While on her way to work Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) and her hat are clobbered by a defenestrated fur coat. As she goes knocking on doors hoping to return the valuable garment she’s flagged down by the owner J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) who insists that she keep the coat and that he purchase her a new hat. While out running this errand a busybody salesman spies them together and begins a rumor that Smith is the new mistress of the financial titan. While all of the details regarding Ball’s identity are unknown to Mary Smith, these rumors set in motion a series of events that will forever change her life.
Easy Living (1937) is a Great Depression era screwball comedy written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen. It was the first film that Sturges wrote in a multi-picture deal with Paramount. The film functions as much as an escapist fantasy as it does a romantic comedy as it handles two linked plots centered on the Jean Arthur character Mary Smith. This dual kind of storytelling is common in Leisen’s films and suggests the filmmaker’s interest in the social issues of his time.
On the one hand Easy Living is a rags to riches story while on the other its a film about a girl who meets a boy and falls in love, despite the many mistaken identities, half-truths, and wild coincidences that plague her every move. Sturges’ script plows along with his patented witty banter and anarchist slapstick that lampoons every major institution (the automat, boy’s magazines and the stock market) Mary Smith encounters. But it’s Leisen’s direction that gives screen time to peripheral players and builds up a sense of the worlds in which Mary Smith exists (upper class and working class milieus). By doing this Leisen turns these bit players into an “everyman” that exists all around the featured characters thus inviting the Depression era viewer to believe that the fantasy of Easy Living is both plausible and possible.
Despite the titanic personalities and styles of both Sturges and Leisen Easy Living is Jean Arthur’s film. Arthur is entirely at ease in front of the camera without any of the practiced posturing of a Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis. Arthur’s smile, her voice cracks and her squeaky little laugh all feel entirely genuine and reactive in the moment. The inherent naturalism of Arthur’s screen presence juxtaposes the cartoonish contortions of her male co-stars Edward Arnold, Ray Milland and Luis Alberni. While they clown around oafishly (but not without charm) Arthur reacts like any reasonable person would. Her role in this equation is purposeful and not dissimilar to that of James Stewart in You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Stewart and Arthur were the golden age of Hollywood’s reflection of the common every day American (which may account for their chemistry). They were the proxies through which Americans lived vicariously and beyond the hardships of the thirties.
This kind of representation of the working class American everyman became par for the course in Sturges’ subsequent works though rarely in the form of a female character. Unlike Mitchell Leisen, Sturges’ films are far more male centric. On those occasions that Sturges centers a film around a woman she is often a reiteration of Mary Smith. The opposite is true of Leisen’s work where Mary Smith is a variation on a protagonist in a reiteration of an anti-capitalist, anti-high society narrative. Of course one kind of storytelling isn’t better than the other, but it’s an intriguing contrast within the works of two of the seminal filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age.