Underrated Movie #135: Easy Living

Title: Easy Living
Year: 1937
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Writers: Preston Sturges, based on a story by Vera Caspary
Stars: Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Luis Alberni, Mary Nash

The Story: Another tale of the perils of mink ownership: A young secretary is riding to work in an open-topped bus (?) only to have a mink land on her head (thrown away by a financier cleaning out his wife’s overstuffed closet). Soon she’s the toast of the town because everybody assumes she’s the man’s mistress, but she falls for his layabout son instead, who is working incognito in an automat.

How it Came to be Underrated: When Struges’s films were belatedly elevated into the canon, less attention was paid to the movies he wrote before he was directing his own scripts. In the hands of a witty, sophisticated director like Leisen (sort of the poor man’s Ernst Lubitch) this becomes a prime slice of pre-Struges-Sturges (we even get appearances by Pangborn and Demarest! )

Why It’s Great:
  1. In the interest of leanness, Sturges not only knows how to lop off the beginning and end of each scene, he can even chop out the middle! He shows Arthur and Arnold start to argue about compound interest in the back of a car, then cuts to an exterior shot of the car, then cuts to them getting out once the argument has reached a crescendo. Another example: Arthur walks into work wearing her new mink and eyebrows are raised, cut to inside the boss’s office as she’s already halfway through trying to explain.
  2. Why has Hollywood failed to make any great movies about our current interminable financial strife? Because writers these days are far more likely sympathize with the 1% and not the 99. Movies like Company Men and How Do You Know fret over the fate of white collar workers, but movies won’t dare attempt to sympathize with the automat-customers of today: they’re such losers.
  3. But there are few characters as sympathetic as Arthur: she finds out that she’s accidentally become rich, so she instantly starts crying tears of joy and says “I’m gonna buy a dog!” Now, that’s lovable.
  4. This movie reminded me of going to Sundance: I was amused to find that the parking meters only worked with credit cards, but then I realized that nobody bothered to ticket you if you didn’t pay. You’re in the middle of an elite ski resort, but you never actually have to spend any money. When there’s an assumption that everybody’s rich, nobody charges each other anything.
  5. Here’s a good trivia question: what do the seemingly dissimilar classic movies Easy Living, Laura and A Letter to Three Wives have in common? They were all adapted from the writing of the unjustly-forgotten Vera Caspary.
  6. Ah, the poetry of Sturges: “Don’t be a sucker, sister, that beef pie is a wow!”
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Jean Arthur is best remembered for her legendary Frank Capra movies, but she also specialized in non-romantic pairings with stout older actors: she followed this one up with two equally underrated comedies co-starring, of all people, Charles Coburn: The Devil and Miss Jones and The More the Merrier.

How Available Is It?: It has a nice-looking DVD with an introduction by TCM’s Robert Osborne

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Underrated Movie #94: The Great McGinty

It’s “Hold Your Nose” week for our American readers, so let’s wallow into the mire…
Title: The Great McGinty
Year: 1940
Director: Preston Sturges
Writers: Preston Sturges
Stars: Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest

The Story: Donlevy is a two-fisted bum who gets offered two bucks to vote for a corrupt mayor, so he votes 37 times, under 37 different names. This so impresses the political machine that they make him a bagman, then an alderman, then mayor, then governor. Soon he has enough power to do whatever he wants, as long as he doesn’t want to do the right thing.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is now considered a classic by cinephiles, but it deserves to have the same reputation as other political perennials like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Sturges’s extremely jaundiced view gave America a look at itself that it didn’t really want to see, but it rings more and more true every year.

Why It’s Great:

