Easy Living (1937)
This Easy Living (1937) is not to be confused with this Easy Living from 1949:
Please, I beg of you, take a moment and read the tagline at the top of the 1949 poster. Just tremendous.
1937’s Easy Living‘s tagline was: A CRACKPOT COMEDY THAT’LL BLAST THE VINEGAR OFF EVERY SOURPUSS IN TOWN! I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I love it.
Easy Living was written and directed by extremely talented and capable screwball comedy people: the screenplay was adapted by Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), and uncredited writing on Love Before Breakfast (1936)), from a short story by Vera Caspary, and it was directed by Mitchell Leisen (Hands Across the Table (1935) and Midnight (1939).)
Preston Sturges was an incredible screenwriter/director whose movies remain timelessly funny and fresh seventy years later. He started in screenwriting but longed to direct what he wrote, and he finally got the chance with The Great McGinty (1940). After that film’s success, Paramount let him do his thing from the director’s chair. For more on Sturges, visit my review of The Lady Eve.
Sturges wrote a screenplay based on Caspary’s story “Easy Living,” and showed it to Paramount producer Maurice Revnes. But it was shot down: “When I presented the screenplay to Mr. Revnes, however, he told me that 1936 was not the time for comedies and wanted to abandon the whole project. I disagreed. Any time was a good time for comedies. I took the script to Mitch Leisen myself, which resulted in the picture [getting made]…” Arthur Hornblow, Jr. ended up as producer, by the way.
I always enjoy Mitchell Leisen’s movies; they’re quick, witty, and stunningly beautiful. Leisen is a unique director because he started out in art direction and costume design on 1920s and early 1930s Paramount productions before becoming a director. His prodigious talents and experience in design influenced his work as a director, and his movies present a delicious, gorgeously designed version of reality.
I love film historian John Baxter’s description of Leisen’s films: “[Leisen’s] work exhibits a faultless sense of design, a couturier’s feeling for drapery, and an acid cynicism.” “A couturier’s feeling for drapery!” indeed! Leisen’s movies are gorgeous but with a sense of humor so they’re not self-consciously or jarringly stunning, and clothes and sets really play an important role in his films, which I adore.
In all three of the Leisen films I’ve reviewed, the female protagonist undergoes a makeover and ends up in different, but swanky surroundings at some point in the story. (This is especially true in Midnight and Easy Living since they are classic variations on the rags-to-riches Cinderella story which was so popular during the Depression.)
The movies explore what happens when you give a person a new, expensive wardrobe and plonk her down in new, expensive surroundings. Change your clothes, change your life! Will the heroine sacrifice her principles and integrity when she is blinded by sable and diamonds?
Well, no, but she will have a a nice time before she goes all noble. Leisen was not the only director making these types of movies, but I think he does it very well. There’s a glorious shimmer, slight unease, and flawless timing in a Leisen film. And usually a fashion shows or two!
Here is Claudette Colbert visiting a chic milliner in Midnight. She’d already received trunks full of new couture delivered to her luxury hotel suite:
And here is Fred MacMurray’s fiancee picking out her trousseau for a honeymoon that isn’t going to happen in Hands Across the Table:
Speaking of fashion shows and new wardrobes, such things feature in Sturges’ movies, too. The Palm Beach Story takes a comedic look at Sturges’ theory of “the aristocracy of beauty,” and the world of the wealthy, based partly on his own experiences amongst millionaires. Sturges said, “Millionaires are funny,” and they certainly are in his films. Here is Rudy Vallee taking Claudette Colbert shopping:
Sturges and Leisen seemed to appreciate the difference clothes can make in a person’s life. If you want to act like someone else, or be perceived differently, get some new duds! Easy Living is especially interested in this–it all starts (and ends) with a fur coat. This movie stars Jean Arthur as a hard-working, decent woman who gets swept up into screwball situations, and lands in a tangle of sexual tension, imperiled reputations, and comic misunderstandings. You’ll notice that the opening credits are layered over scenes of wealth and excess: a woman fastening a huge sparkly necklace, adjusting an orchid, reaching for a crystal bottle of perfume, pulling on silk stockings, and picking out a diamond bracelet from a box of baubles
It’s easy living, indeed! You’ll also notice that the film was shot by Ted Tetzlaff (The Princess Comes Across, Notorious, Love Before Breakfast, My Man Godfrey, The More the Merrier), and the costumes were designed by Travis Banton (Cover Girl, The Princess Comes Across, We’re Not Dressing, Love Before Breakfast, Hands Across the Table, My Man Godfrey) both of whom were Paramount people and were frequently assigned to Carole Lombard’s films, too.
