Director, Mitchell Leisen; Screenplay, Preston Sturges; Producer, Arthur Hornblow, Jr.(Paramount); Cinematography, Ted Tetzlaff; Editing, Doane Harrison; Art Direction, Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté: Costumes, Travis Banton
Cast: Jean Arthur (Mary Smith), Edward Arnold (J.B. Ball), Ray Milland (John Ball, Jr.), Luis Alberni (Louis Louis), Mary Nash (Jenny Ball), Franklin Pangborn (Van Buren), Barlowe Borland (Mr. Gurney), William Demarest (Wallace Whistling), Andrew Tombes (E.J. Hulgar), Ester Dale (Lillian), Harlan Briggs (Mr. Higginbottom)
“Wherever there’s smoke … there’s someone smoking.”
Easy Living was the beginning of a wonderful partnership between Preston Sturges and Paramount that would last only about six years, but in that short time they would produce many classic films. Of course Paramount wasn’t always thrilled by the power of the screenwriter, later writer-director. Though they clashed, often bitterly, there is no denying that Preston Sturges brought a unique voice and point of view to the rigidly standardized studio system of the 1930s and 1940s, but convincing Paramount to allow him to direct The Great McGinty in 1940. Over the next four years he wrote and directed seven films all of which can be considered classics like The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero, The Palm Beach Story, and Sullivan’s Travels.
Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay for Easy Living, his first job at Paramount after receiving an unprecedented deal from Adolf Zukor for a screenwriter. (It was something like $17,500 a week plus a percentage of profits.) The witty screwball comedy wonders what happens to an average young working girl when fortune falls into her lap.
Banking magnate J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) flies into a rage when he discovers his wife spent more than $50,000 for a fur coat. Over the course of their heated argument, Ball tosses the coat over the edge of their patio onto the street below. The coat lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) as she sits minding her own business in an open air bus. This simple accidents leads to a series of misunderstandings leading many to believe Mary is the mistress of the powerful financier Ball. Without any understanding of what is going on, Mary begins receiving gifts from people trying to ingratiate themselves with Ball. Soon she has a luxury apartment in a swanky hotel, a car with a chauffeur, jewels, and, of course, that fateful fur.
Things however get even more complicated when she meets and falls in love with John (Ray Milland). John appears to be just another working stiff, but what Mary doesn’t know is her new beau is actually the son of J.B. Ball out in the world to try and make it on his own without the benefit of his father’s name. (And we can imagine how he would be treated if people know he is Ball’s son considering how Mary is treated as a mere mistress.)
This is a sharp satire of the vicissitudes of modern capitalism. Sure we’d all like to believe the Horatio Alger myth – that hard work will turn the poorest of the poor into millionaires – but the reality is less romantic. Success falls into Mary’s lap (almost literally). But it isn’t as if we see Ball working all that hard himself. He shouts orders into phones about what to sell and buy, but over the course of the picture, we see it isn’t always about his knowledge or know-how. It’s about how the market can be manipulated and deceived. This is hardly a system set up to benefit society – a lesson audiences were probably receptive to after eight years of depression. (And one we should consider a little more closely today.) For all the promises of capitalism, the reality is less idealistic. Luckily for us Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen found the reality hilarious.