Easy Living

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Luis Alberni.

I’ve seen plenty of Easy Living title confusion in TV-listing screwups over the years, so let’s clarify. This version, here on a welcome new Blu-ray from Kino Classics, is Mitchell Leisen directing a great screwball cast in Preston Sturges’ first full-fledged comedy script; its title tune, heard here instrumentally, became a minor jazz standard when lyrics were added and was a big hit at the time for Billie Holiday. And then there was the alternative: 1949’s same-namer about professional football in which Jacques Tourneur directed Victor Mature and Sonny Tufts in jockstraps, though (the Production Code being what it was) this is not something we actually see. No Billie Holiday tie-in was forthcoming, though Moanin’ Low might have worked.

The 1937 Sturges-Leisen take is clearly superior (though the ’49 isn’t awful; Liz Scott, Lucille Ball and even Jack Paar are in it, too). But beyond the movie at hand’s madcap plot about a menial magazine employee whose life changes when a sable coat drops on her head, the earlier film has all the built-in art/set genius from the studio house pros who made Paramount films so much more interesting than their MGM counterparts in the black-and-white ’30s. And compounding this, we have Leisen, who was a standout production designer on his own before moving to directing (helping to achieve the “look” of the early Cecil DeMille pictures wasn’t a bad preliminary attention-getter on to have on your resumé).

Trouble is, some famous writer/director names — Sturges and, more famously, Billy Wilder — thought that was all he was, and it’s pretty well accepted history that Wilder was finally motivated to turn director over Leisen’s tinkering with the Wilder-Charles Brackett dialogue on 1941’s lovely Hold Back the Dawn (a recent Blu-ray from Arrow, and a long-coveted one). This hurt Leisen’s reputation in a trickle-down sort of way until revisionists later stepped in to even things out a bit.

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Personally, I’ve never seen what the fuss was all about. Leisen lacked the ultimate razor-sharpness and did too many clunkers to qualify as a Wilder or Sturges, but when your output includes Midnight, Remember the Night, Hold Back the Dawn, Frenchman’s Creek (you should see this in a 35mm three-strip nitrate, as I have), Kitty, To Each His Own, No Man of Her Own, The Mating Season and some other comedies I haven’t mentioned, naysayers would be better off casting their stones with the velocity of a knuckleball. Even 1949’s loopy Bride of Vengeance, which did its best to screech-halt more than one major career, gave me a better time than expected, while the Sweet Marijuana number from the barely pre-code Murder at the Vanities wasn’t just a singular moment in movie history but a role model for my generation.

There’s no cannabis in Living, nor is there even much drinking, though an automat figures in one full-scale melee (probably the picture’s most famous scene) that’s kind of a cross between the knockout physical humor we’d later see in the Sturges-directed farces and that longshot hilarity in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria in which agitated restaurant patrons begin scratching bug itches in St. Vitus form. The automat employs the Ray Milland character, but he isn’t anything like the film’s focus, at least for a while. But his father (Edward Arnold) is a Wall Street titan, the third-biggest banker in New York. In a fit of pique generated by huge frivolous expenditures by both wife and son, he tosses the former’s plush coat out of their ritzy residence in-town residence, whereupon it floats down several floors and onto the head of an innocent played by Jean Arthur as she sits in an upstairs public bus seat.

In fallout that anticipates the remarkably prescient Garson Kanin-Ruth Gordon-George Cukor It Should Happen to You released 16 years later (leaving aside countless real-life examples from today), Arthur then becomes, as we say today, famous for being famous. In her defense, she’s plainly guileless over what happens to her, and even were she more aware, she’d be plainly mortified. Instead, Arthur is mystified that clothing concerns want to give her even more duds on credit, that car makers offer her gratis limos because they want her to be seen driving it and that a going-bankrupt upscale hotel proprietor (hysterically funny Luis Alberni, the movie’s secret weapon) wants to put her up in the suite that one might have reserved for, say, Clark Gable or Shirley Temple. It even has an ornate sunken bathtub in which Shirley could float models of The Good Ship Lollipop.

