Easy Living (1937)

EasyLivingCoverThis is another one of those screwball comedies made in the 1930s where regular folk are thrown into the strange and kooky world of rich folk. I never tire of seeing the filthy rich act like boobs while falling in love with lower class types. This time the results are very satisfying chiefly because of the witty, if mechanical, script from Preston Sturges and the peppy efforts of Jean Arthur.

Ray Milland is also along for the ride as her love interest and watching the young Milland makes you cringe when you remember that thirty years later he would end up in such fare as X – The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Frogs. Cringe because of how long it would take him to get around to making cool movies!

A burly, cranky rich dude named J.B. Ball is one of those burly, cranky rich dudes who just can’t stand the way everyone else spends his money.  For instance, when his chef uses butter, Ball wonders why he just doesn’t use lard. He even questions why a new trash can was purchased. So you can imagine the rich temper tantrum he throws when he sees a bill for $58,000 for a fur coat that his old fuddy duddy wife bought. So he does what any budget conscious rich guy would do and throws the offending coat off the roof!

It lands on Mary Smith (Arthur) who is riding on a passing bus. She gets off the bus to find the coat’s rightful owner and runs into J.B. Ball. He blusters her into getting into his car so that he can buy her a new hat since the old one was damaged by the falling coat.

Ball also has to deal with Louie, the chef turned hotel mogul. Louie is one of those screwball characters that has an accent and mangles English so that hillbillies like you and I can yuck it up over how deliriously dumb this guy must be.

Louie owes J.B. lots of money because as J.B. observes, he was a better cook than hotel manager. Louie shows up at J.B.’s office and when J.B. asks if he’s there to pay, Louie announces that he sure is, he’s there to pay his respects!

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That type of scheming gets Louie all of one week to get things paid off. He scurries out and somehow or other he gets wind that J.B. was at one of the local hat stores with a younger woman. Louie immediately assumes that this woman must be his mistress, instead of merely a lady who got a fur coat dumped on her head causing her hat to break thereby causing J.B. to have to purchase her a new one. Talk about jumping to conclusions!

As is usually the case in these fantasy movies about the super rich and wacky, there is at least one child of the rich guy who just doesn’t appreciate how great it is to be rich. Milland plays J.B. Ball, Jr. and he is inexplicably fed up with being filthy rich and having servants and real butter instead of lard. He tells his daddy that he’s leaving and doing things his way!

“Doing things his way” ended up meaning that he would take a job as a waiter at the local automat. I don’t know what the hell an automat is, but I guess it was a place to eat where they had all the food in little windows along the wall and you had to put nickels in the slots to get the food out. Kind of like a giant vending machine with all the ambiance of a hospital cafeteria.

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Guess, who shows up with only a few nickels to her name? It’s Mary! Junior finds out that she doesn’t have enough money to eat so he arranges to give her free food. This apparently is not in his job description because the house dick (did automats have house dicks?) sees him and tries to arrest him.

A scuffle ensues and Junior accidentally hits a bunch of levers that opens all the windows enabling all sorts of free food. The patrons discover this and one of them actually goes out into the street to encourage everyone to come in and enjoy the all-you-can-steal buffet. This sets the stage for a food fight that puts the one in Animal House to shame.

While this is all going on, J.B.’s wife has split and Louie has been stoking the gossip reporters. With his son and wife gone, J.B. doesn’t want to be in his big old mansion anymore so he decides that Louie can put him up in the hotel!

Louie practically wets himself when he sees this opportunity saunter through the door since he has already convinced Mary to stay there, too. Immediately it goes into all the papers’ society columns and as to be expected with society types, the reaction to such a news item is swift and Louie’s becomes the hip place to rent a room!

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The performances by Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold as J.B. Ball are pitch perfect and immediately engage the viewer. You can’t really say anything negative about Ray Milland because he is basically the straight man and his role is so bland that he’s almost a non-presence.

The problem though is that after it’s all over, you wonder if it just wasn’t an exercise in fancy writing and vaudeville style stunts. The situations these movies set up and play out are so ridiculous and Rube Goldbergesque that there’s an artificial quality to things. These characters solely exist and do the things they do because the plot dictates they have to do those things so that the next big misunderstanding or the next major crazy scene can play out as imagined.

There are a few quiet moments between Mary and Junior that at least approach real people talking and getting to know one another, but not much else that these characters do really rings true. There’s no denying that the movie is very funny, but Sturges’ later efforts like The Palm Beach Story manage to balance the manic comedy with down to earth humanity a little better.

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