How did Columbia Pictures’ actress Jean Arthur (The More the Merrier) end up in this Paramount film? She was under contract to Columbia, but was often loaned out to other studios (a not uncommon practice wherein a studio would “borrow” an actor for a film and pay the actor’s home studio a fee). If the actor was in demand, a home studio could charge a lot, even substantially more than the actor’s weekly salary.
The actor would not get any piece of the loan-out fee, which meant that although the home studio could profit handsomely from such deals, the actor would not see any of this extra cash.
Arthur was extremely frustrated and dissatisfied with her Columbia contract. She didn’t like the films she was being given by Columbia, and she didn’t like being under their control when it came to loan-outs, either. As she said in a deposition, “I told [Columbia] that I would not go back into pictures just to make money. I wanted to make quality pictures and to amount to something, or else not be in the business.”
Columbia was unable to stop her from making this movie (she was contractually allowed to make two films outside of Columbia each year), but during filming Columbia sued Arthur for breach of contract, claiming she had three more years at Columbia, and Arthur counter-sued to get released from her contract on the grounds that Columbia had not given her good roles.
Whew–the studio system was its own little kingdom with its own (glamourous and rich) indentured servants. Eventually Arthur reconciled with Columbia.
Meanwhile, she played Mary Smith in this screwball adventure with its typical Depression-era Cinderella story of rags-to-riches, and a riches-to-rags-to-riches plot, too.
Screwball comedy is all about flipping reality upside down and seeing what happens when people step outside their normal roles. There’s usually lots of silliness, both from characters and situations, and plenty of exasperated rational people who eventually give up and embrace the screwball.
There is a great deal of physical comedy, too, and nearly everyone in this film suffers a spectacular fall at some point. Poor Edward Arnold takes the brunt of the physical comedy, but Arthur and Milland do not escape unscathed. Leisen said later that he added so much slapstick because “I was getting bored with the polite drawing room comedies I had been doing, and I decided to cut loose.” All the physical comedy livens up what is otherwise a very talky-film.
J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold, who often played loud businessmen who yell a lot,) is the 3rd biggest banker on Wall Street–the “Bull of Broad Street.” He’s crazy rich, but he’s also crazy thrifty. And clumsy. We’ve only just been introduced to him when he falls down the stairs and lands at his butler’s feet, prompting this fabulous line:
J.B. is furious (and extra blustery) because his wife, son, and household are spending way too much money. He looks over some bills at the breakfast table, and he’s infuriated by a bill for a $3.50 trash can, and the butter bill nearly gives him a heart attack. He shouts most of his lines, and they’re all gems like: “Tell the chef the world isn’t made of butter! He can fry an egg very nicely in lard!”
J.B. is mad at everyone in the house for their spending habits, and he’s frustrated by his son’s lazy (unemployed) ways. J.B. reminds me of The Lady Eve‘s portly, loud millionaire father played by Eugene Pallette. Both are charmingly blunt and not at all snobbishly “upper-crust.” And both have odd sons and great butlers.
Johnny Ball (Ray Milland, Dial M for Murder, We’re Not Dressing) is tired of being bullied and announces that he is going to get a job and move of the house. To add extra comedy, the butler (Robert Greig, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story) provides amusing commentary throughout this loud breakfast. You can watch the opening scene here.
