The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Romantic Comedy Blogathon, currently underway from May 1-4 and sponsored by Vincent at Carole & Co. and Lara at Backlots. For a complete list of the participating blogs and topics discussed (naturally, most of them has to do with “Topic A”), click here, here, here and here.
Ball also has a few choice words for his capricious son John, Jr. (Ray Milland), whom he fears will never amount to anything—the younger Ball, however, resents his father’s opinion, and announces he’s going out on his own to seek his fortune without J.B.’s assistance.
Poor but honest, Mary hops off the bus and tries to locate the owner of the coat; she runs into J.B. (who’s on his way to work), who tells her to keep it as a gift. (“Merry Christmas!”) Mary’s a little taken aback at the generosity of the man she nicknames “Santa Claus,” who also offers her a lift (she’s a clerk at a magazine called The Boys’ Constant Companion) after she’s spent her last bus fare…and throws in a new hat in the bargain.
Meanwhile, Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn) of the millinery shop spreads the gossip about Bull’s hat purchase to a hotelier, Louis Louis (Luis Alberni), whose business is in hock to Ball (Louis’ on his third mortgage)…so Louis invites Mary to stay in the hotel’s “Imperial Soots” for the same rent she’s currently paying on her small apartment ($7 a week…plus a breakfast egg)—reasoning that J.B. won’t dispossess him if his “mistress” is living there. As such, Mary takes the time to show off her new digs to a man whom she inadvertently got fired from his job at an automat—none other than John, Jr. In fact, both Ball père et fils wind up at the Hotel Louis—J.B. rents a room there after wife Jenny packs her bags for Florida.
The innocent Mary even finds herself on the receiving end of lavish gifts (clothes, jewelry, etc.) thanks to her newly acquired “reputation.” But all that notoriety jeopardizes the Ball empire when insider stock information made in jest threatens to bring about a crash not unlike that in 1929; it’s up to plucky Mary to come to the rescue of the family…which wins her the love of John, Jr. in the process.
Living was based on a story by Vera Caspary (Laura, A Letter to Three Wives), and the only aspect of what Sturges called a “little story of deceit and illusion” that appealed to him was the fur coat…so he kept that and revamped the material into a comedy instead.
Paramount producer Maurice Revnes told the future director of The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story that his comedic treatment wouldn’t fly…prompting the notoriously independent Sturges to go over Revnes’ head and take Living to director Mitchell Leisen, who gave it the greenlight. (Sturges later observed: “I didn't realize it then, but going to a director over the head of my producer was not a sagacious move; I would come to realize it much further down the road.”) Leisen, who rose up through the ranks to become a respected director after a career as an MGM costume designer and art director, leapt at the opportunity to tackle the slapstick romp, believing it would be a change from the “polite drawing room comedies” on which he had made his reputation. Leisen and Sturges would collaborate again three years later on the seasonal comedy-drama, Remember the Night.
Character roles like Brady and J.B. Ball were the actor’s stock-in-trade: the blustery, fat cat capitalist who could either be comical (Anthony P. Kirby in You Can’t Take it With You) or villainous (“Boss” Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). It’s only mere coincidence that Jean Arthur also appears in both of those Frank Capra films, I’m sure. I make no secret of the fact that Arthur is one of my favorite actresses of the classic movie era, and Easy Living boasts one of the most beloved performances from the female thespian with the chirpy tones. Arthur and Arnold receive top billing in the opening credits (even though Milland plays the love interest)…and share a number of lovely scenes together—my favorite is the one where he attempts to explain to her how compound interest works, getting more and more frustrated by the minute at her inability to grasp the concept. (Arthur’s response to him is classic: “You know—you don’t have to get mad just because you’re so stupid.”)
Ray and Jean make a magnificent couple, with an unforgettable scene in which the two of them lay on a divan in opposite directions with only their heads meeting in the middle…and the only physical contact between the couple a kiss. (Well, there was a Production Code, you know—but I find the way it was staged quite sexy.) The “meet cute” between the two is also memorable; Jean’s character uses her last nickels to dine at a local automat where Milland is working—he arranges it so she can grab some gratis grub, which he’ll take responsibility for. The free feast soon attracts everyone in the neighborhood, and a slapstick free-for-all erupts while Jean continues to dine serenely in the midst of all the chaos. (Ray does some hilarious physical comedy in this picture…including some unintentional pratfalls in the bathtub in Arthur’s swanky apartment.)
Luis Alberni, Robert Greig and Arthur Hoyt would also appear regularly in the director’s later feature films. Andrew Tombes, Esther Dale and many other first-rate character thesps dot the landscape of Living—my favorites are Three Stooges nemesis Vernon Dent, who has more lines in a feature film that I can remember of late…and the girl on the receiving end of another thrown fur coat by Arnold’s Ball as Living marches to its conclusion (none other than Marsha Hunt!).
It’s screwball comedy at its very finest—sadly, it doesn’t make the rounds at The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ too often, but has been released to DVD. Ivan-Bob says check it out.