  1. A patrician politician runs such a slimy political machine that the public finally turns on him. His bosses in the business community decide that they need to anoint their own “reform” candidate to run in the next election. They find a small cog in the Chicago machine whose primary value is that nobody has heard of him. This up-from-poverty plain-talker soon takes off on a meteoric rise to the top, but there’s just one catch: his backers require him to continue all the corruption of the crook he’s replacing. What a crazy story! I guess that’s what it was like way back when in the bad old days.
  2. In the silent era, it wasn’t uncommon to have one major talent write and direct a picture, but with the coming of sound, the studios forcibly separated the two jobs. Finally, at the height of the studio era, three of the most popular screenwriters simultaneously put their feet down and demanded a chance to direct their own scripts. The result was three daring movies that re-launched the auteur era: this, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, and Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor. They’re all great.
  3. How does Sturges manage to be so big-hearted and black-hearted at the same time? He does it by keeping a bemused ear cocked for how people really talk when they get in over their head. Now matter how farcical each scene gets, Sturges shows an unswerving dedication to portraying the way the world really works.
  4. Sturges hadn’t quite gathered his stock company yet (though William Demarest is already on hand, plus a brief glimpse of Jimmy Conlin). Without the circus-like atmosphere of Sturges’s later movies, this one gets carried almost entirely on Donlevy’s beefy shoulders. He proves to be such a wonderful leading man: comedic and dramatic, subtle and broad, that it drives me crazy when I see that he went right back to character parts after this.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Sturges follow-up film Christmas in July is also underrated. Donlevy briefly re-appeared as Governor McGinty in one of Stugres’s best movies, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

How Available Is It?: The DVD is bare-bones but it looks beautiful.

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Underrated Movie #10: Unfaithfully Yours

Title: Unfaithfully Yours
Year: 1948
Director: Preston Sturges
Writer: Preston Sturges
Stars: Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady), Linda Darnell (A Letter to Three Wives), Rudy Vallee (The Palm Beach Story)

The Story: An imperious conductor tries to ignore rumors of his wife’s infidelity, but then, while conducting a concert, he imagines three scenarios in which he gets his revenge. After he emerges from his reverie, however, his fantasies are rudely punctured.

How it Came to be Underrated: During Sturges’s career, all of his movies were underrated. Only years later, with the rise of home video, did his reputation finally catch up to (and perhaps even surpass) the other breakthrough writer-directors of the ‘40s, John Huston and Billy Wilder. Now his early movies are justly praised (though they could hardly be overpraised), but viewers quickly realized that Sturges later career was largely disappointing, and those films are still little-seen. For the most part, that’s for the best, but there are a few exceptions and this is the best of them. This late masterpiece is a diamond in the rough.

Why It’s Great:

  1. I mentioned before how much I loved Mark Harris’s book “Pictures at a Revolution”, a behind-the-scenes portrait of the best picture nominees of 1967. As the peevish star of Dr. Dolittle, Rex Harrison becomes the villain of that book, condemned as a boorish cad who had outlived his prime and overstayed his welcome in Hollywood. The portrait is so deliciously wicked that I never wanted to like Harrison again. But I had forgotten how much I love his performance here, where he gives the most egoless portrait of egomania I’ve ever seen. No one can summon up a state of high dudgeon like Harrison can, and yet, the more pompous the character becomes, the more abjectly pitiful Harrison makes him. It almost makes me forgive all the horrible things Harris said about him.
  2. Sturges's gift for zippy dialogue is undiminished: "I seriously doubt that you played Russian Roulette ‘all the time’ with your father!"
  3. Even couched in a fantasy sequence, the eventual explosion of violence is truly shocking. This movie tips over the simmering cauldron of panic roiling away inside the light screwball comedies that launched Sturges’s writing career. In that way, it’s like two other movies from the same period, Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, but the misanthropy of those films seemed a little curdled, as if the directors had held onto it a bit too long, or felt it a bit too deeply. Chaplin and Wilder made those movies to implicate their audience, but Sturges is only interested in implicating himself. He’s decided that he’s ready to admit a bit of truth: sometimes, the war of the sexes can take casualties, and madness isn’t always divine.
  4. When Harrison actually tries to enact his imaginary scenarios, he realizes that he has been the ultimate bad writer— he has forced the endings, refusing to allow his ‘straw man’ villains to surprise him. His fantasies fail when real life turns out to be more humiliating than his most morose self-deprecations, and yet somehow more empowering than his most grandiose heroic fantasies. The problem with imposing one’s vision on the world is that what one needs to hear often turns out to be more valuable than anything one has to say.

Underrated Compared To: Sturges’ best films. It deserves a place alongside them.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: That said, every man, woman and child should watch Sturges’s best, including (but not limited to) The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels (great last line!), and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and available to Watch Instantly. Do not rent the 1984 remake starring Dudley Moore!

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