Note that Edward Arnold and Jean Arthur received top billing, with Ray Milland in third. Milland was not a big star in 1937; he’d been cast in small roles at Paramount until quite recently when he was loaned out to Universal for Three Smart Girls (1936), and then, riding high on the success of that film, starred opposite Dorothy Lamour in The Jungle Princess (1936).
That’s enough to rouse him from the breakfast table. He finds his wife Jenny (Mary Nash) attending to her toilette in a fur-trimmed dressing gown. She claims that she needed a new coat, but J.B. isn’t sympathetic, and especially not after he gets a glimpse of her massive fur coat closet:
Mary immediately gets off the bus and tries to find the owner of the coat. She is honest and good, you see. I love this scene of Mary ringing the doorbells of mansions to see if anyone has lost a fur coat! Ridiculous. Rather improbably, in my opinion, she runs into Mr. Ball as he is leaving for work. You can watch the scene here.
J.B. is impressed by her honesty and her hard-working decency, so he gives her the coat, deciding she’s more worthy of it than his wife. Mary is very grateful, but she asks for one more favor. It’s payday and she used her last dime for her bus ticket and now she can’t get to work…could he spare ten cents? He goes one better and gives her a ride in his chauffeured car.
Once inside, she mentions that she’d been hoping to buy a fur coat on one of those handy payment plans…the banker starts to argue with her over installment payments and interest, so they spend the ride in a lovely and frustrating round of repartee where neither can understand anything the other one is saying, or shouting, in J.B.’s case.
Edward Arnold almost always looks as if he is on the verge of a heart attack, and he never talks, he yells. At one point his faithful secretary implores him to calm down with a “J.B, your blood pressure!” but it doesn’t seem to help.
But eventually J.B. and Mary become good pals (though not as good as some will assume…) He notices that the feather in her pert little cap is broken (when the coat fell it snapped the feather). Mr. Ball insists on buying her a new hat. He takes her to a chic salon and purchases an expensive chapeau that matches the fur coat. Turns out he has no problem spending money on someone who he thinks deserves it.
Ironically enough, it’s this act of generosity that gets Mary and J.B. in trouble. When J.B. hands the hat salesman Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn, My Man Godfrey, The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, Now, Voyager) his card, Van Buren takes note of Mary’s outrageously expensive coat and new hat, and makes a nasty but not entirely insane assumption…this girl must be the famous financier’s mistress! Why else would he take her shopping?
Van Buren goes to work with his valuable, if wrong, information. In another ironic twist, Van Buren knows who J.B. is, but J.B. never introduces himself to Mary, so she remains in the dark about the identity of this fur-coat-gifting man.
Meanwhile, J.B. drops Mary off at the offices of “The Boys’ Constant Companion,” the wholesome Boy Scout-esque magazine where Mary works. Her coworkers are sour old ladies, caricatures of prudish librarians in their spectacles, high-necked dark dresses, and center-parted low buns. Young, spunky Mary with her stylish dress and curls does not fit in.
Within a few minutes of her arrival, Mary is called into the editor’s office and asked about the coat. She tells the truth, but they don’t believe that the fur coat fell from the sky. Who would? They demand the real story.
In a lovely sight gag, Mary looks up at a portait of George Washington as she desperately tries to think of a good lie. There’s Americana sprinkled everywhere in the office, which makes it even more ironic when Mary’s co-workers disbelieve her honesty and goodness. This is supposed to be a place of clean minds and open hearts! Humbug.
Mary lies and says that she bought the coat herself at Zeikel’s…her boss calls up the store and Mary is caught in a lie. Well, Mary is fired because everyone thinks that she got the coat as payment for sexual favors or something. Such sordid goings-on can’t happen at “The Boys’ Constant Companion!” As Mary leaves the office, her boss tells her to be careful not to get hit with a diamond bracelet, next time! That’s the final, snarky straw.
Mary very satisfyingly breaks a portrait of “The Ideal American Boy” over the editor’s head and storms out.
