Thursday, February 9, 2017

Easy Living - 1937

Easy Living (1937), despite the surface of innocent goofiness, is a remarkably sophisticated reflection of Depression-era attitudes and coping.  We should expect nothing less from the marvelous Jean Arthur.

The tale is deftly told, both in term of script, direction, and the precise timing of the actors; and yet the premise is ridiculously simple: Jean Arthur, a struggling working girl rides in an open-top bus and an expensive fur coat lands on her head.  That triggers a series of events involving mistaken impressions, taking us and Jean on a riotous adventure.  Along the way fools are exposed, suffer consequences of their own making, and are ultimately redeemed.  There are no real villains or heroes—though Jean is an Everywoman who rides the waves with dogged determination to just get by.

Edward Arnold plays a blustering millionaire banker with his usual aplomb, but this is no bad guy such as he played in Meet JohnDoe (1941).  We really have to admire his ability to use basically the same techniques and equipment to play sinister as well as he does silly.  One of Hollywood’s most talented and solid character actors, Mr. Arnold could do both with ease.  Part of the film's sophistication lies in the very presentation of Edward Arnold’s character, though rich and supporting an indolent wife and son living in wasteful fashion, his not being an evil rich man.  He’s really just a regular guy—not overly nice, but not overly terrible, either.  Just a guy; and we may even feel sorry for him when his spendthrift son, played by Ray Milland, spends $11,000 for a foreign sports car, and his wife (played by Mary Nash) spends $58,000 on yet another fur coat (she has a closet full of them.)  Fed up, Mr. Arnold throws the new fur coat off the roof of their townhouse.

Though the cook’s charge to him, “Go fry yourself in lard, you dirty capitalist,” is pretty funny, it's a lightweight comment on Arnold's extreme wealth; he’s just mad he was told to use lard in his cooking.

The fur coat lands on Jean’s head, and though she attempts to return it when she meets up with Arnold, he insists she keep it because he’s furious with his wife.  She does not know it’s mink; he has told her (because his wife has told him, in a lie) that it is a Kolinsky, which is a species of weasel from which inexpensive coats were made (as well as artist’s sable brushes).

She is also blissfully unaware that those who have observed her with Edward Arnold and wearing his gift of a mink coat—believe that she is his mistress.  The fawning florist, played by the wonderful Franklin Pangborn, who can take disdain and disgust to levels of high art, and Mr. Louis Louis, played by Luis Alberni, who runs a downtown hotel and is in debt to Banker Arnold are two such gossipers.  He offers Jean a resplendent suite in the hotel to appease Mr. Arnold, curry his favor, and get him to extend his loan.  Soon, the whole town is talking about Banker Arnold and his mistress, but he has no idea of the gossip, and neither does Jean.  But her newfound reputation as a kept woman has left her jobless—her publisher at The Boy’s Constant Companion fires her for the rumors over her questionable lifestyle—and has left her homeless, as she is  behind in her rent already, and being without a job will put her on the streets.

Two indelible scenes are the result: when Jean smashes her piggy bank for food money and comes up with only a couple coins, and when she takes the coins to the Automat.  We covered the old movies’ love affair with New York’s Automat in this previous post.

The piggy bank is a master class in comedy.  Jean puts a Kleenex blindfold on the pig before she tries to hit him with her shoe.  Her first swipe misses completely—no one does comedy like this better.  We are all prepared for the smashing of the ceramic pig, and she bangs the dresser top with the heel of her shoe instead, just missing the pig.  We are fooled, and it’s hysterical.

The Automat is more of a traditional set-up to a food fight.  Ray Milland, son of the millionaire banker, is, unexpectedly, working there as a busboy.  He and his father have split over differences and Ray has no income beyond his father’s largesse.  He feels sorry for Jean, tries to slip her some food from the Automat’s little cubbies, but the boss catches him and a furious melee ensues with street crowds coming in to take advantage of the chaos and eat free food.

It’s the Great Depression.  Nobody in the audience blames them for trying to sneak a meal, but no one is sorry, either, when some of them get the worst of the food fight.  Ray Milland’s not the hero, and the boss who catches him isn’t the bad guy, but nobody blames anybody for doing what they have to, to survive, and to maybe make life a little happier.

But even though everybody’s side is understandable, there is a brilliant put-down to everybody not to take themselves so seriously.  The stuffy and officious publisher of the boy’s magazine (just the name “The Boy’s Constant Companion” is a suggestion of unrelenting bludgeoning piety), is told off by Jean, “You don’t have to get mad just because you’re so stupid.”

Ray, of course, loses his job after the Automat food riot, and Jean, feeling sorry for him, invites him to stay at her palatial suite at Luis Alberni’s hotel.  We tease the Production Code in several scenes, most notably when they both lie in different directions, but head-to-head on a divan close together and engage in sleepy pillow talk.  He seals a quick kiss, and she rouses, but instead of shock or insult, smiles at him with delightful cheeky knowing, and it’s the ol’ Fade to Black.

