Even though I could sense Preston Sturges’ directorial hand was just what his script for Easy Living (1937) needed at some points, I still thought Mitchell Leisen did a good job. The story of a poor girl, Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), becoming suddenly rich (or at least suddenly experiencing some aspects of being rich) after a sable coat accidentally lands on her head, has a familiar taste to it for any Sturges fan. The thrower is J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold): “a Bull of Broad Street” (or “a ball of Bull Street”, as his moniker is being mispronounced at one point): an ultra-rich, stingy banker throwing fits over the spending excesses of his wife (Mary Nash). When he sees her buy a $58,000 coat, he throws it off the balcony (earlier on, he suggested replacing butter with lard, so it’s not the scale of the expenses that get to him – it’s their frequency). When he tells Mary she can keep the coat, the word gets out that he “went pfoot with his wife over a beautiful girl”, and all hell breaks loose.
Mary is receptive to the wealth being thrown her way, but she doesn’t go head over heels about it. She doesn’t grab at things; she’s selective (car, yes; jewelry, no; fur coat, “I already got a fur coat!”). Even though she is (and admits to be at one point) a dope, she’s not aggressive in her dumbness: she always tries to figure things out, even as she remains blatantly immune to even the most clear forms of reasoning (J.B: “Imagine! A farmer burrows one hundred cows…”). In fact, Mary’s dumbness serves almost as a certificate of her integrity: the opposite of Judy Holliday’s case in Born Yesterday (1950), where integrity grows with every slice of dumbness being peeled off.
The one thing I really minded was Ray Milland’s blandness in some moments. I guess it’s not fair on my part, but I missed Joel McCrea’s fury in his performance. I couldn’t help to agree with Mary when she made her slip and said to him: “You’re just a little underdeveloped, that’s all”. I much prefer Milland in The Major and the Minor (1942) and The Lost Weekend (1945).
As it’s usually the case with Sturges writing, there are single lines here that sent me through the roof, namely: “Go and fry yourself in lard, you dirty capitalist swine, you!”, and an angry denial of complicity with Mary Smith by one Louis Louis (Luis Alberni): “I don’t want to be complicated!”. Not to mention my absolute favorite: the name of the periodical Mary works for at the beginning - "Boy's Constant Companion" - being mistakingly named by J.B. as "Boy's Constant Reminder".
Overall, the script for Easy Living seems to be a first try-on for a full-blown “accidental wealth” comedy that will arrive with Christmas in July (1940). But it’s still a very satisfying movie in its own right. And Mary’s efforts to break a piggy bank with a heel of her shoe (she misses the first time, and when she succeedes there are no coins to be found among the cracked pieces) made me think of the slapstick tour de force to come, when Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) will try (11 years later) to follow through his elaborate plan to kill his “unfaithful” wife.