Monday, November 12, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Easy Living (1949)

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.


Blogger barrylane said...

Scott's character doesn't have a career she has an ambition based on envy. She cheats on her husband, not just sexually but financially, and ultimately cheats herself. No sympathy or empathy. Ending is unsatisfactory not because he slaps her but because he allows her to remain his wife.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Nice, understanding piece of an underrated film. Even many Tourneurs that are not his absolute best ones, like this one, are excellent and well above routine. As you say, it's a mature drama. And I have to say, Laura, so what if the ending is not politically correct--it's believable and effective.

Victor Mature is indeed worthy of a respect he has not always had, and I think people are beginning to get that. If the writer of THE FILMS OF VICTOR MATURE appreciates the actor's qualities, I would want to read it myself.

Now the only question--which EASY LIVING is better, this one or the more famous romantic/screwball comedy directed by Mitchell Leisen from Preston Sturges script in 1937 with peerless Jean Arthur in the lead. For me, I'd say it's actually pretty close. Very different films that could make a lively double bill somewhere if someone had the imagination to play them together.

10:17 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Re Jacques Tourneur: There was clearly a period of about ten years when his work is generally successful but beginning with Appointment In Honduras and in my view continuing there is a major fall off. Clearly there were changes going on in the industry but possiblly in Tourneurs personal life as well. An overview would be welcome.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

barrylane, have you read Chris Fujiwara's CINEMA OF NIGHTFALL about Tourneur? Very good overview, and he doesn't see the decline you do nor do I, though he sees the five final features following NIGHT OF THE DEMON (aka CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957) as a more unsatisfying, checkered group and I'd agree with that too, even though the last time I watched TIMBUKTU (Victor Mature turning up once more in that one) I thoroughly enjoyed it and will say it's a good movie.

It surprises me that you are dismissive of the two very beautiful Joel McCrea Westerns, STRANGER ON HORSEBACK and WICHITA (both 1955), as they are both very well-regarded by aficionados of the genre and both among the best later McCreas, also his other Western GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING (1956), the excellent late film noir NIGHTFALL of the same year, and his return to the horror film with the mildly compromised (by its producer) but brilliant NIGHT OF THE DEMON.

Of course all this simply means that we disagree about those movies--and that's fine of course. Jacques Tourneur is one of my favorite directors, in American cinema handily among the dozen best, maybe even the half dozen. He lives most of all not in one kind of film, but in a subtlety of style and refinement of vision that cuts across a number of genres that have all enjoyed long, rich traditions. For most of his movies, I never tire of going back to them.

Incidentally, although I like the ending of EASY LIVING, I do agree with you about Lizabeth Scott's character. It's believable to me that sometimes couples stay together even though it isn't best. In this case, I always pull for Lucille Ball to get Mature in the end, even though I know she won't; she's a highly empathetic and very well-drawn character who makes the whole movie that much better.

1:31 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Blake Lucas:

Thank you for your response and I haven't read CINEMA OF NIGHTFALL. I will. While some of this is simply opinion, I don't like Wichita or Stranger On Horseback, certainly Cure Of The Demon and Nightfall work well. Nothing really compares with the RKO period, and I include Canyon Passage, as part of that. Surely that film towers above his other westerns. As does Out Of The Past, Berlin Express and Easy Living. I might add Sonny Tufts is outstanding as is Lloyd Nolan and just about everyone else. Include Art Baker in that.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Barrylane and Blake,

Thanks so much for your comments which I very much enjoyed reading! I appreciate you mentioning that book, Blake. Have jotted down the title.

I do think, while surprising, the "imperfect" and uncertain ending was in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film.

It's a funny coincidence, I have tickets to see the 1937 EASY LIVING up at UCLA this Friday night, so I'll see both versions in a matter of days!

Best wishes,

11:42 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Laura and barrylane (and anyone else), the full title of the book is JACQUES TOURNEUR: THE CINEMA OF NIGHTFALL. Didn't mean to be so casual about that--it's a really first-rate director study, one of the best I've read.

Interesting to note that while I would say most of his Chris Fujiwara's judgements of the films are well-considered, I think he underrates EASY LIVING and doesn't like it as well as the three of us.

barrylane, I might agree that CANYON PASSAGE "towers above his other Westerns" but it towers above most Westerns in my estimations, and above most films, so for me doesn't take away anything from the real virtues of his others I mentioned. My three favorite Tourneurs were made in the 1940s, but lots of reasons why they stand out and I don't see him as in decline in the 50s.

8:39 AM  

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