There is, of course, more to this, thanks to a series of confused assumptions that are part and parcel of screwball comedy — as is the insane behavior by most of the principal and subordinate characters, who additionally don’t seem to be affected too much by the Depression. In this case, the mistaken assumption is that Arthur must be Arnold’s mistress and that it might be a good idea to stay on her good side. The entire plot shebang is very much in keeping with what several of the later Sturges-directed masterpieces at Paramount would be, what with protagonists who could go from hero to bum, bum to hero and back again in a zip. Think The Great McGinty, Hail the Conquering Hero or Sullivan’s Travels, in which Joel McCrea becomes, if not a literal bum, a literal hobo. (When I was in my short-lived career as a Cub Scout — short-lived because I Pledged the Allegiance to Elvis Presley at a pack meeting — my assistant den mother once explained to me that there was a distinction that a hobo was more than willing to work if food and a place to sleep called for it.)

Film historian Kat Ellinger, who’s getting a lot of work lately, is in for the commentary, covering most of what’s been mentioned here and a lot more. Her speaking voice isn’t exactly the female answer to Ronald Colman’s, but her instincts are sharp and her film knowledge wide. I was curious to hear Ellinger speaking of the great friendship between Milland and Leisen, who was a married bisexual but later more openly gay; the two apparently even competed in two-person yachting waggers. The only reason this struck me is that I can swear hearing on some recent Blu-ray commentary that Milland was something of a homophobe and that it had some kind of adverse effect on one of his co-stars. Oh, well: the only thing that matters in the end are the pictures, and the two made several together. Oddly, the director’s career best were non-Milland’s, excepting Kitty (a period romp I’ve liked since I was a kid, with arguably Paulette Goddard’s best role and performance).

Kino’s release isn’t one of those 4K jobs of a ’30s movie like, say, Criterion’s My Man Godfrey or the Sony Frank Capra digital spiff-ups that are like tube-riding the tallest slide in the waterpark, but it’ll give young idea of the elegant gloss that was Paramount back in the day — and back in the day when a budding generation of enthusiasts grew up with them on TV from the late ’50s through the middle ’60s. Easy Living really does impress me as a movie Depression escapists would have loved for its portrayal of a humble working woman who suddenly has riches thrown into her lap, especially if the theater’s air conditioning were working to make it a really relaxing night out.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’ and ‘Easy Living’

The Whole Town’s Talking

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

 Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur.

Released during one of John Ford’s typically hectic ’30s years where he also directed Steamboat Round the Bend at Fox and The Informer at RKO, 1935’s The Whole Town’s Talking (from Columbia) is more obscure than it ought to be because it is so full of … well, talking points. For starters — and in addition to being a rare Ford comedy against a backdrop contemporary to its filming — it’s a Ford mistaken-identity comedy movie that plays like a Frank Capra vehicle, and there are reasons for that.

The screenwriters here were Jo Swerling (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Robert Riskin (10 Capra’s, including most of the big ones spanning The Miracle Worker to Meet John Doe), working at Capra’s home studio for Harry Cohn, a bully it would have been fun to see in the same room with future Rear Adm. Ford. The female lead, charged with playing opposite two Edward G. Robinsons, is Jean Arthur, in the role that finally put her over with critics and audiences at age 34, though she had made her Cameo Kirby screen debut way back in 1923 (for, as symmetry would have it, Ford). And Arthur would soon become the actress most identified with Capra, what with the soon-to-follow Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the first two with Riskin screenplays). Are you putting this all together? Take a cleansing breath.

The other talking point is the picture’s employment of trick photography in what then must have been pretty close to a state-of-the-art rendering because it’s still pretty effective, even in a Talking print that’s not exactly immaculate but cleaner by far than any I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of techno-storytelling that Ford usually eschewed, possibly because there’d come a time in the filmmaking process where, by definition, he might have something less than total control once the lab guys took over. So this is definitely an oddity, though one not likely to be viewed as such by the great unwashed who prefer just to view a movie as a movie and enjoy being tickled by its gimmick.

