Easy Living (1937) dir. Mitchell Leisen
Starring: Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Luis Alberni and Franklin Pangborn
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
Inventor, writer and director Preston Sturges was, without a doubt, one of the brightest, funniest and most original entertainers in motion picture history. As a storyteller he was blessed with a very distinctive style wherein he blended savvy social satire into a sparkling romantic comedy soufflé, but with the sort of frankness not common to stories of that period (or many others, for that matter). Most importantly, he brought a common-man’s lowbrow sensibility to the pictures and was never afraid to add (when required) healthy dollops of slapstick to his deliciously varied concoctions reminiscent of the prat-falling-pie-in-the-face Mack Sennett variety.
As a writer-director, his style truly had no equal – he was one of a kind. And that, of course, is why it’s always fun and interesting to watch the movies he wrote, but didn’t actually direct. Watching them, they still feel like Sturges pictures, but they’re definitely missing those two key ingredients that announced his authorship (or for those so pretentiously inclined – auteur) with a capital “A”.
But before we get to those two ingredients or, if you’ll allow, two delectable, uh … “sturgeons”, let us briefly examine the elements of the trademark Sturges narrative in “Easy Living” – as bright and wonderful a picture as any he would eventually write AND direct, but instead directed by the somewhat reserved, though visually savvy and definitely classy Mitchell Leisen.
In “Easy Living” we’re introduced to business tycoon J. B. Ball, the Bull of Broad Street (played by Edward Arnold in one of his trademark renditions of boardroom royalty) who is disgusted (in spite of his wealth) that his wife has purchased yet another expensive fashion garment, a gorgeously opulent mink coat. In anger, Ball hurls the coat out the window of their suite high above the lowly street and it sails down and lands – plop – on the head of junior magazine editor Mary Smith (the bubbly, gorgeous Jean Arthur). This is about the only manna from Heaven in Mary’s life as she’s had to make her own way on her own steam, which, of course, is only appropriate when she falls for a klutzy, well meaning young man called John (a handsome, charming and very young Ray Milland) who works in an automat diner and conspires to provide Mary with a free meal as she’s down to her last nickel. John is, of course, no mere working class klutz – he’s none other than John (J.B.) Ball JUNIOR!!!
Yes, in grand romantic comedy tradition, the son of the Bull of Broad Street (trying to make his own way in the world rather than relying on his Dad’s money and power) falls for the woman who was the unwitting recipient of J.B. Ball Senior’s extravagant window-toss. The burgeoning romance finds its way rather innocently (in truth), but scandalously (on the surface) behind the closed doors of a grand hotel owned by the impresario-styled-chef-turned-hotelier Louis Louis (the hilariously overwrought Luis Alberni) who is in deep debt to none other than J.B. Ball Senior. Louis, using a sleazy gossip columnist, creates a controversy that results in an explosion of business for his faltering hotel, but also results in the typical all-hell-breaking-loose series of events that such a story demands.
Will the love of John Jr. and Mary survive? Will John Sr. come to respect his son and cut his wife some slack? Will Louis get his grand hotel back? The answers to these questions are probably obvious, but the ride getting there is a delightful one indeed.
As noted earlier, Mitchell Leisen is a class director all the way. He brings a kind of elegant panache to the text that is all his own. He hangs back with beautifully composed frames and a marvelous sense of height (those who mistake widescreen as the only way to make the most of a motion picture frame need to spend more time studying someone like Leisen or William Wyler or Clarence Brown or F.W. Murnau or James Whale or, uh … Orson Welles or any other visual stylists who knew how to make the most out of that magnificent standard frame aspect ratio). In fact, one wishes Leisen had had a shot directing some of the sparkling MGM comedies like “Dinner at Eight” or “Ninotchka” – not that there’s anything wrong with those great pictures OR their direction, but Leisen’s sensibilities seem so suited to them that one can almost imagine what might have been more (or at least equally) magnificent with his visual elegance. Leisen’s trademarks not only included his fine eye, but a nice even pace and a restraint – one might even say “good taste” – when it came to capturing visual humour.
This, of course leads us back to the two “sturgeons” we began with at an earlier juncture in this review since it is entirely conceivable that “Easy Living” would have been a very different picture if Sturges had directed it himself. The picture is Sturges all the way in terms of content, but the two elements it doesn’t have are the break-neck pace of dialogue delivery – Sturges had his actors delivering their dialogue so quickly it made, for example, Howard Hawks’ dialogue delivery seem snail-paced – and a manic quality that occasionally bordered on utter insanity – the Coen Brothers have tried to emulate this, but only half-succeeded in “Raising Arizona”. The lowbrow slapstick of the automat sequence in “Easy Living”, which begins with romance and ends in pratfalls, is a perfect place to compare Sturges and Leisen’s styles. In terms of content – it’s pure Sturges, but in terms of style, it’s Leisen all the way. If one used dance to equate how each director handled slapstick, Leisen would have been Astaire and Rogers while Sturges was clearly the Nicholas Brothers – ballroom vs. shuck n’ jive all the way.
“Easy Living” is a terrific 30s romantic comedy – a perfect blend of sensibilities that would, on the surface seem to be in diametric opposition, but deep down, with Sturges writing and Leisen directing, making (as it were) beautiful music together. And that is something to cherish.
“Easy Living” is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment