Preston Sturges was one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters when Easy Living was released in 1937, and even if he didn't direct the picture – in spite of his constant pleas to be allowed to make his own film – it has the makings of a Sturges movie from the first pratfall, which would be Edward Arnold's tumble down the staircase of his mansion. Arnold plays J.B. Ball – the third-richest banker in America, the "Bull of Broad Street" – but he's the sort of millionaire who commands no respect from his staff, his wife or his son: a perfect Sturges plutocrat, given to displays of conspicuous parsimony, a gilded lump of clay set up to be knocked about, like everyone else in his world.
Ball begins his day by arguing with his listless son John Jr. (Ray Milland), who storms out of the house declaring his intention to make his own way in the world without his father's money. Things get even better when he finds the bill for his wife's latest fur coat; their raging argument – loaded with more pratfalls – takes them to the roof of their Park Avenue home, where Ball throws the fur off the roof.
It lands in the open top of a double decker bus, crushing the feather on the hat of a young woman on her way to work. Mary (Jean Arthur) is the sort of person who will get off the bus and try to find the owner of the fur, which sets up the film's moral dynamic even before she tries to return it to Ball. Like any capricious rich man who only seconds before was brawling with his chef over using lard instead of butter, he insists that Mary not only keep the coat, but takes her to a fancy hat shop to replace her battered chapeau.
If you need to be convinced that this is, at least by conception, a Sturges picture, wait until a brief exchange, after Mary pulls the fur coat off her head and demands "Say – what's the big idea, anyway?" of a man in a turban sitting behind her reading a book.
"Kismet," the man says, and turns back to his book.
Kismet indeed. It would be another couple of years before Preston Sturges finally got the chance to direct his own script, a famous deal that saw Paramount buy the script for a dollar (actually ten dollars for accounting purposes) in exchange for Sturges' big break behind the camera. It was a good deal for the studio – The Great McGinty was a hit, winning Sturges an Oscar for his screenplay and beginning a run of hit comedies (Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero) that only ended with The Great Moment, a flop about (I kid you not) the inventor of anesthesia.
People like writing books about Sturges; he was working on one of his own, wryly titled The Events Leading Up to My Death, when he died of a heart attack in New York's Algonquin Hotel in 1959. (It would eventually come out in 1990 with the much less amusing title of Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in Words. It's the sort of thing that he'd make into an ego-deflating gag in his movies.)
If you'd had a life like Sturges, you'd want to write about it, too. He got his surname from his stepfather – his real father, a traveling salesman named Mr. Biden, was deemed insufficiently rich or glamorous by his mother.
"He was five feet seven, reportedly expert on the trapeze," writes James Curtis in Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges. "He parted his hair in the middle and drank excessively. He called Preston's mother, the former Mary Dempsey, 'Mamie,' a name she hated, and played the banjo, an instrument Mary abhorred even more than her nickname."
His mother was a piece of work; Mary Dempsey considered her birth name insufficiently glamorous, so she concocted a story that made it a corruption of D'Este, and replaced her Irish lineage with an Italian aristocrat who ended up on the lam in Ireland. Mary set up shop as a parfumier in Paris with the name, but was sued by some real D'Estes, so she changed it to Desti and did business under it for the rest of her life.
"Anything she said three times she believed fervently," Sturges said of his mother. "Often twice was enough."
Mary Desti quickly moved on from the banjo-playing Mr. Biden and eventually married Solomon Sturges, a sporty Chicago stockbroker, who adopted Preston and gave him his name. Sturges adored his stepfather despite his occasionally indifferent treatment of the boy, and it's hard not to see the echoes of this kind, hapless, distracted rich man in the comic millionaires who'd populate his films.
The young Preston didn't end up spending much time with Mr. Sturges, trailing in his mother's wake all over Europe after she became a confidante and acolyte of the dancer Isadora Duncan. (It was Mary who painted the silk scarf that Duncan was wearing when it wrapped around the wheel of her Bugatti and broke her neck.) Mary also had an affair with Satanist Aleister Crowley and co-authored one of his books; it's no surprise that Sturges' films betray an outsider's bemusement at both international high society and American mainstream life, as he was never going to be more than an interested observer in either.
