Film Reviews

Easy Living (1937)

Easy Living, part of a Preston Sturges double feature at New Beverly this past week, is a delightful screwball comedy from 1937. It’s full of misunderstandings and mistaken identities, and it’s a great example of escapist fantasy for Depression-era (or modern day) moviegoers.

Unceremonious dispersal of riches

Our Cinderella in this story is Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), who’s on the receiving end of a sable fur coat tossed out the penthouse window by J.B. Ball. (By the way, I love Sturges’ deft stroke of screenwriting here–we learn just how cartoonishly wealthy Ball is when he reacts to his wife’s overspending by literally flinging the object in question out the window.) Mary, being goodhearted and kind, attempts to return the coat, but Ball simply rewards her honesty by buying her a garish new hat to match the coat. However, showing up for her low-level job at a boys’ magazine in her new ensemble causes enough of a scandal that she gets fired, but not before the gossip about Ball’s new lady friend has reached Mr. Louis Louis, proprietor of a luxurious, but struggling, hotel. He’s in debt to Mr. Ball’s bank, so he offers Mary the swank penthouse apartment to get in Ball’s good graces. (Or so he presumes.)

Jean Arthur and Ray Milland lie head-to-toe on a chaise lounge in Preston Sturges' Easy Living
Nothing scandalous going on here, nope

This is prime Code era, and there’s a great innocence to the actions that set everything in motion here. Not only are Mary and Ball NOT having an affair, but when Louis learns of their suspected dalliances, he simply tries to ingratiate himself to Ball through Mary by offering her room and board–he doesn’t try anything as salacious as blackmail, when surely that more aggressive approach would have yielded faster results.

Lodged in the fancy hotel, Mary certainly looks the part of mistress now, and other peons flock to her with more gifts. Among her admirers are John Ball, Jr., who is in fact Mr. Ball’s son, though neither of them know each other’s relation to the elder Ball at first. They shack up in her hotel room–lying head-to-toe on a chaise lounge in a marvelous Code “sex” scene–and end up making quite a bit of money together by engaging in some sort of insider trading. No judgment. This is a far cry from where she started–blindfolding a piggy bank with the quiet solemnity of an executioner, before cracking it open with a hammer.

This is a very happy, charming film. There are no villains here, really–perhaps the most threatening character is The Truth, as it’s always poised and ready to crash down on this sweet, honest girl, and we’re rooting against its inevitable arrival. The fantasy element of having a $58,000 (that’s $950,000 in 2013 dollars) fur coat drop down on you from the sky, and a mysterious billionaire showering gifts on you without wanting anything in return? Now that’s truly a Cinderella story for the modern age, and of course, Preston Sturges would be the one to deliver it.

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