Thursday, February 12, 2009
Eberle & I had a great deal of fun watching the 1937 film Easy Living the other night. This is screwball romantic comedy at its best, & the film (with screenplay by Preston Sturgis) easily ranks with our other favorites in that genre such as The Awful Truth, Vivacious Lady, Bringing Up Baby or You Can’t Take It With You. Classic film fans will of course be familiar with Sturgis name, both as a writer & a director—for those less familiar with the period, some other examples of his work are The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels & the 1948 Unfaithfully Yours. Even casual film buffs will also immediately recognize the three leads: Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold & Ray Milland, & will also be familiar with character actors such as Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest & Luis Alberni.
The acting by the entire ensemble is superb, & Milland is quite appealing as the poor little rich busboy who falls for Jean Arthur at first glance while clearing tables in an automat. Edward Arnold is also wonderful in his role as tycoon J.B. Ball; Arnold is always a strong actor (his career dates back to the silent era: he was an extra in the magnificent Lon Chaney film He Who Gets Slapped from 1924), & his character here is more of a blustery, comic bear than a ruthless power broker (as for instance in Mr Smith Goes to Washington). But in this appreciation of the film, I’m going to focus on Jean Arthur, who is without question one of my very favorite all-time actresses, & a comic actress I’d rank with greats like Irene Dunne & Myrna Loy.
Jean Arthur was major star thru the mid 1940s, & she’s still considered one of the great actresses of Hollywood’s golden era. She’s probably a bit less well known these days than she should be among the general public—like Irene Dunne, her name doesn’t have the recognition of Katherine Hepburn or Ginger Rogers. But while she was under contract to Columbia (a contract she reportedly hated—IMDB says that on the day the contract was up Arthur “reportedly ran through the studio's streets, shouting ‘I'm free, I'm free!’"), she was their number one actress in terms of box office. She was replaced in this role by Rita Hayworth—a dramatic shift there, & one that in some ways may have signaled a major change in the type of actress the American viewing public found most appealing.
Eberle & I discussed Jean Arthur’s appeal, & I thought she had some good insight into Arthur’s overall appeal & her comedic ability. Eberle said that Jean Arthur seems to draw her characterization directly from personal imagination, not from a store of typical characters. The way Jean Arthur moves, talks, gestures, her facial expressions are not only unerringly consistent with the character, they seem spontaneous & genuine because they’re generated from her imagination. Of course, this isn’t “naturalism”—it’s a long way from Easy Living to Robert Altman's Nashville—but it does give her characters a great deal of dimensionality. As is the case with Loy or Dunne, we can see the character’s life beyond the confines of the actual screenplay. I think this is why so much is made of Arthur’s “squeaky” voice as a part of her appeal (seems a number of folks point to the appeal of her voice as being a reason why her career didn’t take off when she was playing ingénues in the silent film era). My take on this is that her voice reinforces the perception that Jean Arthur’s characters have a real, or singular existence.
The ease with which Jean Arthur could embody a character (notwithstanding the fact that she reportedly suffered from severe stage fright thru most of her career), always immediately wins us to her side. Even in her role as Babe Bennett in the great Mr Deeds Goes to Town, we can see past her hard-boiled exterior & believe she really longs to atone for giving Gary Cooper’s Mr Deeds a raw deal. The same is true of her as Clarissa Saunders, the wisecracking cynical Washington insider who shouldn’t stand a chance in attracting Jimmy Stewart away from Astrid Allwyn’s glamorous Susan Paine. But of course, we immediately see Stewart’s Jefferson Smith would be crazy not to fall for Saunders. I liked what film critic Charles Champlin wrote about Jean Arthur
To at least one teenager in a small town (though I’m sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be — ought to be — judged by her spirit as well as her beauty… The notion of the woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur.
(from the LA Times: quoted on Wikipedia)
As Mary Nash in Easy Living, Arthur plays a character that’s more naïve than in either of the great Capra films mentioned earlier. But while Mary Nash isn’t as tough as Babe Bennett or Clarissa Saunders, she can crack wise with the best of them; & she has her own toughness. One example: as Nash & Edward Arnold’s J.B. Ball are having an increasingly heated (& surreal) discussion about compound interest the working girl blurts out, "You know, you don't have to get so mad, just because you're so stupid." The timing & choreography of the scene renders this as a big, hilarious punch line.
The main story revolves around Ball throwing his wife’s sable coat off a balcony, the coat landing on Nash, & Ball giving the coat to Arthur’s character—with no strings attached, tho a lot of people assume there are. Given this plot line, there is a certain risqué undercurrent—for instance the scene with Nash & Mr Louis Louis in the bedroom of the hotel suite he’s trying to give her (to ingratiate himself with his hotel’s mortgage-holder Ball) when she asks how much he’s going to pay her & Louis asks for what—Mary Nash says, “For whatever it is you want me to do.” There’s also the marvelous scene with Milland where they’re lying on a divan facing in opposite directions (this was done to satisfy the Production Code folks). Still, when Mary Nash springs awake, apparently allowing herself to become conscious of the situation, she says—wide-eyed & smiling—“Say!” It could mean anything. As Eberle pointed out, Arthur plays these scenes without resorting to a stereotypical seductive “pose”; we can read a number of other character traits, however: wit & insecurity, & capacities for desire & enjoyment.
Do yourself a favor & watch Easy Living. It’s a marvelous film (don’t miss the riotous automat scene, & don’t forget the renowned title tune by Ralph Rainger & Leo Robin); it’s available on Netflix, & may well be at your friendly corner video store. It’s not scheduled on TCM this month, but you can catch Jean Arthur (with Cary Grant) in The Talk of the Town (Wednesday 2/18, 9:15 a.m. Eastern), Arizona (Monday 2/23, 5:45 p.m. Eastern) or the fabulous Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Friday 2/27, 8:00 p.m. Eastern); & there’s the equally fabulous Mr Deeds Goes to Town on March 3rd at 3:45 a.m! Set your DVRs now.