Which is: That lowly advertising clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones (Robinson I) bears an uncanny physical resemblance to escaped con “Killer” Manion, whose every move rates banner headlines in the local papers, the way they always do in vintage gangster pics. Jones is meek, though with a very occasional devilish streak — living alone in a modest apartment with a cat, caged bird and an on-the-wall glossy of Wilhemina (“Bill”) Clark (Arthur), devilishly stolen from the office. Manion is just about what you’d assume and what audiences of the day wanted: the “do it my way, see” Robinson who wouldn’t surprise anyone — censors aside — if he referred to the Virgin Mary as a “mug.”

Arthur is finally her prototypical self on screen, and I’d be curious to know if, after a long apprenticeship, this sudden but permanent locking-in of what became her screen persona had anything to do with Ford directing. Here, she’s the one woman in a less than glamorous office of guys (note Ford’s opening shot of the lousy working ambience) and also one of the guys — though least one co-worker pest is hitting on her and there’s the unrequited crush that Jones/Robinson has (hence the stolen picture). Arthur’s character is a wisecracker all the way and cares little if she’s late to work, even in an office run by martinets when it comes to punctuality. Friendly enough toward Jones, the meek clerk is still not anyone who’s particularly on her mind. Meanwhile, and as befitting the “Killer” moniker, this alternative Eddie G. doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities, though Julie Kirgo does a good job in the Twilight Time liner notes noting certain similarities between these two male principals without forcing the issue (and, in fact, they hadn’t occurred to me).

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According to Kirgo and other sources, Robinson was in a career slump when the Warners lent him out for this project, a slide this film’s popularity abated. By 1935, he had branched out a lot since his career-launching Little Caesar days, even at one point donning Chinese makeup for The Hatchet Man. But it’s also true that ’35 was the first full year that the Production Code had teeth (or yellowed dentures, if you prefer), and it also found James Cagney himself moving to the right side of the law as the lead in Warner’s scrappy G-Men and a new tendency to treat gangsters as comical subjects. Audiences for Talking got satisfied both ways with  the sweet Robinson they couldn’t often enjoy (think, say, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes for another example) and the prototypical “do it my, way, see” kind of tough guy that Robinson was even spoofing in the ’60s on his Maxwell House Coffee commercials. He was such a subtly versatile actor that there were a couple of personas left that don’t show up here: the no-nonsense ball of competence (that would be Double Indemnity) and whatever it is that he’s doing in The Ten Commandments (a performance I love because I go into convulsions from the time he first shows up in VistaVision).

So though I find Talking more on the mild side than a lot of its enthusiasts do (I prefer Steamboat and the fallen-from-grace The Informer, to be honest), there’s no question that Ford has a lot of fun with this yarn — whose plot contrivances at various points force the meek Robinson to pretend that he’s the malevolent one and vice versa. The supporting cast is filled with several familiar faces as cops or other spoofable figures of authority (Arthur Hohl, James Donlan, Paul Harvey), while Stagecoach’s Donald Meek has a very funny bit as a pest who keeps trying to collect a reward for having spurred the police to arrest the wrong man.

For those who like to follow the trajectories of actor-director teamings, we get Edward Brophy working for Ford as the two-timing minor hood that Manion wants to rub out above all else; two decades later, Brophy ended his big screen career with the best role he ever had in Ford’s adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah (it, too, a recent Twilight Time release). According to Kirgo, Robinson and Ford (the latter a near-sociopathic needler) got along during the making of the picture, which certainly puts Robinson in an exclusive club. By all accounts, the actor was one of the nicest guys around, and this would seem to ice the assertion.

Mike’s Picks: ‘At the Drive-In’ and ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’

A Lady Takes a Chance

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jean Arthur, John Wayne, Charles Winninger.

Maybe it’s not the rollicking pairing that John Wayne and somewhat sassier Ginger Rogers might have been had screen-teaming history played out in a different casting universe, but John Wayne and Jean Arthur will do just fine, thank you. She agreeably melts Wayne in 1943’s moderately obscure but easy-to-take A Lady Takes a Chance, as was, of course, her style.

