Easy Living Review

Before Preston Sturges went on a creative winning streak Hollywood still hasn't seen the likes of since, he was crafting Broadway shows and screenplays. Enticed by movie money, his tenure out west was spent bouncing around different studios, notably Universal and Paramount, until landing at the latter. He initially was assigned to polish others' work, tweaking dialogue and doing some uncredited writing on things like The Invisible Man and Twentieth Century. By 1933, Sturges' first real solo writing effort, the Fox drama The Power and the Glory starring Spencer Tracy, hit cinemas and was a success. Its structure has even been cited as an influence on Citizen Kane. More creative freedom followed, allowing the writer to hone his screenwriting skills on lesser-known pictures like Hotel Haywire and If I Were King.

Out of the handful of screenplays he did on his own, a scant few of the films have been made available on DVD, with William Wyler's The Good Fairy being the most prominent until recently. Otherwise, probably the two best Sturges screenplays where he didn't direct were both helmed by Mitchell Leisen. Remember the Night, a 1940 Christmastime romantic comedy starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, both comparatively benign in relation to Double Indemnity, is a sweet movie, but defangs some of Sturges' humour to better position itself as a love story. Likewise, Easy Living, the borderline screwball comedy recently released in R1 by Universal and starring Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, and a young Ray Milland, plays like a battle between writer and director over whether the viewer should laugh or swoon.

Universal must feel Sturges is an established enough name to sell DVD's, as his "written by" credit is prominently featured at the bottom right hand corner of the Easy Living cover. Leisen's name is nowhere to be found and I'm guessing Sturges is chuckling to himself over that somewhere in the great beyond. Like his fellow Paramount screenwriter Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges insisted on directing his own scripts as a result of disagreements with Leisen. Both writers were displeased with Leisen's interpretation of their screenplays. Perhaps because of this, Leisen hasn't generally been regarded too highly in the pantheon of comedy directors from the studio era, and he's probably more associated with pictures in the romance genre than any other. In reading several reviews and comments of both this release and the simultaneous one for Midnight, I've noticed the trend to lift Leisen up as though he's an auteur in need of critical rescue. None of that here. I'm largely of the belief that every movie Leisen directed written (or co-written) by Sturges or Wilder, with the possible exception of Midnight, would have been better off had the writer been behind the camera. Leisen's style here is artificial and creaky, completely out of step with the pacing of the screenplay. He turns Easy Living from a potentially great example of the prototypical Sturges comedy to a film mostly full of missed opportunities.

The director seems more interested in showcasing a lavish and elaborate hotel suite, perhaps from his days working in art direction, than framing Sturges' signature physical comedy for maximum impact. That's the main problem with both Leisen as director and Easy Living in particular. He just doesn't seem to understand Sturges' humour or the pace necessary to fully firebomb the audience with these gags. Leisen's plodding direction, despite the film running only 88 minutes, is why I hesitate to even classify it as a screwball comedy. The film is a somewhat languid exercise in how to mishandle a great screenplay, which measures at least near the '40s comedies Sturges wrote and directed. In Leisen's hands, the film is comparatively inferior. It's not the acting, either, as the three principal stars are all enjoyably game for Sturges' social commentary bathed in silliness. Ray Milland, in particular, excels as Edward Arnold's ne'er-do-well son and Jean Arthur's love interest. They first meet in an automat, that bastion of industrial city efficiency immortalised by an Edward Hopper painting that in no way resembles what we see here. This scene alone tells you everything you need to know about both writer and director in relation to the film.

