tour of one incredible art deco room after another, with Louis Louis bumping into glass doors behind her. Jean Arthur never runs out of amazed expressions. On her second tour Mary shows the 'soot' to Ray Milland's John Jr.. They climb all over an ornate, oversized bathtub, not even recognizing what it's for. It looks like a setting for Venus on the Half Shell.

Preston Sturges' comedy writing is every bit as brilliant as the work he did for his self-directed 1940's classics. Critics sometimes fault his over-reliance on slapstick pratfalls, but Sturges whips up a food fight in an automat that's better than anything in a silent comedy. Wearing her $6,000 fur coat but lacking the price of a cup of coffee, Mary wonders what she'll do until John Jr. (who's taken a job bussing tables, don't ask why) takes pity on her and tries to slip her a free meal. A fight with a cafeteria detective opens all of the automat's food windows, and a food riot breaks out. In contrast to glossy 30's movies about rich people in which the poor never intrude, the living conditions in Easy Living's New York are such that nobody can afford to pass up free eats. In the ensuing chaos, it doesn't look as if anybody succeeds in actually eating anything. Ray Milland was just getting good showcase roles and is perfect for Easy Living's clueless John Jr., the heir without a clue. Like Mary, John is essentially a benign innocent, and we're pleased when he begins to figure out what he wants from life.

When an average 30's drama bogs down, the cliché screenwriting solution is to arrange for a cute baby to get sick and need a rare miracle drug. If that doesn't fit, someone will start a run on the bank. Easy Living shows a Wall Street panic instigated by a false rumor originating from, who else, Mary and John Jr.. Living light-years beyond their means but having trouble finding anything to eat, Mary has gone from a Nobody to possessing the ability to alter the course of the economy!

Universal's DVD of the Paramount production Easy Living looks good on DVD, with both its image and track in fine shape. The lone extra is an introduction by TCM's Robert Osborne, but don't watch it before the film: Osborne gives away too much of the story. Easy Living is the kind of movie that raises the spirits; one can't watch it without smiling. The talented Preston Sturges and Jean Arthur made quite a few of those.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Easy Living rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Intro by Robert Osborne (with spoilers)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 14, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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