Of course, in the next scene, she wakes up alone in her large bedroom, and we are told Ray just went out that earlier that morning, so we really don’t know where he spent the night and, with what is true sophistication—it isn’t dwelled on.  We can connect whatever dots we want to ourselves.

Just a note as well on the phone conversations: Jean speaks into two phones at once at her bedside when she is roused by other people wanting to curry the banker’s favor to offer her stuff.  She has no idea what’s happening, she’s harried, a little panicked, and she speaks as if she’s really trying to have two phone conversations at once.  (“I just want to brush my teeth!”)  She never leaves the audience with the impression that she’s faking it; we can easily believe there are people talking to her and badgering her with their salesmanship.

Though her hotel flat is opulent, to say the least, it is not presented—either by Mr. Alberni’s grand tour of the place or in Jean’s reaction to it—as something we should envy.  It all seems less awesome than it is comical, including the large shell-like bathtub that leaves everyone who examines it stupefied as to what it is.  The scene where Ray and Jean inspect it, and accidently get caught in a sudden spray of multi-water jets, is another cheeky jab at the censors as the couple innocently and fully clothed share a bath together in bacchanalian setting.

Another proof of Edward Arnold’s being just a guy is his insistence when he takes a room at this hotel, that he wants “a room with a bath.”  Alberni tries to—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—get him a joining suite with Jean, but Mr. Arnold insists grumpily he wants a room with a bath, as if he’s at the YMCA.

By the way, some of the best exchanges are the rapport between blustering boss and his secretary played by the wonderful Esther Dale.

Ray and Jean are falling for each other, and even though he doesn’t seem like a hero worthy of our Jean, if not the sharpest tool in the shed, he’s a nice guy.  She proves to be the biggest mensch of the lot: when a series of daffy circumstances brings her $18,000 from a stock tip, she gleefully shares half of it with Milland, as if they are teenagers going Dutch at the malt shop.

It is only at the end of the story that she finally understands that Alberni thinks she’s Edward Arnold’s mistress.  Her indignation is smashing: “And you thought I took a sable coat from him?!” She slaps him twice.  We’ve been waiting for that.

To juggle all these characters with their separation motivations, foibles, and failings and make them all gloriously ridiculous but likeable, and to keep Jean the moral compass of all is a splendid coping mechanism with the social, psychological, and emotional ills of the day.  The wolf might not have been at the door in Hollywood where stars made fabulous salaries and moguls owned them, but the movie industry had canny knowledge of what the public wanted, what it needed, and what it was willing to take.  Classic films, like popular music of the day, were a barometer of hard times, good times, scary times.  Despite splashy musical fantasies, there was more that was real in old Hollywood than there is today.  There was a fearlessness, as if, along with Jean, we dare to survive and even to be happy, because there is nothing left to lose. There is something quintessentially American in such good-hearted sensible…nonsense.


Come back next Thursday when we sit in court with William Powell in For the Defense (1930).

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.


Caftan Woman said...

Another day at the office and more perfect performances from the best in the biz. At one time those performances were expected as part of the deal. Nowadays, to read some critics/comments, it is a shock and a surprise as in "Lookie what they can do!".

Reading that over, I still think I am right, but it does seem to smack of grumpy old gal speak.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Then I must be grumpy, too, because I agree.

Anonymous said...

Nicely said Patricia. Isn't it nice when we can escape with one of these films and be expectantly entertained by performances that we knew from the beginning would be satisfying? I agree with both of you and enjoyed this review Jacqueline. I've seen this film and it's a good one. I would watch it not just again but many times primarily because it is clever and Jean Arthur is, as she usually is, charming, endearing and so funny.

This is Molly btw. The comment will come up under my blog :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome to the blog, Molly. I see you've discussed THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD on your blog, another of my favorites. Expectantly entertained is right, they delivered a solid product every time.

Lily Monescu said...

The thing I love about Edward Arnold's character is that he's basically Homo Economicus. He's not a villainous rich guy, but he views each decision purely as a matter of maximizing efficiency. It's why he employs a cook--better to delegate tasks that aren't his forte--but insists that he fry his eggs in lard.

And this means he has trouble processing the social, non-economic implications of being so wealthy. Why his status-conscious wife would insist on a closetful of furs, for example. Or why a kind gesture to a working girl might look like compensation for sexual favors. It's not greed or vanity that's his main flaw--it's that he's too rational!

Oh, and that look Jean Arthur gives Ray Milland after he kisses her is priceless. You can see the entire thought process: "Hey, he just kissed me! And we're in bed together! I think I should mind that. Let's see, do I mind? Nah, I don't mind." :-)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome to the blog, Lily. "Homo Economicus", I love that. You've hit it on the head, his wonderful near-sighted practicality. And Arthur, I agree, such a great scene.

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