When an expensive sable coat, thrown from a penthouse balcony by Wall Street tycoon J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold), lands on the head of office clerk Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) while she's riding to work on the top deck of a city bus, we're off on a fine screwball comedy that nails class assumptions to the wall. (The wall being a fabulous suite of the Hotel Louis.) Ball, known as the Bull of Broad Street, threw the coat to spite his extravagant wife. Although it was a mistake, as soon as word gets around that Mary Smith has a coat from J. B. Ball, it's not long before people begin to assume that Mary must be the Bull's mistress. And although she loses her job, almost instantly all those who want a piece of the Bull are falling over themselves to make Mary happy. She winds up in the Hotel Louis in a suite that could only have been dreamed up by Hollywood designers. Clothes and jewels are delivered; a car and chauffeur show up. Mary is mystified by all this, but happily accepts. When she meets a young man who works at the automat, well...we know, of course, that the young man is Johnnie Ball (Ray Milland), son of J. B. Ball, and that he earlier had stormed out of the family mansion determined to prove he could be his own man. It all gets sorted out, but only after a new Depression may get started fueled by more loony assumptions.
Preston Sturges, who wrote the script, brings all the social satire and clever dialogue to Easy Living that he brought to the films he directed and wrote later. Mitchell Leisen, the director, gives the movie a sweet speed. The slapstick moments are like the whipped cream on top of the ice cream sundae. There is a food fight in the automat that is so witty and filled with pratfalls that it makes Animal House look like the work of...hmmm...juveniles.
Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold take above-the-title billing, and they make a compelling set of screwball actors. That Arnold's J. B. Ball is irascible is putting it gently. Yet Arnold makes the tycoon funny and human, and there's no doubt that he really cares for that wife of his. Jean Arthur, of course, makes the movie work. What a one-of-a-kind actress she was, with that air of surprised innocence and that vaguely husky voice with the hint of a squeak now and then. It's worth remembering that Jean Arthur, who was born in 1900, paid her dues in more than 50 silent films, movies with titles like Biff Bang Buddy, Bigger and Better Blondes, and Twisted Triggers. She was 35 when she hit major stardom and stayed at the top through her last movie, Shane, in 1953. That innocent sexiness, acting skill, instant likability and that voice allowed her to consistently play 10 to 20 years younger than her age. For me, Jean Arthur at 53 and playing Marian Starrett, a woman probably 20 years younger, is the real center of Shane. She gives a deep reality to what all those homesteaders stand for. And she, without saying a word, is what motivates Ladd as Shane to do what he must do. In my opinion, Arthur gives the best performance in the movie. That's something you can say about almost every movie Jean Arthur was in.
And let's not forget some fine character actors who help make Easy Living as funny as it is. Among them is Mary Nash as the Bull's wife, who really does love J. B. (as he does her). By the end of the movie we like them both a lot; Luis Alberni as Mr. Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis, who is energetically ethnic; Franklin Pangborn as Van Buren, the prissy (of course) proprietor of an exclusive hat shop; William Demarest as Wallace Whistling, gossip reporter; Esther Dale as the Bull's unimpressed and decidedly matronly secretary; and Robert Greig as Graves, the portly, imperturbable butler in the Ball household. They all have a chance to shine, and shine they do.