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.

See an older review of Easy Living here

Edward Arnold is banker J.B. Ball, aka "the bull of Wall Street," and in a family argument about a $50,000 fur coat recently purchased by his sweet and kindly but apparently profligate wife Jenny (Mary Nash), he hurls the offending garment off of the roof of their penthouse apartment. It falls downward, landing on a seated Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) riding in an open top public transportation bus on her way to work.

The script for Easy Living by Preston Sturges spins around on the audience correctly knowing what is going on and how the characters know each another, which is entirely different from the characters themselves who are operating under false impressions of each other. One of these misunderstands is gigantic: eventually everyone from New York City to Florida seems to believe that Mary Smith (Arthur) is a secret mistress of J. B. Ball (Arnold), though they themselves barely know each other and when they are in contact it turns quickly into an argument, the boisterous and shouting banker not used to being corrected by the unintimidated young woman.

But cluelessness and misunderstandings is the reality around Jean Arthur's character as she gets swept up into a rash of misunderstandings that follow from her brief association with the famous banker who she doesn't even know is a banker, and through most of the film she doesn't even know his name. By suddenly coming into possession of the flung-away hyper-expensive fur coat, (which she doesn't realize is even a true fur coat; she thinks it is imitation), we travel with her into a screwball world where the appearance of wealth inspires a gaggle of "helpers" who overwhelm her with free goods and services, with items ranging from jewelry, to automobiles, to clothing apparel, all showing up unbidden at her door, and stock brokers sneaking to see her, hoping for her to provide "inside" knowledge.

These merchants are hoping by pampering her this will lead to future purchases, or, at the least, they hope that the (apparently) wealthy and well-connected Mary Smith will influence other wealthy people toward purchases. They do not know she's actually nearly penniless, only possessing one single dime after getting fired from her low-level job at a magazine for children (The Boy's Constant Companion).

The 1937 world of Easy Living seems modern in a number of ways, with stock market surges and drops happening on nearly occultic notions of weather and feelings, and enormously powerful bankers (Mr. Ball) being pretty shakey on how math works, and expensive businesses based upon getting "influencers" to help spread the gospel about their pricey commercial goods.

Ray Milland also appears in the film as the spoiled son of J.B. Ball. When the story begins we see he has a taste for custom automobiles and seems to spend money as easily as the rest of the family, but following an argument that hurts his pride, he goes out on his own and is working cleaning tables at an automat (a kind of 1930s mechanized buffet cafeteria). After he tries to sneak Mary some food at the automat, feeling sorry for her since her one thin dime will only get her coffee and a roll, he gets fired. She takes pity on him and his plan to sleep on a park bench, and brings him to the palatial "Royal Suite" at the Hotel Louie (provided gratis by a hotelier named Louie Louie played by Luis Alberni). Like children in Wonderland, the two young adults have to figure out how the enormous, ornate bathtub operates and to find a way to obtain food, since Mary's arrangement with the Hotel Louie will only supply one egg a day to the Royal Suite.

Our glimpse into how a wealthy banker lives and works is through Edward Arnold's shouting, fist-shaking super-banker J.B. Ball, who is somehow both a genius and an idiot at the same time. His ongoing argument with Mary Smith over how to calculate compound interest is a running joke throughout the movie. We never hear how interest actually should be calculated properly, with Ball trying to explain by using examples of farmers selling cows, or counting marbles, etc. None of it actually ever makes sense, though. Ball is certain he knows how it's done, but has to keep shifting to some new analogy to try and illustrate his knowledge, his previous examples getting hopelessly tangled one by one.

A backing cast of comical talents lubricates the chain of comedy scenes in Easy Living, such as the jabbering Luis Alberni, the calm and collected Esther Dale as Ball's secretary Lillian (who seems to be the only person on staff who actually understands banking). Also on the screen is William Demerest, an actor who appears in almost all of Sturges' films, here he plays a snooping newspaperman named Wallace. William B. Davidson is the ironically named "Hyde," Ball's man at the Wall Street stock exchange, summoned during emergencies which interrupt him at the barbershop such that he rushes into Ball's office with his hair and face lathered to be shaved, looking like a madman.

Jean Arthur as the simultaneously naive and street-wise Mary Smith is our hero, and how she can survive the onslaught of privilege and magical wealth is the tale. The wave of gifts and money directed at her makes her shake her head in confusion, convinced the world has gone mad.

Though directed by Mitchell Leisen, Easy Living is primarily a Preston Sturges project by dint of the density of the script, full of Sturges' humor and his crackling, fast-paced comedy dialogue.

See an older review of Easy Living here

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