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Friday Night Spotlight - Screwball Comedies
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,Easy Living

Easy Living (1937)

In 1936, Preston Sturges signed a new writing deal at Paramount. His first assignment was to adapt Vera Caspary's story Easy Living for studio producer Maurice Revnes. Sturges set aside Caspary's "little story of deceit and illusion" and kept just the title. "When I presented the screenplay to Mr. Revnes, however, he told me that 1936 was not the time for comedies and wanted to abandon the whole project. I disagreed. Any time was a good time for comedies. I took the script to Mitch Leisen myself, which resulted in the picture [getting made]... I didn't realize it then, but going to a director over the head of my producer was not a sagacious move; I would come to realize it much further down the road."

It's a good thing Sturges did go over Revnes's head, for Easy Living (1937) remains one of the classic screwball comedies of the era. (And for the record, it ended up being produced not by Revnes but by Arthur Hornblow, Jr.) The picture stars Jean Arthur as Mary Smith, a clerk who is riding atop a double-decker bus one day in New York when a $58,000 fur coat falls out of the sky and lands on her head. Turns out it was thrown off a townhouse roof by filthy-rich investor J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), who was angry at his wife for buying such an expensive coat in the first place. Arthur tries to return the coat but ends up getting even more gifts showered upon her, which ironically leads to her losing her job. With Ray Milland soon in the mix as Arnold's rich-kid son trying to succeed on his own, the result is a delightful screwball full of the usual misunderstandings, coincidences and social satire, but delivered with an abundance of wit, clever plotting, and sharp dialogue.

Sturges was writing unhappily at this point; he'd much rather have been directing, but no studio would yet give him the chance. According to biographer Donald Spoto, Sturges spent his days hanging around in his Paramount office, taking long lunches and wandering about. His writing happened at home, "after dinner and several drinks," as he paced through the house acting out roles and ideas, and dictating to his assistant. This would go on until 4 or 5 am, and after a few hours' sleep, he would start all over again.

Mitchell Leisen was one of the few directors to come from the world of costume design and art direction, having worked on The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Sign of the Cross (1932) and other lavish Paramount productions of the 1920s and early '30s. As film historian John Baxter has written, "[Leisen's] work exhibits a faultless sense of design, a couturier's feeling for drapery, and an acid cynicism." While Leisen is not usually remembered as one of the top directors of the studio era, he did churn out quite a few very strong pictures including Midnight (1939), Remember the Night (1940, also written by Sturges), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), To Each His Own (1946), No Man of Her Own (1950), and the wonderfully oddball Murder at the Vanities (1934).

In Easy Living, Leisen injected more slapstick than was usual for him. "I was getting bored with the polite drawing room comedies I had been doing, and I decided to cut loose," he later explained. In his biographer's opinion, "Leisen's decision to interpolate slapstick also made the film stronger, because it gave him a visual element to work with in what was otherwise an all-talk script."

For a love scene between Jean Arthur and Ray Milland, Leisen was challenged by the Production Code: "We had to play the love scene with them both lying on this long couch in opposite directions and their heads meeting in the middle because that was the only way we could get it past the censors. There could be no physical contact outside of a kiss."

Leisen paid special attention to the shy and nervous Jean Arthur during pre-production, directing her wardrobe tests and even styling her hair, all as a way of making her feel more at ease. According to Leisen's assistant Eleanor Broder, "Everybody in Hollywood was always talking about how difficult Jean Arthur was to work with, but we didn't have any trouble with her at all. She was on the set on time every morning and she knew all her lines. She was painfully nervous and stuttered terribly through the rehearsals. But the minute the camera turned, she was fine, she became a completely different person, brash and sure of herself."

Arthur delivers an intelligent and breezy performance in Easy Living (Leisen was especially impressed by her "fabulous sense of timing"), but behind the scenes, the actress was engaged in a bitter fight with Columbia Studios chief Harry Cohn. Arthur was under contract to Columbia but was desperately unhappy with the films she had lately been assigned there. She declared her independence and decided to work on a freelance, film-by-film basis.

When Paramount signed her for Easy Living in March, 1937, Cohn became incensed and filed suit to prevent the film from going forward. Arthur's Columbia contract already allowed her to act in two outside films a year, however, so Easy Living was permitted to go on, but the matter of Arthur's contract was still in question. Cohn insisted that she still owed him three years; Arthur countersued in an attempt to get the contract terminated because the studio had not offered her satisfactory roles. Arthur stated in a deposition that when she signed with Columbia in 1933, "I told them that I would not go back into pictures just to make money. I wanted to make quality pictures and to amount to something, or else not be in the business." She added that "being forced to do the kind of things you are ashamed to do is about the worst ill treatment one can possibly go through." In the end, months after Easy Living was finished, Arthur and Cohn reconciled via the intervention of Frank Capra, her frequent director and Cohn's biggest.

Sturges based the hotel in Easy Living on the actual Waldorf Towers, which was a financial failure when it originally opened during the Depression but is now the crown jewel in the Waldorf-Astoria Collection of upscale hotels. In the supporting cast are future Preston Sturges staple William Demarest and ever-amusing comedy player Franklin Pangborn. Look fast for Marsha Hunt.

Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Preston Sturges; Vera Caspary (story)
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegte
Music: Frederick Hollander (uncredited)
Film Editing: Doane Harrison
Cast: Jean Arthur (Mary Smith), Edward Arnold (J.B. Ball/Bull of Broad St.), Ray Milland (John Ball, Jr.), Luis Alberni (Mr. Louis Louis), Mary Nash (Jenny Ball), Franklin Pangborn (Van Buren), Barlowe Borland (Mr. Gurney), William Demarest (Wallace Whistling).
BW-88m.

by Jeremy Arnold

Sources:
John Baxter, Hollywood in the Thirties
David Cherichetti, Hollywood Director
John Oller, Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew
Donald Spoto, Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges, Preston Sturges
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