As Mary is losing her job, J.B. Ball is meeting with Louis Louis (Luis Alberni, Roberta), a hotelier whose luxury Hotel Louis is behind on all three of its mortgages. J.B. tells Louis that he has one more week to fix things, otherwise J.B. is going to foreclose. Keep this in mind…
Turns out that Van Buren from the hat shop knows Louis, and he told him the juicy story of J.B.’s mistress…Louis decides to settle Mary in a suite in his hotel and hope that this will keep J.B. from shutting him down. Fun fact: Sturges based the Hotel Louis on the Waldorf Towers, which was a financial disaster when it opened during the Depression, but survived and now is one of the most famous Waldorf-Astoria luxury properties.
Louis thinks Mary has carte blanche from her rich paramour, so he shows her around the Imperial Suite, a masterpiece of extravagant 1930s neoclassical /art deco/ rococo/ absurd/ white-on-white design. There’s an exercise room with a mechanical horse wearing an English saddle, a huge white piano, plenty of calla lilies, and ornate white scrolls, lattice, and statues everywhere. Everything is glossy white or crystal.
Imagine the opportunities for laughs when ridiculous Mr. Louis, wearing an absurdly large chrysanthemum in his lapel, shows Mary around the suite. He gets stuck on the mechanical horse, obviously.
Mary is very confused, and thinks that Louis just randomly picked her to live in the suite as a marketing tool. Louis almost has a stroke when she tells him she can’t pay more than her previous rent, $7 a week, which includes one egg for breakfast. But Louis is desperate, so he accepts, begging her to tell a certain someone how wonderful the hotel is. She has no idea what he means, and assumes he wants her to talk up the hotel around town. He’s too delicately discreet to mention Mr. Ball, and she’s too clueless to understand him, anyway! You can watch the scene here.
Hurray for screwball misunderstandings that are somehow very clear-cut yet impenetrable to the characters involved!
Mary heads out to an automat for dinner. That’s a restaurant where the walls are little windows and you put in a coin or token in the slot, the window pops open, and you can grab your beef pie or cherry pie, fruit salad, or cake or whatever you want. They’re amazing, and a fun novelty. Plus they’re a great setting for a screwball scene, as we’ll see in a moment.
Mary can’t afford much, and she stares hungrily at that fat man’s pile of dishes…
He approaches Mary and asks if they’ve met before…she rolls her eyes at his pick-up line and eventually he leaves her alone. But he’s intrigued by this lady in a $58,000 fur coat who inexplicably can barely afford a cup of coffee:
Mary is distracted by Johnny and doesn’t get her cup under the coffee spigot in time; most of the coffee spills. It’s pitiful. And ironic. A $58,000 coat and no dinner.
Johnny watches Mary and comes to a daring decision. He tells her that he will open the windows from the kitchen side so that she can get some food for free. He likes her. And she’s really hungry. So she agrees to the scheme and meets him at the beef pies. Isn’t he adorable?
What Johnny and Mary don’t realize is that the automat has surveillance, and the spying peephole catches it all.
When Johnny turns around, there’s a burly security officer at his shoulder. Johnny tries to run for it, but trips and falls, bringing down a whole stack of plates, too. As he and the security office scuffle, one of their feet kicks a lever, thus opening all the automat windows and sending beverages spilling out of their spigots.
My favorite part of this chaotic scene is that the ice cream chute, next to the coffee spigot, starts shooting rounded scoops of ice cream onto the shelf below at amusingly regular intervals. Plop, plop, plop!
Mary is alarmed at the noise of the fight, but she keeps eating her beef pie. She’s really hungry. Most of the other customers, though, make a run for the free food. A shabbily dressed man even runs into the street, shouting that there’s free food in the automat! People stream into the restaurant, and eventually there’s a riot, with plenty of slapstick falls.
