EASY LIVING (1949) -- not to be confused with the classic 1937 screwball comedy of the same name -- is an excellent RKO sports film with a decidedly modern feel. This mature drama presents no easy answers for a star quarterback (Victor Mature) whose career and marriage are at the end of the line. It's a rich viewing experience, with a strong, deep cast directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Pete Wilson (Mature) is a highly paid player for the New York Chiefs. Having already had a couple odd health issues, a failed insurance physical sends him to a doctor (Jim Backus in a brief but excellent performance). Pete receives the shocking news that he's got a heart ailment, but is likely to have a long life -- as long as he quits football.
Pete initially keeps the news to himself as he comes to terms with his situation, which is complicated when his best friend (Sonny Tufts, in a surprisingly strong performance) receives the college coaching offer Pete had been hoping for himself. Meanwhile on the homefront, Pete knows his selfish social climber wife (Lizabeth Scott) isn't going to take kindly to the news that they're about to lose fame and fortune.
This description really doesn't do the film justice, as it's populated with a terrific cast, including Lloyd Nolan as the coach; Lucille Ball as the coach's widowed daughter-in-law, who serves as the team secretary and carries a torch for Pete; Paul Stewart as a magazine photographer; Jack Paar as the team P.R. man; Richard Erdman as the equipment manager; Jeff Donnell as Tufts' wife; and Don Beddoe as the team's penny-pinching accountant.
I respect Victor Mature more every time I watch another of his movies; what an underrated actor, capable of wordlessly conveying deep emotion. It's hard for me to believe that at one point in years past I didn't care for him; perhaps it's because I first saw him in musicals such as MY GAL SAL (1942) and MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID (1952), where he was a more awkward fit. When it comes to drama, film noir, or Westerns, I enjoy him tremendously -- and THE FILMS OF VICTOR MATURE is on my Christmas wish list!
Lizabeth Scott gives a much more interesting performance in this film than in TWO OF A KIND (1951), which I watched last weekend; the artificial laughs and smiles of that role are nowhere in evidence here. Scott plays a troubled character who seems to have some genuine affection for her husband but is more concerned with herself, made abundantly clear when she doesn't want to bother to reach out in sympathy and say goodbye to a player (Gordon Jones) cut from the team. It's interesting that this otherwise rather modern-feeling film makes clear that her career isn't an admirable goal, which may not seem fair to today's viewer, but that issue takes a back seat to the fact that she's simply a selfish woman willing to compromise her morals for success rather than put in hard work.
The movie's final scene is surprising, to say the least, but perhaps the only option under the Production Code, and it certainly raises a lot more questions than it answers. But upon reflection, perhaps the uncertain ending isn't all that out of character with the rest of the film. Fair warning, it's extremely unpolitically correct; my jaw dropped with shock.
Given that Jackie Robinson had just broken the color barrier in baseball in 1947, I was pleasantly surprised to spot a black player on the Chiefs. Notes at TCM provide the info that Kenny Washington, who plays Benny, was one of the first two black players in the National Football League; the other was Woody Strode.
IMDb lists the movie as having been filmed on location at Wrigley Field in Chicago, but there has clearly been a mix-up with Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Although the film is tightly shot, possibly to make the location less identifiable, the exterior is definitely Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, as seen in ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950); the interior looked like it was probably a match for the inside of Wrigley Field, as shown in SOUTHSIDE 1-1000 (1950).
I was a bit confused that the Chiefs wear Rams helmets! In fact, the L.A. Rams appear in the film. I guess it was easier to have them wear their own equipment?!
The screenplay was written by Charles Schnee from a story by Irwin Shaw. The black and white cinematography was by Harry J. Wild, who shot many excellent film noir titles for RKO.
For director Jacques Tourneur, this film fell in between his classics OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and STARS IN MY CROWN (1950). EASY LIVING is itself a fine film deserving of rediscovery. I think my only quibble is that this 77-minute film might have been slightly too short! There's a lot of story to cover and a great cast to tell it.
EASY LIVING is available from the Warner Archive. It may also turn up in the future at Turner Classic Movies.
For more on this film, please visit Glenn Erickson's review at DVD Savant.