Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living explores the age-old question, “Who am I?,” through a series of would-be catastrophes predicated on a classic plot device: mistaken identity. Heroine Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is an ordinary girl who experiences the extraordinary, when a fur coat drops from the sky and lands on her head. The coat belongs to the wife of financier J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), “the Bull of Broad Street.” At $58,00 US (approximately $900,000 by today’s standards), the coat represents the sort of extravagance that precipitated Black Tuesday, and one that Ball is loathe to countenance. When triumphantly told by his wife that it cannot be returned, he tosses it off the roof to teach her a lesson.
In a random act of kindness, Ball offers to buy Mary a new hat to replace the one damaged by the fall of the coat. The boutique staff assumes that she is his mistress, setting into motion a series of events that will change both the lives of Mary, Ball, as well as that of Ball’s dilettante son, John (Ray Milland).
The inciting action, the fall of the coat, seems a lucky one for an impoverished young woman, however, it initially only brings hardship. Convinced that she has acquired the coat through ill-gotten gains, Mary’s employer, The Boys’ Constant Companion, fires her, lest a youth publication be associated with scandal. Without a job, and already behind on her $7 per week rent (the price includes an egg for breakfast, and is only approximately $107 US today!), Mary has no money to feed herself. In perhaps one of the most memorable, and heart-breaking, scenes of the film, she discovers a dime lodged inside her porcelain piggy bank. Initial relief gives way to anguish as she ties a tissue around the poor pig’s eyes for its imminent execution.
In a brilliant moment that characterizes Arthur’s knack for comedic timing, Mary takes off her shoe and makes to bring the heel down upon the pig’s head. However, in what was surely an unscripted accident, she misses. Arthur’s head whips up, her mouth in wide open astonishment, and without missing a beat, winces and tries again.
Blindfolds // Execution! // Reprieve? (P.S. Can someone find me an apartment in Manhattan that only costs $107/week with egg breakfast included? Thanks ever so much!)
With her dime, Mary takes off for the automat, where she meets Ball’s son, John. Having argued with his father over the purchase of a $12,000 foreign automobile (“Never buy anything on time payments!” Ball admonishes him.), John has decided to leave the comfort of familial fortune and seek his own destiny. Needless to say, he’s having a hard time of it. No skills and no work references have landed the younger Ball as a busboy inside the automat. Spying Mary’s expensive coat, John immediately mistakes her for a compatriot, a rich debutante, as foreign to the idea of food behind glass windows as he is. Through casual chitchat, “Where you at Mrs. Astor’s on Thursday?” he ascertains that indeed, they have never met before, and moreover, that Mary doesn’t even have the required fare for a beefsteak pie. In an attempt at gallantry, John works the gag, so that she can take out food for free, causing a riot in the process.
Were you in St. Mortiz for Christmas?
The automat riot is a clear example of Leisen’s laidback, unobtrusive style. Physical comedy is par for the course in most screwball comedies. Leisen’s approach to this is to start in close-up of the offending incident, and then pull the camera back to give full view of the resulting chaos.
Close-up (Hmm) // Close-up (Uh-oh) // Pan back (Pandemonium!)
As masses from the street swarm the automat for free food, the melee is clearly played for laughs, yet a bittersweet undertone persists. All of these rioters are underfed. They are the everyday casualties of the Depression, so chronically malnourished that the sight of food turns them wild-eyed and animalistic. One man fans pepper into the faces of his fellow diners so that he can co-opt their food. It is this type of action that, while visually comical, underscores the survival-of –the-fittest attitude necessary for life during the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, the rumor of Ball’s having taken a mistress has spread like wildfire across the city. A near-bankrupt hotelier, Mr Louis Louis (Luis Alberni), whose mortgage is held by Ball, invites her to stay in the Imperial Suite of his hotel. Louis’s logic is that if he can impress Mary with the suite, she will persuade Ball to offer him a reprieve on his mortgage payments.
Mary, innocent of the gossip surrounding her, the coat, and accompanying hat, believes that Louis is hiring her to play the part of a “legitimate” customer in his nearly empty hotel. As far as she is concerned, her only job is to keep the lights on and to recommend his hospitality to as many people as possible. Since John is the first person she meets, she immediately takes him back to the Hotel Louis after he loses his job at the automat.