You can watch the whole automat scene here. The riot is hilarious, but also troubling. Seems that Mary isn’t the only hungry person around…
Johnny is fired, obviously, and Mary feels terribly. She thinks that Johnny is like her, a broke, hardworking person down on his luck. Remember, Mary doesn’t know that Johnny is Mr. Ball’s son, and Johnny doesn’t know that everyone thinks (wrongly, of course) that Mary is Mr. Ball’s mistress. Think of all the comedy that can arise from this situation!
So Mary has no idea that Johnny can return to his mansion anytime he likes. She’s afraid that he will have to sleep in the park, so she invites him to the Hotel Louis. He is even more confused about how a woman without any money can afford to live at the Louis.
Once there, she shows him around, but the tour pauses in the bathroom with its kiddie-pool sized bathtub presided over by a female figure and some cherubs. They can’t figure out how to turn on the water…
Only when Mary and Johnny are both staring right into the jets do they turn the right knob:
It’s amazing, probably my favorite scene in the film. They’re both shouting and scrambling trying to turn off the jets, slipping and falling and laughing the whole time. The doorbell buzzes in the middle of all of this nonsense, and as they run to answer the door, Ray Milland trips and falls in what looks to be an accident. He’s certainly grinning widely enough for me to believe it was an unscripted screwball moment. You can watch the bathtub scene here, beginning at 8:30 in this clip.
Who’s at the door? Why, it’s smarmy, rumor-spreading Van Buren with an armful and headful of finery for Mr. Ball’s mistress.
Mary is baffled by this sudden shower of freebies.…but she takes the clothes with a smile and a thank you.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ball has arrived at the Hotel Louis. His mansion was too quiet and lonely (his wife left for Florida in a fit of anger about the coat). As luck would have it, Louis is giving the story of Mary and J.B. to a gossip columnist (William Demarest, of The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, Dangerous When Wet, Sullivan’s Travels) just as J.B. arrives at the hotel. The reporter doesn’t believe Louis, since J.B. has the reputation of being devoted to his wife, but when he sees J.B. taking a room at the same hotel as his “mistress”…well, it sure seems true!
In another wonderful “coincidence,” Mary runs into Louis and J.B. in the lobby. She’s evidently tried on one of her new gowns, a Travis Banton confection of sparkle and tulle. J.B. is delighted to run into Mary again, and Mary is delighted to see the man she calls “Santa Claus.” Neither has any idea that the man currently drying off in Mary’s suite is J.B.’s son. And neither J.B. nor Mary know that just about everyone else thinks they are tangled in a passionate love affair.
Mary returns to the suite where she and Johnny sup on a fabulous meal, “my father’s favorite,” says Johnny, cluelessly. They chat easily as Mary fluffs her ruffles, and Johnny lounges in that hilarious robe with “Stolen from Hotel Louis” on the back.
This scene was tricky to get past censors–the whole premise is scandalous! Leisen remembered that in order to get past the Production Code Administration, “We had to play the love scene with them both lying on this long couch in opposite directions and their heads meeting in the middle because that was the only way we could get it past the censors. There could be no physical contact outside of a kiss.”
Johnny drifts off almost immediately after kissing Mary, and Mary is about to follow when she seems to realize that there is a young man sleeping right next to her, and he just kissed her! It’s a great moment exquisitely expressed by Jean Arthur:
The next morning, just to be clear, Mary wakes up, alone, in her big white bed to the sound of telephones ringing. There’s one on each bedside table, and each has people on the other end asking her what color car she would like, or when they can bring over some jewelry.
It’s a scene echoed almost exactly in Midnight (1939), when Claudette Colbert is awoken in her luxury hotel suite by simultaneous phone calls about her car and chauffeur and other goodies.
In many ways, Eve Peabody’s trajectory in Midnight mirrors Mary Smith’s in this film. Both women start out with hardly a penny to their names, but through the generosity of extremely wealthy men, they find themselves in a world of luxury literally overnight. Suddenly they have new wardrobes, new cars, new hotel suites, and new jewels, and everyone thinks they are someone else. In Eve Peabody’s case, a wealthy aristocrat is her fairy godfather who sets her up as a fake Baroness so she can woo his wife’s lover. Mary Smith’s fairy godfather has no ulterior motive and was just being exceedingly generous; it’s other people’s assumptions about his motives that cause cars and diamonds to arrive at her door.
