Easy Living is certainly an oddball item in Jacques Tourneur’s resume. Chris Fujiwara, in his book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, calls it a minor work, and that’s no doubt true. It’s also a melodrama, which is not a genre that Tourneur worked in much. It was his last film at RKO, and he went a-roving after that, starting with Stars in My Crown for MGM the next year — another unusual movie for Tourneur.
I say that Easy Living is a melodrama, but it’s a male-focused example of a genre that is typically female-centric. The fact that it’s a melodrama is partly disguised by the fact that it’s also a sports movie. Victor Mature plays Pete Wilson, the biggest star in professional football. He’s married to the beautiful Liza (Lizabeth Scott) and seems to be on top of the world. Yet something is bothering him and he’s not sure what it is.
This film is both generically and visually different from Tourneur’s thrillers, but it shares a downbeat sense of unease with films like Out of the Past (1947). The source of Pete’s unease is complex. On the one hand he’s married to a shallow, self-centered, social-climbing woman who is easily bored and lacking the inner resources to make herself useful in any way, thus having to depend on the kindness of men. Meanwhile, Pete discovers that he has a heart murmur that means he has to give up playing football, and that means starting over as a coach at a much lower economic rung than Liza is willing to put up with. The biggest problem — perhaps typically for a male-centered movie of this era — is his wife’s vanity and narcissism, but the dark undertow here is how professional football treats its players like commodities to be jettisoned when they wear out or break. The commentary on the largely money-and-media-driven world of professional sports feels quite contemporary even today.
As much as Liza is demonized in the film, she’s actually an interesting character too. For one thing, it’s one of the best roles I’ve seen Lizabeth Scott in. Scott usually played the slightly tarnished good girl, but here there is practically nothing good about her except her looks and sexual exuberance. She only cares about Pete because he’s a star, but the film makes it clear that it turns her on sexually, even if she’s also turned on by other men with power at the same time. “I want to wake up with bruises in both places,” she enthuses to Pete as she places his hands on her shoulders before they embrace. When she is finally casually tossed aside by one of her other men, Scott has a truly great scene in which she confronts the unpleasant realities of her choices. Like Pete, who watches one of his teammates get cut from the team for being over the hill and sees his own fate in it, Liza has a doppelganger in a mysterious woman named Billy Duane, who preceded her as mistress to powerful men and who leaps to her death when cast aside for Liza. That’s the wake up call for Liza, and Scott is terrific in that moment.
The wildcard in all this is the character of Anne, played by Lucille Ball. Anne seems to be the perfect antidote to all of Pete’s problems. She’s smart-talking, wise, beautiful, and she honestly cares about Pete and wants the best for him, even if that means giving up his fame and fortune. She cares about him as a person, not as a status symbol. All of the plot indicators point toward Anne being the one Pete ends up with, and that they live happily ever after, exchanging loving wisecracks about the kind of trashy crime novels that Tourneur was turning into film noir. Fujiwara says that’s how the script was originally written, but then it was changed at the last minute so that Pete stays with Liza, after slapping her a couple of times for her infidelity. Poor Anne is screwed once again, as she had been by her feckless former husband. That doesn’t feel right in a Hollywood movie, but in a way it fits with the strangely downbeat feeling of the film. There’s also the implication that since her husband died Anne has been sleeping around, including with the entire football team. She’s an elusive character, for all the typical signs of an, um, experienced woman with a heart of gold.
So the ending feels fumbled, if you’ll pardon the pun, but Tourneur, at least at this stage in his career, was capable of finding something mysterious in even the most hackneyed material. Martin Scorsese says Tourneur was an artist of atmosphere, and there’s a mood of desperation and defeat hovering over this film. We want Anne and Pete to end up together, but the world in which that happens is a happier one than the world they’re stuck in. In this world, people lose their jobs, lose their way, lose their love, lose their lives — or throw them away. When has a happy ending ever consisted of a man slapping a woman? Needless to say, the title is ironic.