Wednesday 16 September 2020

Movie Review: Easy Living (1949)

A sports drama, Easy Living is a grim story about the thin line between glamour and obscurity on and off the field.

Pete Wilson (Victor Mature) is the star quarterback of the Chiefs professional football team. Marketed as "King Football", he is the league's MVP and the face of the franchise. Pete is married to the ambitious Liza (Lizabeth Scott), who wants to capitalize on her status to launch an interior design business. She cozies up to wealthy businessman Howard Vollmer (Art Baker) as a potential client.

After feeling unwell, Pete is privately diagnosed with a heart condition. Fearful this could spell the end of his career, he keeps his ailment a secret from both Liza and the team's ruthless owner Lenahan (Lloyd Nolan). Meanwhile Lenahan's secretary and widowed daughter-in-law Anne (Lucille Ball) harbours a secret crush on Pete. After being passed-up for a coaching role and with his on-field performances in decline, Pete is confronted with the real possibility of losing everything.

One of the earliest movies set in the world of professional football, Easy Living features a complex, multi-faceted narrative. A relatively low-budget production from RKO Pictures clocking in at just 77 minutes, the adaptation of Irwin Shaw's Education Of The Heart overachieves with a story about the lure of social status, the fragile careers of elite athletes, and the difficult trade-offs between health and glory.

Easy Living offers a rare peek into the early era of high-stakes professional sports. Train and bus rides for the players, finances dominating decisions, slipshod medical oversight, and repeated assertions this is a bushiness like any other, players pumped into stars or dumped onto the scrapheap as best befits the bottom line. As a star attraction Pete thrives in this milieu; Liza is much less interested, preferring to spend her evenings at posh parties schmoozing with the literati.

Director Jacques Tourneur, working from Charles Schnee's compact script, packs in people and incidents around the central couple. The film buzzes with secondary characters, including Pete's best friend and teammate Tim (Sonny Tufts) and his grounded wife Penny (Miss Jeff Donnell), as well as reporters, marketing agents, coaches, old timers, and a whole ecosystem of social climbers gathered around affluent sleazeball Vollmer. 

Most poignant is the subplot featuring Holloran (Gordon Jones), an aging lineman now past his best-by date and about to be unceremoniously dumped by the team, providing Pete with an unwanted preview of his potential fate. Meanwhile, up-and-coming model Billy Duane (June Bright) decorates Liza's glitzy social circle, but she too will wave an unexpected caution flag. 

The intertwined threads of risk and ambition reside at the heart of the film, Pete and Liza mostly in love with the idea of who they are but unable to imagine what their union means if the fundamentals change. Pete is an on-field icon but off the field he is unsure how to handle failing health and a showcase marriage. Liza is undoubtedly heartless in her exploitation of only one acceptable image of Pete, but her ambition is conjoined with villainy, her pursuit of Vollmer the personification of greed's outer limits. 

While Liza earns any pot-holes created by her single-purposed exploitive agenda, her arc ends with exceptionally crude treatment. Despite that foul, Easy Living scores an unlikely touchdown.

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