While questioning John on his lack of ambition, Mary receives counter inquiries over how she can afford to live in a hotel when she can’t afford a beefsteak pie. The two survey each other cautiously, yet innocently, against the grotesque, overblown backdrop of Louis’ all-white, art-deco dreamscape.
Eventually, their mutual attraction overcomes all suspicion, and in a very famous scene, they “sleep” together on the divan. Lying, head to head, John leans over and kisses Mary, who, after an outburst (“Say!”), relents to his advances. Naturally there is no overt physical contact between the two, due to the restrictions of the Production Code, however the implication that the two do more than sleep, is strongly implied.
Deco dreamscape // A chaste kiss (they don’t even show their lips!) // Sleep?
Despite the dearth of physical affection in this film, the perceived relationship between Mary and Ball is surprisingly candid in spite of the Code. The term “mistress” is never used, yet as word reaches the general public that Ball has installed his paramour in the Imperial Suite, such quips as “When J.B. Ball wants to peccadillo, he doesn’t pick it here, he picks it at the Hotel Louis!” abound.
The dream-like encounter between Mary and John devolves into a nightmare the morning after, as Mary is relentlessly hounded by merchants who want to clothe Ball’s mistress, accessorize her, and drive her around. Thanks to gossip columnist Wallace Whistling (a blatant parody of Walter Winchell), all of New York, including Ball’s wife, is now in the know about “the affair.” The only people who remain innocent of this are Mary, Ball, and John. Additionally, Mary is not even aware of Ball’s real name (she refers to him as Santa Claus), and therefore remains ignorant of the fact that John is his son.
When one of the harassing masses, a stockbroker, pressures Mary for inside information about steel, John jokingly has her tell him that it’s going down (since the weather looks cloudy). This sets off a panic on the floor of the NYSE, with everyone selling their stock, just as Ball starts buying.
The NYSE // This is how they did it in the old days! // Ticker tape
While Ball’s company totters on the edge of collapse, John, Mary, Ball, and his wife collide (literally and figuratively) in the confines of his office. The true identities of all involved are revealed, and amidst the emotional pandemonium, it is John who conjures up the plan that ultimately saves the company.
This is a film where no one is as he or she seems. Even the minor characters are awash in muddied identity; Mrs. Ball is, “not the debutante [Ball] married,” and Louis, formerly a cook, is admonished to “get back in the kitchen where [he] belongs.” It is fitting that the resolution rights these misconceptions as well as the problems spawned by them. The Balls reunite, Louis’ hotel becomes a success, and John is given a job at his father’s company. Mary, the ordinary “every girl,” she gets what women her age was presumed to want in 1937: a marriage proposal. As John proposes, Ball again throws the coat over the balcony, ruining yet another girl’s hat. The happy couple stares bemusedly at the sight, with Mary smartly remarking, “this is where we came in.”
All’s well that ends well.
For me, Easy Living, is the quintessential Great Depression comedy because it takes poverty, hunger, and stock market shenanigans and makes them not only amusing, but thought provoking. Real concerns of the time are readily reflected on the screen. Only, in Preston Sturges’s flawless script, they are transformed into opportunities instead of remaining the proverbial stones around what would be any average person’s neck.
Moreover, the cast, right down to the supporting characters, is superb. After toiling in silent pictures with middling results, Jean Arthur was just beginning her ascent as one of the great stars of the studio system. It’s easy to see how well her distinctive voice and natural, nervous energy would serve her as a comedic actress. Future Oscar winner Ray Milland is also in top form here, with an abundance of earnest, irrepressible charm.
As for Mitchell Leisen, he is a director that I feel rarely gets enough credit, despite having helmed some very serviceable comedies (including a personal favorite of mine, “Take a Letter, Darling”.) Perhaps his approach is a bit more gentle than say, Howard Hawks’s or Frank Capra’s, but when pared with the right script, he is more than capable than holding his own.
On a final note, I would like to add that the economy shown, both in script and in camera work, is something I find sorely lacking in modern filmmaking, especially romantic comedy. At 88 minutes, there’s not a wasted shot, or throwaway line in the entirety of Easy Living. It’s no wonder the production feel effortless. Sitting through 120 minutes of sight gags unrelated to either character development or theme is exhausting and reeks of desperation. I wish someone would recognize this and let Hollywood know.