Monday, February 22, 2010

Easy Living
(1937, d. Mitchell Leisen)

Saturday night my wife and I and the youngest took in Easy Living at the A.F.I. as a part of their tribute to Jean Arthur this February. Made in 1937 it was written by Preston Sturges who was still more than a couple of years away from directing his scripts and so directing duties fell to renowned Hollywood director Mitchell Leisen, director of such films as Death Takes a Holiday, To Each His Own and Captain Carey, U.S.A. among many, many others. And while the three of us enjoyed ourselves and the movie, it did leave me asking the question, "Can a comedy be too screwball?"

Apropos of the finest tradition of screwball comedy the plot is absurd in the extreme. Edward Arnold plays J.B. Ball, a wealthy banker whose son, John Ball, Jr., played by Ray Milland, doesn't want to be idly rich but instead work and earn his money so he stomps out on breakfast with his father after explaining this and we don't see him again until halfway through the movie excepting that in the meantime J.B.'s wife buys a $58,000 mink coat without asking and J.B. throws another of her coats out the window which lands on Mary's head (Jean Arthur) who tries to give it back but instead he buys her a fur hat and everyone thinks they're having an affair and then a hotel J.B.'s about to foreclose on puts her up as a guest thinking he won't foreclose if his mistress lives there and then she meets John working at the automat and he gets fired trying to give her free food and then somewhere, somehow, J.B.'s stocks crumble because Mary gets asked about steel and asks John and... (takes in deep breath)... Oh Christ, I don't know. Frankly, it's no more absurd than Libeled Lady or My Man Godfrey or The Awful Truth but it feels more absurd, or at least more frantic.

There's a breathlessness to the film that's expected from a screwball comedy but Mitchell Leisen makes the mistake of keeping the pitch at fever level from opening frame to last, not just in pace but in attitude. There's nary a moment in the film when the characters aren't yelling their lines and at least 50 percent of the film's total screentime involves pratfalls. I'm not kidding, at least half the movie involves long sequences of falls and foodfights and tumbles down stairs. Everyone falls all the time and when they're not falling, they're yelling about falling, or yelling that someone else yelled that they yelled about falling. You get the point. Yelling and falling. They're in ample supply throughout.

All the Preston Sturges trademarks are here, including a little sex, as well as character actors like William Demarest in a brief two minute role a couple of years before he would become a Sturges standby in the forties. What's not here is Preston Sturges the director, pulling on the reins tightly. Sturges movies were barely contained free-for-alls but they were contained. This one is just a free-for-all. Think about Sullivan's Travels or The Lady Eve and think about all the craziness that's broken up by all the non-craziness. In Sullivan's Travels there's the poolside scene, several moments on the bus, McCrea and Lake in Shantytown, at the diner and so on. Each wacky scene is broken up by three or four sedate scenes to draw the audience back into the story. But here there is one sedate scene that I recall, and only one. A brief scene in Mary's suite where she and John talk about life and work. For a couple of minutes. Then it's back to yelling and falling.

It seems strange to think Sturges would have made a difference as a director with the same script he himself wrote but bear with me. There are many scenes in the film that should be played sedately and aren't. There are scenes between J.B. and his wife Jenny (Mary Nash), in his office, or with his secretary in his office, that could've and should've been played straight but Leisen has them yell their lines throughout. I don't think Sturges would have made that choice and I think it was the direction of his scripts by people like Leisen that prompted Sturges to give a shot at directing himself. I believe Leisen was under the mistaken conclusion that for screwball to work it had to be played at the top of one's lungs. Sturges understood you have to pull it in so that the audience relaxes at which point you uncork the dam again and drown your audience in fits of laughter.

As for the acting, Jean Arthur walks away with the whole film, even though she appears in only roughly half of it (and Arnold's character the other half). Unlike Arnold and Milland and Nash, fine actors all who do fine work here as well, Arthur's character is the only one that doesn't yell very much and is given the time develop, at least a little bit, while everyone else bulges their eyes and busts their prats.

In the end, the three of us enjoyed it for what it was and certainly couldn't fault it on pacing or length. We had a nice night taking in a movie and a late dinner (pizza, for the curious) but I have a feeling the movie portion of our evening would have delighted us more had Mr. Sturges been behind the wheel. Maybe that's the mark of a great director, when all you can think about is how much better it would have been with him in charge. Leisen was a skilled and talented director no doubt, but the best director for a Sturges script, it turns out, is Sturges. Certainly something to talk about at least. Just don't yell.