Sometimes your eyes can glaze over when racing through IMDb.com credit listings or the monthly TCM schedule and synergetic “possibilities” glide by without burning into the brain. So in this case, then, you might not slow down enough to stop and think, “Wayne and Arthur?” (though it was really “Arthur and Wayne” because she was still the bigger name in the early ’40s) before the light bulb going off over the head serves up a reminder that we didn’t get this everyday. This is why I decided to take my first look in a long time at this wartime romantic comedy against a 1938 setting, though the fact that Kino’s Blu-ray is advertised as a 4K scan of the nitrate original negative and “fine grain” was certainly another factor. And the presentation here is, indeed, sharp and detailed — so much so that we can see that Arthur (about 42 here) is wearing a lot of makeup and that Wayne (about 35) is almost too old for his role. No sweat.

This is also the only movie you’ll ever see where Wayne and Grady Sutton are romantic rivals for Arthur (or anyone else, I would think) — or one where Sutton and a playing-it-straight Hans Conried are competitive for her as well, at least in their own minds. Even Phil Silvers, amid his bus company meet-and-greet role on the tour that Arthur is taking, gives her the eyeball. Not exactly a night with the Chippendales crew.

At this point, Wayne was about four years beyond Stagecoach but not yet the superstar that Red River made him. Still, he was on the heavy upswing and working all over the place: Republic, Paramount, Universal and even at MGM for Reunion in France with Joan Crawford and future Blacklistee Jules Dassin (what the hell was that about?). Lady was an independent release produced by Arthur’s husband, Frank Ross, for United Artists release — and as in a lot of indies of the day, the trappings are minimal: a bus interior, saloon, a rodeo venue (or as Wayne says here, “ro-DAY-o”); Duke digs that make Elvis’s first rented room after he gets out of the slammer in Jailhouse Rock look lavish; and an outdoor set where both stars, sidekick Charles Winninger (in jeans, no less) and a horse can sleep under the stars.

Curiously, the three top-billed actors here all had connections to John Ford (maybe the horse did, too). Wayne’s link is obvious, but Arthur’s first screen appearance had been in Ford’s 1923 Cameo Kirby. And quite a bit later, her semi-breakthrough movie (as opposed to her major one in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town when she was already in her mid-30s) was in Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking. Even Winninger landed one of the best roles of his career for the director when Ford cast him in 1953’s The Sun Shines Bright, the remake of the director’s own Judge Priest with Will Rogers. This movie isn’t on the same level of cinematic interest, but despite all the programmers he got stuck in during a long career, Lady’s William A. Seiter was admired by some for his comic dexterity, and anyone who directed Laurel & Hardy in Sons of the Desert will never get the full diss from me.

Basically, Lady is almost all actor charm taking us from the leads’ dramatic meet-up to the point where even Laurel & Hardy would have been brainy enough to figure out where Arthur and Wayne are predestined to land. It’s interesting to watch Wayne underplaying and not once blowing his romantic stack to great degree, even when he’s forced out of the room he’s taken Arthur up to for surprisingly up-front intentions (given those Hays Office times). As mentioned, it’s not much of a room, and a realist wouldn’t give this relationship much of that chance its lady is taking. This is because the still-handsome Wayne is well past his Big Trail youthful look, and time isn’t on your side in the rodeo profession. There’s no heed taken here for that black-and-blue Junior Bonner syndrome, and Wayne looks pretty free of scars, healed bone-breakage or the psychological toll it has to have taken when you’ve been sleeping for too many years next to a campfire and Charles Winninger. And yet: Romantic fantasy or not, Wayne represents one a woman might want to indulge in when the alternative is waking up in some Niagara Falls honeymoon suite with Grady Sutton and an empty bottle of Thunderbird.

As it turned out, the seriously camera-shy Arthur had only three features and a short-lived TV series to go in her screen career — and this over a long period. Wayne, meanwhile, spent a lot of the next couple years going the full World War II route (on screen, at least) with The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable, which did a lot for his popularity. Thus, this good-natured little comedy (coming right off an Arthur big one: The More the Merrier) does capture a moment, just as its story tries to do. Ever mindful of 1943 world events, a statement in its opening credits makes a big deal of the story’s 1938 backdrop — a time when there’d been no gas or tire rationing and a courting couple or anyone could drive all over the Western rodeo circuit.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Cleopatra’ (1934) and ‘A Lady Takes a Chance’