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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "Easy Living" (Tourneur, 1949)

Are you ready for some football?
I know, I know—the regular season was over as of Sunday. and its entirely probable that the readership of The Auteurs' Notebook isn't exactly teeming with gridiron nuts. But the world of football is, as it happens, where we find ourselves with this 1947 Jacques Tourneur anomaly, made for RKO Studios after his horror and noir triumphs there—the likes of Out of the Past and I Walked With a Zombie. By this time Tourneur also had one Western for Universal under his belt, the moody Canyon Passage. Tourneur fans (among them the critic Dave Kehr) point out theu unusual expressionist/noir stylings of Passage, which is not just a Western but a Technicolor Western at that. Easy Living—no relation to the Vera Caspary story/Preston Sturges script Mitchell Leisen filmed in 1937—is also rife with such touches, which come across as even more peculiar in a film that mostly comes off like a very chaste precursor to...North Dallas Forty?
Victor Mature, in one of those decent, amiable performances that belie his bad rep as the most wooden of movie he-men, plays Pete Wilson, star quarterback for a New York team whose members largely use the subway to get back and forth from practice. Yes, those were different times. He's the highest-paid athelete in the whole sport, an idol to schoolkids, all that. Of course all is not well. While his buddy Tim "Pappy" McCarr and wife Penny slobber in plain and expectant domestic bliss, Pete's married to social-climbing would-be interior decorator Liza (Lizabeth Scott). Once a good egg just like Penny, she's no throwing herself at varied monied men to advance her career, which is a sham—as one of her would-be suitors observes, she has not talent and no taste. Pete's other problem involves his tendency to pass out after a single glass of beer, which will be explained to him by a doctor played by future Mr. Magoo and Thurston Howell III, Jim Backus. Bringing up Backus gives us a good opportunity to note much of the rest of Easy Living's cast, an exemplary mix of RKO bit players and future television stars. In the shot above, there's Mature; Sonny Tufts, prior to his endowing the eponymous university (kidding), as Pappy; Paul Stewart, late of the Mercury Theater and Citizen Kane, as a photographer named Argus (yeesh); and Jack Paar, later to become the Jack Paar, playing the team's press agent. Then there's a female player we'll get to in a minute.
Easy Living is adapted from an early short story by Irwin Shaw, and there's not much football per se in the picture. (Rumor has it that Tourneur had never even seen a game prior to making the picture.) Instead, the film is about the manly virtues supposedly connoted by football. Pete's new-found medical condition makes coaching an urgent late-career option for him, but he's loathe to go for such a position. It's up at "State," you see—it's always up at "State"—and he's unsure if he'll be able to get his good-for-nothing wife to give up her big-city ways. Tourneur lights and shoots the scene in which Pete confronts retiring coach Virgil Ryan (Everett Glass) in the same manner in which he'd shoot an exchenge between two mobsters, one betrayed, the other betraying.
Tourneur also handles Lizabeth Scott's character in an unusual way. The picture is sexist to the core, right up to its rather shocking final shot, but Tourneur's approach is not without sympathy, as when Liza models a new dress for Pete and is met with almost complete indifference. Scott's natural appeal make her character's hurt in this scene nearly palpable. Of course, Scott is obliged to high-hat it through the film's climax, the better to make her comeuppance all the more...not just narratively satisfying by the standards of the day, but Morally Upstanding by the standards of the day, which just underscores how grotesque the standards of the day were. But before everything wraps, Pete must face his demons, get dead drunk, and find succor and wisdom in a bar back room, one of the picture's most overtly noirish settings. (The picture was shot by Harry Wild, and art directed by Albert D'Agostino and Alfred Herman.)
The smokin' dame providing the succor and wisdom is Anne, secretary to the team's coach/manager. She's been around—a bit of a player collector, you could say—but she truly adores Pete, who won't give her the time of day. She's played, with no little grace and understatement, by none other than Lucille Ball. Who was already a substantive comedic star by this time (1949 is also the year of Sorrowful Jones, her first co-starring vehicle with Bob Hope), but had flirted with noir in the likes of The Dark Corner and Sirk's Lured. This picture would pretty much mark the end of her dramatic acting career; I Love Lucy was only four years away.
Easy Living is available on Region 2 DVD from the French label Editions Montparnasse, under the title La Vie Facile. It's part of the label's RKO series. The quality of the image is strong, but the disc is marred by motion artifacts probably stemming from an improper PAL to NTSC conversion. They're not as annoying here as they were on the Montparnasse of Ford's Wagon Master, which is practically unwatchable, but they're noticeable. Caveat emptor.

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