Preston's mother was determined that her son would become an artist and, with Duncan's encouragement, set out to cram him with culture when he wasn't being sent off to various boarding schools. "It wasn't long before the boy developed an intense dislike for most things cultural," Curtis writes in his biography of Sturges:
"Exposed to some of the greatest minds of the age, the experiences were mostly meaningless to him. Only as an adult could Preston finally appreciate his meeting the likes of Caruso, Ernst Haeckel, the King of Spain, Ganna Walska, Clemenceau, Mae Mossies, Monet and the Prince de Polignac. Feverishly, he was once rushed into the presence of aged tragedian Jean Mounet-Sully lest the actor expire before bathing Preston in his aura of genius. Still the boy came to dread a night in the theatre, and loathe the words of Shakespeare and Molière."
By the time he was a teenager, Sturges was already set on the road to a dilettante's life. At one Swiss boarding school he fell in with an aristocratic crowd, including the nephew of the Duke of Alba and Hans, Baron von Stohlterfoht, with whom Preston became friends. He and Hans wrote a ragtime ditty – "Winky" – which got published in Riga. Thankfully the Latvians were even more clueless than Hans and Preston about rags and similar American song genres, "or they wouldn't have touched our effusion with a ten-foot pole," Sturges recalled later.
At a low point later in his life after the sudden end of his first marriage, Sturges was living with his father in a Chicago hotel still under construction. Late one night he walked to a window, full of despair, intending to end it all. Just at that moment a worker fell from a floor above past the window to the street below. That neatly curtailed young Preston's suicidal thoughts.
Sturges would drift through his twenties and thirties, managing his mother's cosmetics business, writing more songs, filling sketchbooks with detailed drawings of inventions and eventually trying his hand at the theatre once he'd gotten over his childhood revulsion. It helped that his first two wives were wealthy, the second being Eleanor Post Hutton, heiress to the E.F. Hutton and General Foods fortunes.
He ended up in Hollywood intending to use scriptwriting to fund his campaign to produce an encore to Strictly Dishonorable, the Broadway hit that made his name and ended his dilettante years. He worked for the studios as a writer for hire, gaining huge industry publicity when he was the first writer to sell a screenplay to a studio for a percentage of the profits instead of a flat fee. (The Power and the Glory, starring Spencer Tracy as a hated railway tycoon and financier, would end up influencing the flashback-filled structure of Citizen Kane.)
Throughout his career Sturges would chafe at his reputation as a comedy writer and attempt to branch out into more reputable genres, but comedy – and ultimately a very particular, auteur-esque comedic universe that audiences loved – would be his bread and butter. Like most Hollywood success stories, he was always in debt and overextended, which is what led to an assignment at Paramount writing a script based on a story by Vera Caspary, a writer best known today for Laura, the novel that Otto Preminger would later turn into an iconic film noir starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews.
Caspary's story was about a poor girl who steals a mink coat and discovers that wearing it changes her life, but destroys her when she's forced to concoct a trail of deceptions. Sturges found it too dour, and got rid of everything but the girl and the coat. He wanted to direct it himself, but the time wasn't right yet and he was sidled with Mitchell Leisen, who Sturges considered a "bloated phony," though they'd work together again on Remember the Night, the last film Sturges wrote before becoming a director.
The owner of the hat shop where Ball takes Mary mistakes the young woman for the banker's mistress, a bit of gossip that catches on when news leaks out that Ball's wife immediately left for Florida after he threw her coat off their roof. Mary proudly walks into work wearing her new coat and hat, but the office full of prim biddies at the The Boy's Constant Companion make assumptions about the morals of a young woman in an expensive fur and she's fired.
After a charming, nearly wordless scene where a hungry Mary blindfolds her piggybank before smashing it with her shoe, a telegram is slipped under her door: Mary is invited to the Louis Towers by Mr. Louis Louis, the former chef to the Ball household who is three mortgages deep into debt with Mr. Ball building his guestless luxury hotel (obviously modeled on the Waldorf Astoria).
Played by Sturges regular Luis Alberni, Louis is a highlight of the film, and his guided tour of the endless, palatial rooms of the hotel's penthouse suite (clearly a labour of love for director Leisen, who began his career as a set and costume designer) is a masterpiece of malapropisms. He reasons that if he lets Ball's mistress live in the hotel for free, the banker will reconsider foreclosing on the place.
Mary has a swell place to live, but the suite's kitchen is still empty so she heads to the Automat with her last nickel for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Hungry and hapless, her plight charms John Jr., who's gotten a job there, and he tries to get her a free meal by tripping the doors on the coin-operated compartments. He's caught by security, gets into a brawl and ends up kicking the gears that open all the doors, which escalates into a slapstick riot when hungry homeless men flood into the Automat.