Anyway, Leisen directs this bedroom-telephone scene wonderfully in both movies. Unlike Eve Peabody who worries that she has gone insane, Mary tries to hide under the covers until it all goes away. But everything just escalates! The reporter publishes his piece on J.B., which even J.B.’s household staff believes!
The news has gone 1937’s version of viral. In a comical montage, everyone who is anyone, or who wants to be, suddenly packs up and moves to the now-famous and hot Hotel Louis. This includes two brassy “ladies” who decide to go where the bankers are…
At breakfast, Mary and Johnny look for jobs in the newspaper, though they both conveniently overlook “The Back Door” column. Even with her new “easy living,” Mary is determined to get back to work, and she wants to get Johnny a new job, too. She’s concerned about him, as he seems to have no training or experience in anything. He’s discouraged, too:
As they search the classifieds, a man arrives at the suite to ask Mary about steel. Turns out J.B. is the expert on that commodity, and this man is a stockbroker hoping that Mary will have inside information. She has no idea what is going on, as usual, and asks Johnny if steel is going up or down. He says down, since it looks as though it might rain. He doesn’t realize that she’s asking on behalf of a broker, or that it was a serious question in the first place. The little man gets terribly excited and runs away with his new information.
While he was buying dogs with Mary, his father was buying up thousands upon thousands of shares of steel, confident that the dip in prices was a temporary swing. But the stock didn’t recover, and now J.B.’s bank is almost bankrupt. Johnny hurries to his father’s side. His mother has come back, too.
Louis, who will be ruined if J.B. goes down, finally stops being discreet and tells Mary to intervene on his behalf with her lover. Suddenly Mary knows why her life has changed so drastically.
First she slaps Louis’ face, then she hurries to J.B.’s bank to set things right.
Mary, Johnny, and J.B. make a plan. Mary will call the stockbroker and tell him that steel is going up. Hopefully that will correct the mistake. She gives it a try:
Ta da! The ticker tape starts spitting out good news for J.B. The bank is saved! But Johnny doesn’t believe Mary’s protestations of innocence regarding his father, which hurts her very deeply.
So Mary throws off the fur coat that started it all, and runs away in her chauffeured car with her beautiful dogs. But Johnny realizes he was wrong and chases after her, somehow ending up in the same cab with other concerned characters. The movie goes full-screwball towards the end:
Well, Johnny catches her, and it’s happy endings for all. Except for Mrs. Ball, who loses her sable coat once again:
This movie is fresh and quick and it doesn’t run out of steam, even though it centers on a fairly simple misunderstanding. The mistaken identities and screwball happenings with plenty of slapstick keep the movie moving along. I love Ray Milland and Jean Arthur together, and the whole film looks fantastic and sort of ironically glamorous, as though everything could collapse at any moment.
That fragility is ever-present in the movie. Nearly every character suffers through a rapid, scary downfall, or a fabulous, fortuitous improvement due to something stupid or just plain wrong. Mary is broke even when she has a job, which doesn’t seem right, and then she loses her job when her boss gets the wrong idea. Louis’ hotel is almost kaput but becomes popular because of an inaccurate rumor, and J.B.’s empire, and the entire stock market, almost crumbles due to a joke tip.
Beneath the funny surface there is some serious anxiety over the stock market (it all seems so nebulous and arbitrary–if Mary can cause a crash with a silly tip, then what is protecting people’s investments?), working women struggling to pay the bills (so much false “prostitution!”), the arbitrary nature of (un)employment (Mary, Johnny, Louis), the irresponsibility of the wealthy (Mrs. Ball), and the hungry mobs (the riot at the Automat).
Even the title is interesting: “easy living” for whom?