Easy Living (1937)
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Jean Arthur was obligated to Columbia Pictures and the dictatorial Harry Cohn and she was allowed to make outside films. But Cohn determined when and where. So Easy Living may have been a great fit for her, but it didn't fit into his plans. Jean had to go to court before the film was made and a settlement was reached.
Easy Living also gave an outlet for some unknown comic talents of Edward Arnold who usually played some serious villains in films. Arnold is a Wall Street investment tycoon whose every bit of noise be it wisdom or flatulence is recorded for posterity. One day in fit of pique against his spendthrift wife Mary Nash and wastrel son Ray Milland, Arnold throws a most expensive mink coat from out the townhouse window and on to a passing working woman in Jean Arthur. He tells her to keep the thing and count her good fortune. But folks are in the habit of recording Arnold's every move, including one bestowing an expensive gift on a mystery woman.
That starts about 90 minutes of non-stop hilarity in which the very foundations of our financial institutions are rocked due ultimately everyone misconstruing a relationship between Arnold and Arthur. One does get going however with Arthur and Milland when she finds him working at an automat because Arnold's dared him to get a job. That ends in an incredible burst of hilarity, you think Animal House had a great food fight, check the one in Easy Living out.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Preston Sturges, Easy Living has all the earmarks of a Preston Sturges directed movie, in fact Sturges's stock company was somewhat assembled here if you look down the supporting players. My favorite is Luis Alberni whose white elephant of a hotel finally gets going due to some accidental rumors.
We're the richer for Easy Living being made even if Jean Arthur had to take Harry Cohn to court to do it.
Preston Sturges, who wrote the script, brings all the social satire and clever dialogue to Easy Living that he brought to the films he directed and wrote later. Mitchell Leisen, the director, gives the movie a sweet speed. The slapstick moments are like the whipped cream on top of the ice cream sundae. There is a food fight in the automat that is so witty and filled with pratfalls that it makes Animal House look like the work of...hmmm...juveniles.
Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold take above-the-title billing, and they make a compelling set of screwball actors. That Arnold's J. B. Ball is irascible is putting it gently. Yet Arnold makes the tycoon funny and human, and there's no doubt that he really cares for that wife of his. Jean Arthur, of course, makes the movie work. What a one-of-a-kind actress she was, with that air of surprised innocence and that vaguely husky voice with the hint of a squeak now and then. It's worth remembering that Jean Arthur, who was born in 1900, paid her dues in more than 50 silent films, movies with titles like Biff Bang Buddy, Bigger and Better Blondes, and Twisted Triggers. She was 35 when she hit major stardom and stayed at the top through her last movie, Shane, in 1953. That innocent sexiness, acting skill, instant likability and that voice allowed her to consistently play 10 to 20 years younger than her age. For me, Jean Arthur at 53 and playing Marian Starrett, a woman probably 20 years younger, is the real center of Shane. She gives a deep reality to what all those homesteaders stand for. And she, without saying a word, is what motivates Ladd as Shane to do what he must do. In my opinion, Arthur gives the best performance in the movie. That's something you can say about almost every movie Jean Arthur was in.
And let's not forget some fine character actors who help make Easy Living as funny as it is. Among them is Mary Nash as the Bull's wife, who really does love J. B. (as he does her). By the end of the movie we like them both a lot; Luis Alberni as Mr. Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis, who is energetically ethnic; Franklin Pangborn as Van Buren, the prissy (of course) proprietor of an exclusive hat shop; William Demarest as Wallace Whistling, gossip reporter; Esther Dale as the Bull's unimpressed and decidedly matronly secretary; and Robert Greig as Graves, the portly, imperturbable butler in the Ball household. They all have a chance to shine, and shine they do.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen from a screenplay by Preston Sturges it has all the hallmarks of Leisen's style, the gleaming, high style sets, the magnificent cathedral ceilinged apartments and also, unfortunately the tendency to allow scenes to run on just a little too long. The slapstick scene in the automat is a prime example, just a few pratfalls too many. If Sturges directed as well as written the film might not have been as sumptuous looking bit I think it would have been tighter.