Escaping the melee, Mary offers the now-jobless John Jr. a place to stay for the night in her penthouse suite – a bit of charity that inevitably turns into romance during a lovely scene where Arthur and Milland lie with their heads together, feet in opposite directions, on a massive divan. It's the sort of thing that writers and directors concocted to get around Production Code rules, and it showcases how being inventive can be more suggestive than being explicit.
Mary wakes up to find herself a celebrity thanks to the eager tongue of the milliner and a gossip columnist, Wallace Whistling (William Demarest, another Sturges regular). The Louis Towers are now the place to be thanks to Mr. Ball decamping there from his Park Avenue mansion, confirming rumours of the affair. Mary's suite is deluged with flowers, clothes and gifts, sent by business owners who want her to be seen with their goods.
Anyone who's spent time with celebrities at their white hot peak, or been to the hospitality suites at film festivals or awards ceremonies, will know how this works, and how part of the practical economy of being rich and/or famous is based on all the swag and comps you can score. Instagram didn't invent the Influencer, and the machinery to accessorize them has been in place for decades.
By this point the film – like most of the great screwball comedies, with their stories centred firmly on a female character – rests firmly on the shoulders of Jean Arthur. Anyone who had to work with the famously skittish, publicity-shy actress would have shuddered at that thought, but the fact is that we probably only know about Easy Living at all because of the combined talents of Sturges before the cameras rolled, and Arthur once they did.
Tempting as it might be to give this column over to an extended appreciation of Jean Arthur – and this may yet happen – I'll try to sum up Arthur's abiding appeal in a few words. James Harvey devotes a whole chapter to Arthur in his book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges. Arthur, he says, was both quintessential and an exception among screwball heroines:
"She hasn't Lombard's temperament or Dunne's brilliance. She doesn't have Rogers' sardonicism or Hepburn's radiance or Colbert's assurance. She is more querulous than sardonic, and she's almost never entirely sure of herself. She spends a whole movie (Only Angels Have Wings) hanging out with the boys in a dive in Baranca, and she doesn't even wisecrack with them. But then she almost never does wisecrack."
In Easy Living she is very often – as during the Automat riot – at the eye of the storm, with the mania breaking out all around her, the only provocation being her presence. In Mitchell Leisen's hands the comic turmoil that we associate with Sturges (think of the Ale & Quail Club shooting the dining car to pieces in The Palm Beach Story) is more out of control than when Sturges could direct the camera filming it. It's a giddy, crazed kind of screwball, the dialogue bellowed, the plot lurching forward from calamity to calamity.
Make no mistake – we're square in Sturges World, a nutty place where executives hang around a banker's office like car hops or taxi dancers waiting for clients, where the residents of Park Avenue regularly throw things out their windows, and where the romantic leads sound more like kids arguing in a playground than Romeo and Juliet. But it would have fallen to pieces without Arthur at the centre, taking it all in, never wiser than she has to be. Another actress might have reacted more extravagantly as Louis Louis takes her from one lavish room to another in the penthouse suite. At the end of it all she just sits down and sighs, "Golly."
Easy Living wasn't a hit, and among its concise virtues is that it gets everything over with in less than ninety minutes. Mary never figures out that John Jr. is the Bull of Broad Street's son until near the end of the film, and thanks to an accidental bit of insider trading she makes a small fortune, buys a pair of sheepdogs, nearly bankrupts Ball and then saves him again, ending up with his son before tossing the fur coat back into the crowd where it crushes the feather on the hat of another young woman.
Sadly, Arthur never worked with Sturges again. The director, on the other hand, got what he wanted, good and hard. Despite the success his string of hits brought Paramount, he argued with the studio and left after they held back the release of several pictures, citing a surplus of titles. He entered into a handshake partnership with none other than Howard Hughes, which produced a trio of flops, at least two of which (The Sins of Harold Diddlebock and Unfaithfully Yours) would come to be considered among his best films.
At the start of his descent, Paramount finally released The Great Moment, a mix of drama and black comedy that helped put the nail in Sturges' career as a Hollywood director. The Great Moment might not have inflicted so much damage if it had been released when it was made, between The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. But something changed in audiences after the war, and Sturges' moment was over.
Two months before he died in the Algonquin Hotel, Sturges wrote a letter to one of his sons. "I took a complete physical check-up the other day, and to my horror the doctor told me I was good for another twenty-five years." You have to love a man who put so much effort into setting up a gag.
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