If you’re a classic movies fan than there’s a good chance your recovering from the various DVD sales that went on last month. Preston Sturges was a name I came across while spending too much time on Criterion’s website, but Easy Living (out now through Kino Lorber) would be the first film of his I’d watch.
If it’s possible to fall in love at first sight, then it’s possible to fall in love at first opening scene, and that’s how it’s been with Easy Living. The screwball comedy, starring Jean Arthur and Ray Milland, begins with banker, J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold), falling down the stairs, after he’s just gotten through with saying black cats are bad luck.
A bunch of servants witness the fall, and you worry for them, because how is a man like Ball going to react? After the embarrassment of taking a tumble (and assuming he isn’t hurt) someone’s bound to get sacked, so you wait for Ball to erupt… except he doesn’t and his servants seem less concerned about how he’s fared than, in one case, how his trousers made out.
Another servant holds back a chuckle, while the butler at the end of the stairs makes a sarcastic remark about Mr. Ball being early for breakfast. They’re not being mean (they don’t seem to dislike their employer), but neither are they afraid to make fun of him. What’s surprising is Mr. Ball lets them (if he makes a face) and that’s what I’ve gotten the most out of Sturges’ script. Everyone is clever. Maybe servants wouldn’t be allowed to speak so plainly, but Sturges doesn’t let class or position deprive anyone of a sense of humor, creating memorable, smaller roles for actors under contract.
The trouble begins when Mr. Ball throws one of his wife’s fur coats off the building. Landing on the head of Arthur’s Mary Smith, Mary’s reaction, like Ball’s, is an extraordinary one. Going door to door, she tries to find out who lost the coat. Not yet aware it’s going to give her so much trouble, she’s does this out of a desire to do the right thing, and nothing else. Eventually she finds Mr. Ball, but he won’t take the coat back, so Mary wears it, and a bunch of false assumptions are born.
Mr. Ball’s generosity sends Mary’s life into a tailspin, yet neither he nor Mary ever realize what’s going on, so it’s never about deliberately deceiving people. They’re just going about their lives and people manage to get the wrong idea.
While a scene at an automat involves some terrific bouts of slapstick, the film makes its biggest impact with Mary’s reaction to her love interest, John (Milland), accusing her of leading him on, despite having been around long enough to know that isn’t true. Instead of trying to apologize or defend herself, Mary gives John the reaming out his accusations deserve, and the film stays provocative until the last line.
While he wasn’t always spoken of fondly by collaborators, film historian, Kat Ellinger’s, detailed commentary track makes the case for Easy Living’s director, Mitchell Leisen, being underappreciated and is a treat to listen to after watching the film.
Easy Living is available now on DVD from Kino Lorber and is a must-watch if you’ve never come across Sturges’ writing or Arthur’s acting.