With the Depression still biting at Americans' quality of life and the divide between rich and poor a growing concern, Sturges used what would become favourite subjects in his later films, chance and discrepancy of power, to create an innocent and entertaining comment on social class. He'd later reach an apex on this topic with Sullivan's Travels, but, for now, the ambition is less lofty. Jean Arthur's Mary Smith, prior to meeting up with Milland in that automat, finds herself walking on a New York sidewalk, blanketed by a fallen fur coat. It ruins her feathered hat and delays her commute, but she lets the man who's responsible (Edward Arnold) make amends by giving her the coat and a new hat. From there, it's a zigzag of controlled chaos in pure Sturges fashion, as Mary ends up invited to stay in a swank hotel suite based on a misunderstanding, but also fired from her job at a boys' magazine. She can't even afford the meal at the automat so enter John Ball, Jr. (Milland), who's taken a job there despite his father's considerable wealth. This little episode culminates in a slapstick food fight free-for-all that's still charming, but not the laugh out loud centrepiece it would have been in the hands of a more capable director. Leisen instead makes the choice at one point to focus the camera on lower torsos. It's an opportunity half-wasted.

Luckily, Sturges' story keeps on moving. Mary has no idea that John Jr.'s father is the same man who gave her the fur coat, or that he's of enormous power and money. I generally like Jean Arthur, but I'm not sure this kind of cluelessly cute role plays to her strengths. Her performance is fine, but she sort of seems too intelligent not to connect the dots. Milland, by contrast, plays dumb perfectly! It's unexpected to see an actor normally associated with more suave roles in a part befitting Sturges favourite Eddie Bracken. Speaking of that stock company, William Demarest shows up all too briefly as a gossip columnist who links the elder Ball (a name Sturges uses to double entendre effect at least once) to Mary. Somehow, some way, an economic crisis emerges from all this mistaken identity nonsense. A classic screwball tenet is that misunderstanding leads to madcap antics, used to great benefit by Sturges here, and, really, the whole film is built around repeated instances of confusion.

This normally translates into laughter instead of seeming like an impediment to the art design. Spending unnecessary screen time ogling a hotel suite bath tub is way down the list in terms of hilarity, but it seems to be Leisen's primary interest. He just doesn't appear concerned with exploiting the script's ample humour or trusting Sturges' comic instincts. Another example of this is early on when Mary visits her office and smashes a framed picture over her boss's head. Instead of milking the potential laughter, Leisen cuts to the reaction outside the door much too quickly. It's horribly bad use of comedic timing. Anything accomplished by Sturges' script is downplayed by Leisen. As it is, Easy Living is a potentially excellent film sidled with direction that fails to accentuate the funniest moments of a classic screenplay. Others find Leisen to be more than capable with comedy, but I don't see it. He instead seems to be shooting the film like it was a pure romance. Easy Living is the ultimate example of how he could mishandle nearly perfect material and end up with a film inferior to its screenplay. It's no doubt still worth watching and a largely enjoyable, if slightly frustrating experience, but it could have and should have been even better.

The Disc

Universal releases Easy Living as part of their "Cinema Classics" line in R1. Video quality is basically fine for a film over 70 years old. There are, however, some light damage marks and ample amounts of grain. A few scratches and white speckles are unavoidable. The full frame image wobbles a little from time to time, as is common with transfers of films this old. Still, this is a generally acceptable, progressive transfer, maybe with some room for improvement. The disc is dual-layered and contrast is somewhere near adequate, but unimpressive. I hate to be too harsh on the quality here because these are the kinds of films Universal has largely been sitting on for years and there's nothing that should prevent any lover of '30s comedies from jumping on the disc right away, especially at such a reasonable price.

Audio is presented in a two-channel English Dolby Digital mono track. It sounds quite good, actually. A faint hiss may be heard, but it's not persistent, and any pops or crackles are low in the audio. I had no problem with the dialogue, which comes through clearly and at a consistent and strong level of volume. Subtitles are provided in French and English for the hearing impaired. They are white in colour.

The only extra is a short introduction (2:00) from Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, who provides a few brief comments typical of his intros on TCM. It's not much, but it is better than nothing. After it finishes playing, the movie begins automatically. Inside the case, there's a four-page TCM insert featuring Universal classic DVD releases.

Even with my criticisms of Leisen's direction, this is still a welcome release from Universal that's seemed long overdue. It's close to must-have status for fans of Preston Sturges or 1930s comedies.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:18:10

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