Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Romantic Comedy Blogathon: Easy Living (1937)

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.

Because the stock market wizard known as “The Bull of Broad Street” didn’t get where he is today by being a sweet-tempered guy, financier J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) starts a typical morning barking at his household help (who have difficulty keeping a straight face when the old geezer takes a comic tumble down a staircase), notably his loyal retainer Graves (Robert Grieg).  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.

J.B.’s real stack-blowing is reserved for his wife Jenny (Mary Nash), who’s procured a $58,000 sable coat (Ball has not seen the mink—only the bill for same)—and in his anger he grabs the expensive purchase and flings it off the top of the roof of their townhouse…where it wafts its way down and lands on bus passenger Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), breaking the feather on her hat.  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.

Mary shows up late for work decked out in her new hat and fur…and is promptly given the sack when her employer suspects she obtained the items through less-than-honorable means.  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.

With the help of a newspaper columnist (William Demarest), the word gets out about the “Bull” and “his mistress”…and as a result of the tongue-wagging, the Hotel Louis starts doing turn-away business.  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.

One of the funniest feature films from the screwball comedy genre, Easy Living’s plot—in which an ordinary working gal finds her fortunes turned around literally overnight through a series of zany misunderstandings and mistaken identity—bears the thumbprint of the incomparable Preston Sturges, who conceived the film shortly after signing a new writing contract with Paramount Pictures in 1936.  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.

Sturges had also previously written a film showcasing the stars of Easy Living, Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold; a 1935 feature that also cast Arnold as a corpulent financier (Jim Brady)—Diamond Jim.  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.”)

Milland was on the cusp of leading man stardom at Paramount when he made Easy Living; I like more Milland films than I’m probably willing to admit but he’s really first-rate in this breakneck romp.  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.)

You’ll spot several members of Preston Sturges’ “stock company” among the supporting players in Easy Living; there’s William Demarest, of course (Bill had also been in Diamond Jim), and Franklin Pangborn (previously in Imitation of Life, which Preston had a hand in writing, and the solo Sturges-credited Hotel Haywire) in his element as the fussy hat store owner (with a classic Sturgian line: “Well—wherever there’s smoke, there must be…somebody smoking”).  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!).

Though nominated only once for a Best Actress Oscar (for 1943’s The More the Merrier), Jean Arthur is positively luminous as a modern-day Cinderella…and Ray Milland (who would win an Oscar for his performance in 1945’s The Lost Weekend) excels as her would-be Prince Charming.  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.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Delightful review of one of my favorite movies. I think Jean Arthur was one of the best actresses ever.

Caftan Woman said...

Love and fur coats and a breakfast egg. Who could ask for anything more?

I love watching Edward Arnold, and my husband and son love watching Jean Arthur. Win-Win. I'm also a Jean Arthur fan, but the boys in my life get a kick out of me acting jealous.

policomic said...

One of my all-time faves. And I share your high opinion of Ms. Arthur, as well. said...

Arthur is wonderful in this film. She's so guileless that in spite of her many silly moves it makes her employer seem like the true fool here. I like Arnold and Arthur so much together that Milland seems like an afterthought, though that automat scene kills me. Thanks for the great review! Leah

Danny said...

I just caught this on the greatest channel etc etc a few months ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. I had no idea it had the reputation it does, but I'm pretty happy about it.

Anonymous said...

Love this movie! I can't decide if I like the automat riot scene (I laugh every time the ice cream and coffee machines go haywire) or the bathtub scene…it's a fantastic screwball comedy with such great lines and moments throughout! Great review!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review, thank you. I can never decide if this or History Is Made at Night is my favourite Jean Arthur film - I love both for different reasons. In this, she's so artless that she makes even Milland look like a fool - no mean feat in my opinion!

James MacDonald said...

This is a wonderful comedy, ground-breaking in its approach to sex. Perhaps this is why it remains evergreen. Sturges' gift for malapropism is also uniquely fine. Luis Alberni delivers these lines with wonderful flare. Edward Arnold was never more engaging. This is a prototype feel-good film with intelligence and sophistication at its core.