Minor details however, the film is a delight, especially Jean Arthur and a very capable supporting cast giving it their professional all.
Arnold's son (Ray Milland) is actually trying to prove himself without any aid from Dad (he doesn't want to be a junior partner in the bank yet). So he is going through all sorts of jobs, with less than middling success. Arnold is not impressed - he can't figure out why his son is such a mediocre worker. Milland meets Arthur accidentally, when he is working in the auto-mat (which will lead to the best known sequence in the film). In the meantime, Arthur is approached by two men, Mr. Louis Louis (Luis Alberni) who is the owner of the Hotel Louis - the most glamorous hotel in the world - and Mr. E.F. Hulgar (Andrew Tombes) who is a leading stock investment adviser. Both men believe that Arthur is Arnold's mistress. Alberni wants Arthur to live in the Hotel for a pittance: he feels her presence may cause other socialites to use the hotel, which is facing bankruptcy. Tombes is willing to pay Arthur a fee if she hears anything (pertaining to rumors concerning Arnold's latest efforts to corner the steel market).
I won't go into the plot more, except that Sturges script has real fun about the unreality of Wall Street. Arnold's brilliant investment banker may plot a steel corner (which nearly backfires), but he has difficulty doing simple mathematics regarding fractions and percentages (the hopelessness in his face counting a percentage differential with his fingers is priceless!). Alberni, who was a hotel chef with grandiose ideas, can't see that building the world's greatest luxury hotel was not a good idea in the Depression (Sturges, by the way, based this idiocy on the building of the second, current, Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the early 1930s - it was a flop initially). That brilliant investment adviser, Mr. Hulgar (whose name is an obvious swipe at E.F.Hutton) pays for tips which are basically gossip, and passes these onto his customers.
Sturges (like Billy Wilder) would later make nasty comments about Leisin, both future directors claiming Leisin ruined their satire and spoofery in the films he directed from their scripts. As I mentioned elsewhere, Leisin was not as cynical as they were, but he certainly had a good sense of humor, and he had a sense of art composition (he had assisted Cecil B. De Mille as an art director in the early 1930s) that far outshone Sturges or Wilder. One looks at the suites of Hotel Louis and they are quite stunning. One can't imagine Sturges or Wilder doing as well with decor (although Sturges might have added some comic defect in it). In EASY LIVING, the best known sequence was added by Leisin - a piece of classic slapstick. In the middle of an argument with his bosses at the auto-mat, Milland causes the doors of all the windows containing food to open at one time without money being used to open them. Suddenly every bum and hobo in New York City runs in to grab free food, and food is being thrown around by fighting hobos covering everyone in sight.
Not a bad moment of comic cinema - and Preston Sturges was not responsible for it at all. Mitchell Leisin should be better known today for his best films. He was not as great as Wilder or Sturges but he was not a hack.
The film begins with a millionaire financier (Edward Arnold) arguing with his wife about her extravagance. In a fit of anger, Arnold grabs a brand-new sable coat and tosses it off the roof of their luxury high-rise! By chance, it lands on the unsuspecting Jean Arthur--who naturally tries to return it. However, Arnold will hear nothing of it and insists she keeps the coat. This little innocent and strange encounter would drastically change all their lives as the notion of a total stranger receiving such an expensive gift starts people talking--and assuming that the nice Miss Arthur is Arnold's mistress. It's actually very funny that not once is the word 'mistress' used but the audience is sure this is exactly what everyone is assuming.
Since Arnold is so powerful a force on Wall Street, people almost immediately begin kissing up to Jean--assuming she has the inside track on influencing Arnold. Jean, who is just too naive and nice for her own good, just can't understand why everyone is suddenly being so nice to her and giving her lots and lots of free things--including a super-expensive luxury suite, more furs and practically anything else her heart could desire.
