Easy Living, 1937

Easy Living, 1937, released by Paramount Pictures on July 16, 1937. Directed by Mitchell Leisen, screenplay by Preston Sturges from story by Vera Caspary.

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Fast moving screwball comedy that covers the usual class issues, and comes out with the usual screwball comedy judgment: the rich (or poor) shouldn't be punished just because they're rich (or poor) (though with the rich it is quite likely that they're crazy). Edward Arnold and Jean Arthur are in top form and Preston Sturges' script provides witty dialogue and episodes of pure slapstick. There is also a nicely rounded population of funny character actors on hand (William Demerest, Luis Alberni, Esther Dale, Andrew Tombes and Franklin Pangborn).

The Story

Jean Arthur (as Mary Smith) and Ray Milland (as John Ball, Jr.) are the love-linked couple in this romantic comedy, but the film is more about the inscrutable nature of high finance, as represented by "the Bull of Broad Street," J. B. Ball, Sr. (played by Edward Arnold). It's also about the madness that grips people who are trying to sell things to rich people, or gain access to them, as the wealthy seem almost like magical beings that can generate riches for anyone who can get in contact with them.

Jean Arthur doesn't have this in mind when she is drawn into their world by accident. J. B Ball, in an argument with his wife, flings his wife's expensive mink coat off the roof of their apartment building, and it lands on Mary Smith as she is riding to work on the open-air top of a double-decker bus.

She gets off the bus with fur coat in hand, and begins trying to find out who it belongs to. She runs into J. B. Ball on the sidewalk, who then identifies the coat and promptly gives it to her as a gift (because he doesn't want his wife to have it).

Flat broke and unable to get back onto another bus to continue her commute to her job, J. B. Ball gives her a lift in his limo. Mary Smith mentions how she had thought about getting her own fur piece by buying it on installments at the rate of 1% a month, and Ball thinks this is a terrible deal, and the two break into an argument over how interest is amortized.

The running gag of how interest is computed (or isn't, in the case of the increasingly crazy ways J. B. Ball tries to explain it) appears repeatedly in the story, and Ball later composes telegrams to Mary with stories about fictitious boys named Jack and Henry playing marbles to try and explain how compound interest works (though it never actually makes sense to him or us).

Before delivering Mary to her job (where she works on the staff of The Boys Constant Companion) Ball buys Mary a new hat (her old one was broken by the fall of the mink) and the manager of the hat store (Pangborn) makes the assumption that Mary is Ball's mistress. Pretty soon every business in town that caters to the wealthy is convinced Mary is connected to the powerful J. B. Ball, and they rain gifts down on her (cars, jewelry, free hotel suites). This comes just in the nick of time for the confused Mary (she doesn't know that they are all viewing her as Ball's mistress) because her mink coat gets her fired from The Boys Constant Companion (they think she must have earned it in some immoral fashion) and she is about to lose the room she rents because she can't pay her rent. Suddenly she is whisked into the Imperial Suite of the posh Hotel Louis and asked to live there gratis (hotel owner Louie Louis hopes that her presence will stop Ball from foreclosing on his overdue mortgage, not that he tells Mary this).

The presence of Preston Sturges is strongly felt through the script that he wrote, and the pacing of the comedy and the reliance on tricky dialogue and misunderstandings is classic Sturges. With Arnold yelling and Jean Arthur angrily not letting herself get pushed around, the two dominate the film whenever they're onscreen.

But it's Mary suddenly going from the threshold of poverty and hunger to pseudo-rich that is the center of the film. When she earns $18,000 suddenly by just providing stock advice, she has a nervous breakdown and practically the only thing she can think of through her tears is that she wants to buy a dog "with bangs down over its eyes."

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Original Page January 16, 2015 | Update September 7, 2021