Based on a story idea by Vera Caspary (who would later write the classic noir, Ring Twice for Laura – made into the film, Laura 1944), director Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937) is a divinely inspired screwball comedy scripted by Preston Sturges. Sturges would soon become a celebrated writer/director of like-minded fare at Paramount, primarily due to this film’s success. Easy Living stars winsome scatterbrain Jean Arthur, fresh from her triumphant star turn in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town opposite Gary Cooper.
The plot begins in earnest when 3rd richest financier, J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), the so called ‘Bull of Broad St.’, tosses his wife, Jenny’s (Mary Nash) sable coat off the roof top of their fashionable penthouse. For J.B. the coat represents yet another tangible and expensive point of frivolity that his family has become accustomed to; including his spendthrift son, John Jr. (Ray Milland) who has just purchased a foreign automobile on credit. The coat floats down to street level, striking poor working girl, Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) in the head, ruining her hat and prompting her to go door to door in search of its rightful owner.
As luck would have it, Mary and J.B. meet on the street – he imploring her to keep the coat as compensation for her troubles. After Mary informs J.B. that she is late for work at The Boy’s Constant Companion – a periodical for young men – J.B. not only offers to drive her to work, but also buys Mary a new hat. Unfortunately, J.B. gets more trouble than he bargains for when the hat shop’s owner, Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn) leaks the sale to Mr. Louis Louis (Luis Alberni) who is about to have his hotel foreclosed on by J.B.
Assuming that Mary is J.B.’s mistress, Louis Louis sets Mary up in a fashionable suite inside his hotel where he is certain J.B. will come to call – hence, establishing a blackmailing enterprise to save his hotel from foreclosure. Instead, Mary accidentally meets John Jr. at the local automat where he has temporarily found employment.
These two hapless souls become soul mates – a wrinkle that gets misconstrued by the hotel management and a Wall Street trader as a perpetuation of the ‘so called affair’ between Mary and J.B. After overhearing a conversation between Mary and John, one of the traders makes the erroneous assumption that steel stock is going down, creating a sudden panic on the U.S. market that threatens to create another Great Depression.
The great good fun in most screwball comedies is to be found in their superb observation of how a seemingly hapless chain of inconsequential events can snowball into a situation entirely out of control. Easy Living is no exception. From the moment the coat hits Mary her good fortunes hit the ground running – creating an avalanche of misfortune for any and all who come in contact with her.
Director Leisen revels in the implausibly humorous tanglings in Sturges' screenplay, the delightfully wacky absurdities that ladle hyperbole upon cliché, marrying misfortune to utter elation and creating one grandly amusing roller coaster ride for our protagonists. Easy Living is a crazy quilt of a comedy with some grand old masters of the nuttier but nice crowd unleashed with silly aplomb.
Jean Arthur, a sadly underrated actress today, is a genuine treasure to behold as her Mary inadvertently sets off a fire storm of controversy simply by trying to do the right thing. Arthur's exuberant frustration, the modest trembling in her voice, create a pleasantly frazzled heroine. She and Ray Milland - still going through his congenial every man phase in films herein - have genuine on screen chemistry. His stoic confused playboy/fop is the perfect foil for Arthur's no nonsense, and occasionally flustered, innocent.
Universal Home Video’s DVD is just average. The B&W image maintains an obvious patina of film grain but the overall image looks quite gritty rather than grainy. The gray scale is adequately balanced, though whites are rarely clean and blacks are more a deep gray than black. A slight hint of edge enhancement intrudes periodically. Age related artifacts are present throughout but generally do not distract. The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to a brief introduction by TCM host, Robert Osbourne.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)