In addition to the affair not being the least bit true, there are many other plots and subplots that all are set into motion by this supposed affair--all culminating in a very funny mess. One problem is that Jean has fallen for Arnold's son (who she assumes is just an ordinary working man), another is that Arnold's wife is now suing for divorce and one very innocent statement by Arthur practically destroys the stock market!! It is hilarious and very cute that one tiny little incident kept snowballing into this enormous mess! Given that it's all Hollywood fantasy, you know that by the end everything will somehow magically turn out perfectly. However, despite this predictability, the journey to this happy ending is one that you just have to see to believe--making this one of the better screwball comedies of the 1930s. Any serious fan of the classic years of Hollywood must see this film.
From the beginning we are entangled in a Cinderella like story that starts when working girl Mary(Arthur) gets hit in the puss by a flying Sable coat. Then she gets swept away by good fortune, OR so it seems.
Billionaire(Edward Arnold) gets fed up with his family spending. When his wife(Mary Nash) gets another fur coat, that is the final straw! Off the balcony goes the coat and down several flights to our Mary on a bus.
Getting mixed up in the proceedings is a young Ray Milland as the Billionaire's son. Full of crazy supporting characters and a zany script, this is a very funny film for those who like screwball comedies. Give it a try and I'm sure that you'll love it.
Arthur has never been more personable and inhabits her role with a good deal of personal charm and warmth, perhaps attributable to director Mitchel Leisen who always seems to coax good performances from his female stars. (Claudette Colbert in "Midnight", Carole Lombard in "Hands Across the Table", Olivia de Havilland in "Hold Back the Dawn" and "To Each His Own", Barbara Stanwyck in "No Man of Her Own".) Arnold is a hot tempered man who throws a fur coat over the rooftop during an argument with his frivolous wife (MARY NASH), a coat that lands on top of Jean Arthur, riding in a double-decker bus in New York City. The plot thickens when a hotel owner (LUIS ALBERNI) facing bankrupt with his fancy but vacant building, decides that Arthur will be the perfect publicity gimmick since he believes she was given the coat because of an affair with Arnold. He allows her to reside in a luxurious suite (Leisen goes a bit overboard on set decoration here), and therein the fun begins. Seems he has a rich playboy son who is just as down on his luck as Arthur is and is working in an automat, the kind of fast food restaurant that existed in NYC during the '30s and '40s.
In fact, the automat scene, where Milland finds a way to give Arthur a free meal, is expertly staged with every pratfall so perfectly executed that it remains the highlight of the film. But even after this highlight, the film never lets up in pace and is irresistible entertainment for fans of screwball comedy. Among the standouts in the supporting cast are FRANKLIN PANGBORN and WILLIAM DEMAREST, actors director Leisen would use to great effect in other comedies.
Edward Arnold tends to overact the part of the wealthy hot-tempered tycoon, but everyone else has a fine time with the witty lines and situations. Highly recommended, brisk and very amusing, with Arthur in one of her most appealing roles.
Jean Arthur shows once again why she was considered one of the finest comediennes who ever lived. Her Mary Smith is a likable, somewhat naïve character who is just right for the exchanges with a host of opportunists. She never really knows what all the fuss is about, or what others are talking about. None of the main characters know what all the opportunists think they know, so this bounces along from one hilarious situation to another.
The supporting cast includes some of the best comedy characters in Hollywood at the time. Luis Alberni as Mr. Louis Louis utters some riotous malapropisms. "Oh, Mr. B, what a sight for an eye sore." Ray Milland, as John Ball Jr. is hilarious in his exchanges, especially with his father. But I think Edward Arnold as J.B. Ball, tops every scene he is in. How the man could keep a straight face, and maintain his grumpy posture throughout the film, is beyond me. It must have required many takes to put this comedy on film.
I think this movie, like most very clever comedies, has a subtle message of satire. Here it clearly is high society, the spoiled nature of the rich, and the opportunists who pander to such society. They are a part of it, in that they live on the fringes and are welcomed in only because they are the willing servants and caterers to the society by choice. Franklin Pangborn as Van Buren is the epitome of such people. And he plays the part perfectly.
Watch for a long scene in the food automat after Ray Milland (Johnny) meets Jean Arthur (Mary Smith). The pandemonium and mayhem that break out make this one of the longest slapstick scenes I can remember. What a riot.
