Easy Living, 1937, Paramount Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. B&W, 89 minutes.
A series of misunderstandings almost lead to a stock crash that could rival that of October 29, 1929, and all because J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold), the third largest banker in New York, has had enough of wife’s outrageous spending.
J. B. is weary. Weary of his wife’s free-wheeling ways with his hard-earned money, weary of his son’s wayward lifestyle, weary of debtors who have no hope of meeting their obligations. In a fit of anger, he throws his wife’s new sable coat off the balcony.
Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is about to have a dramatic dousing of good luck, however, as the coat lands directly on her. In her efforts to find its rightful owner, she meets up with J.B., who promptly buys her a hat to match.
Others misconstrue the nature of their relationship, and the screwball antics begin. Mary meets J.B.’s son John (Ray Milland) at a diner, and the true romance, as opposed to the more lurid story reported in all the papers, begins.
This delightful caper was written by Preston Sturges before he began directing his own films, and you can see his wit throughout in many small — and not-so-small — ways. Thankfully, Mitchell Leisen was adept at directing smart stories (he also directed Midnight, written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett).
Sturges famously went over the head of his producer and directly to Leisen when he was told his script for Easy Living wouldn’t be used because “1936 is no time for comedies.” He later admitted this was not a wise move and one that would eventually cost him, but the film did get made, albeit with a different producer.
Jean Arthur was hitting her stride as an actress with the making of Easy Living, and it’s one of her most engaging performances. Director Leisen, who had risen up the ranks in filmmaking through costume design and art direction, skillfully took over her hair and wardrobe, which is said to have calmed the highly nervous actress.
Also making an appearance in the film is William Demarest, who became one of Preston Sturges’ favorite character actors, appearing in eight of the films Sturges wrote and directed.
For fans of screwball comedies, this movie is an absolute must-see. Anyone who enjoys the filmmaking of the 30s will find it to be a top-notch comedy well worth the watch.