Here are a few funny lines from the movie to whet your appetite. J.B. Ball says to son, John: "Oh, pooh! I was a banker's son, and up until I was 26 yeas old, I was just as dumb as you are." Graves, the butler, has been standing by and chimes in: "Yes, indeed, sir." Ball continues: "But after a while, all the fat fell off my brains and I Say, how old are you?" Later in the conversation, John says to his dad: "I'm gonna make you eat those words." Ball: "That's all you'll be eating." John: "Possibly!" Ball: "Probably!" John: "Right! Yeah!" Ball: "Right! Yeah" John: "Yeah!" The butler, Graves: "Yes sir!"
Mary Nash as Jenny Ball: "Well, you want me to look nice, don't you? After all, the wife of the fourth biggest banker..." Ball: "I beg your pardon. The third biggest banker. Well, I guess you've got me, Jenny." Jenny: "You're not as smart as people think you are."
Ball has thrown a $58,000 sable coat his wife had just bought out the window of their high-rise apartment. On the street, he sees Mary Smith trying to find the owner and he tells her to keep it. Smith: "Now, wait a minute, Santa Claus." Ball: "Huh?" Smith: "What's the matter with it? Is it hot?" Ball: "Well, I don't know. I've never worn one." Smith: "What kind of fur is it anyway?" Ball: "Zebra. Anything else you want to know?"
Louis Louis: "Miss Smith, I am a man like this. I don't beat around the bush to come in the back door." Smith blindfolds her piggy bank before she smashes it with the heel of her shoe. "Sorry, Wafford," she says. Johnny and Mary are at the breakfast table looking at the want ads in the newspaper. John: "Well, there must be something for somebody that can't do anything."
Here's a bit of trivia: all of the jewels and furs used for this film were REAL and worth tens-of-thousands of dollars. I've read that there were security guards posted during the filming....so be sure that none of the jewels were stolen.
It's really quite amazing that Leisen and Sturges got Paramount to rent all of these expensive furs and jewels.....
If only Universal (the current owners of this classic) would get around to releasing this film on DVD.......
The movie has a wonderful cast and the direction is solid. It doesn't have the incredible zaniness of the movies that Sturges directed, but it's a not to be missed classic in my opinion.
Preston Sturges provides a couple of his trademark pratfalls in this script, but as for belly laughs, guffaws, and knowing chuckles, there aren't any.
You wouldn't think you could go wrong with any film starring Jean Arthur, but I didn't get the dizzy comedy romance I was expecting. They poured all the ingredients for a fizzy screwball into a tall glass but they forgot to stir. I thought even less highly of the film than when I first saw it a number of years ago.
"Easy Living" contains an early appearance by the unofficial Preston Sturges stock company, although it is certainly not their debut. "Diamond Jim", "The Good Fairy", and "Hotel Haywire" each feature members of the troupe in varying combinations. "Diamond Jim" has a cast not unlike this one in fact, with Edward Arnold and Jean Arthur as the leads. I would like to see a video re-release of "The Good Fairy", a film I recall indistinctly but with some affection.
Many of the actors that Preston Sturges used in his later pictures have roles. A first class production all around, and the Hotel Louis suite is Hollywood excess in its most grand.
There's nothing subtle about the comedy. Mistaken identities, rich and poor, slightly risqué, and everybody talks at full volume and rushes around in a frenzy. It may be Eugene Pallet elsewhere but it's Edward Arnold here, who looks like the manager of a German pork store in Yorkville who is about to pop a gut with anger and frustration.
Ray Milland has had better roles. He's no Cary Grant. But Jean Arthur and her tangential prettiness is perfect. Franklin Pangborn has always played an effete wimp, but here he's at his most flamboyantly gay. Luis Alberni as the Italian owner of a ritzy hotel isn't as amusing as the script seems to think he is, and he overacts like everyone else. Yet in its own unquiet way it's a successful screwball comedy. The director, Mitchell Leisen, does a craftsmanlike job but one can't help wondering what Howard Hawks would have done with material like this.
Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin don't get any screen credit for writing the title tune which is heard briefly as a jaunty instrumental with wide intervals. It was turned into a light and charming ballad and became a minor standard in vernacular culture. You can hear a snatch of it in "Chinatown."
"Easy Living" stars Jean Arthur as our lead; she's one of my favorite comedy actors, and she really shines in this movie. She's cast opposite both Edward Arnold and Ray Milland as her love interests in the typical screwball fashion of mistaken identities, mistaken situations, and mistake after mistake of epic proportions leading to a stock market meltdown and true love. Although Sturges didn't direct, we see the beginnings of his stable of actors with roles by Franklin Pangborn, Robert Greig, and William Demarest.
The gist of the story is that Mary Smith (Arthur), a working girl with nary a dime to spare (it was 1937, after all), is walking to the bus stop when she's hit in the head by a very expensive fur coat thrown from his penthouse by the very wealthy investment banker J.B. Ball (Arnold) in a snit over the expenditures of his wife. A kindly man when not having a snit, J.B. takes her to a store to get another hat (hers broke when it by the fur) and gives her the fur. She's fired from her job because a man gave her a fur, she's taken into a deluxe hotel owned by J.B. because the manager assumes she's his mistress, and she befriends J.B.'s son John (Milland -- at last a last name that's not a first name!), not knowing he's J.B.'s son. Because both are "Mr. Ball," she commits unwitting mayhem on the stock market by passing on young John's utterly unexpert comments on the market to a reporter who also thinks she's J.B.'s mistress relaying J.B.'s sage advice.
It's a very funny comedy. Sturges and Leisen both hit their respective nails on the head with great writing and direction. The supporting cast is superb in adding to and creating mix-ups galore. A glaring difference between A movies and B is the quality of the supporting cast, and that difference shows very much in "Easy Living."
The reason this movie disappointed me is difficult to pinpoint. Without more background, some elements of the story just don't seem to add up. There is a whole lot of yelling in this movie; that gets old. Oh yeah, and lots of slapstick. The Automat scene was waaaay too long. But mostly, the characters just don't seem quite on the mark.
In addition to many great dramas, Miss Arthur's resume includes many of my favorite comedies: The Whole Town's Talking (1935), If You Could Only Cook (1935), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Town (1939), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), The Talk of the Town (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), A Foreign Affair (1948). I recommend them all over Easy Living. I even prefer A Lady Takes a Chance (1943).
As much as I love Jean Arthur, her character here isn't portrayed quite right. She is just too innocent and unquestioning of everything that happens. Her attitude should have been less naive and more like, "I don't really understand why this windfall has come my way, but I'm going to take advantage of it while I can." She needed to be less ingenuous and more opportunistic. Her idealism and optimism needed to be tempered by a little realistic skepticism.
The character of the Hotelier (Luis Alberni) is an immigrant Italian chef who has learned fluent American slang somewhere, but also has opened a HUGE, opulent hotel for upper crust clientèle. So, he has this great ambition to run an elite hotel, but doesn't see the need to speak to his proposed clientèle any differently than the boys in the Bronx? PLUS, we don't know how he convinced the "Number 3" financier in New York to finance this operation. How much money did this humble chef bring with him when he immigrated from Italy? Moreover, Arnold, the shrewd banker, has extended the guy not 1, not 2, but 3 mortgages! AND the 1st mortgage is overdue by 3 YEARS, the 2nd by 2 YEARS and the 1st by 1 YEAR! Not consistent with Arnold's character at all!
Ray Milland is pretty light weight, and he never infuses his character with more than 1 dimension.
There isn't really a character with whom I could identify. For me, a successful screwball comedy needs one stable character for all of the silliness to revolve around. That gives the audience somebody to identify with and grounds the movie in some kind of reality. William Powell in My Man Godfrey and Brian Aherne in Merrily We Live are the best examples.
I thought this movie was a lot of noise and action that never really drew me into the story. In sum, I felt like an outsider watching a movie. It never really tickled my funny bone or inspired my empathy as better comedies do.