Part of the fun of watching classic movies is getting a glimpse at a world that doesn’t exist anymore, one that contained things like supper clubs, party lines, and automats.
Automats especially have fascinated me since I was a child. It seemed so magical to put coins into a slot in the wall and have a window pop open on a plate of roast beef or a piece of pie. I’m sure the food at automats wasn’t any better than what I got on family trips to Luby’s Cafeteria, but it seemed like it would be better. At any rate, it was more excitingly procured.
Even as an adult I still get a kick out of movie scenes set in automats, like the one Audrey Meadows’ character works at in That Touch of Mink. All that hustle and bustle behind the wall of windows, and if you know someone on the inside you just might get your chicken pot pie for free!
This weekend I watched Easy Living, a 1937 comedy starring Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold and Ray Milland, which contains a really funny, slapstick-filled scene in an automat – just one of many hilarious moments in the movie.
Arthur plays Mary Smith, a working girl whose life is turned upside down when Arnold’s character, J.B. Ball, a Wall Street fat cat, throws his wife’s $58,000 sable coat out the window in a fit of pique. The coat lands on Mary’s head, and when she tries to return it to Mr. Ball he insists that she keep it. He also insists that she let him buy her a new hat, since the coat smashed hers, and that she allow him to drive her to work.
He means to be kind, but his good deeds lead to one crazy thing after another, from her losing her job to being mistakenly thought to be his mistress. Wearing the coat and being seen at the hat shop with Mr. Ball gets gossipy tongues wagging, and suddenly everyone wants to give Mary fancy things and put her up in swanky digs, thinking she has the ear of this wealthy man.
Meanwhile, she meets and falls for Mr. Ball’s son (Milland), who is rebelling against his father and trying to make his own way in the world by working (not very successfully) at the automat. She doesn’t know he’s Ball’s son, though, which leads to even more complications, including a crash in the steel market.
The script was written by Preston Sturges, so of course there are plenty of eccentric, characters, zany situations and misunderstandings. Jean Arthur is, as usual, fantastic – smart, sassy, and so, so funny. Take this scene, for example. No dialogue, just the unemployed Mary Smith searching for some money so she can eat. The blindfold on the piggy bank! Ha! She’s so stinking adorable.
I’ve never been particularly crazy about Ray Milland, whom I mostly remember as Grace Kelly’s murderous husband in Dial M for Murder and as Ryan O’Neal’s cold patrician father in Love Story, but he’s quite charming and handsome in Easy Living. At first I couldn’t help thinking how much better Cary Grant would have been in the role (apparently I want him and Jean Arthur to be in everything together right now), but he grew on me as the movie went along.
Such a fun, breezy, wacky screwball comedy – one of the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them, especially lately. And the scene in the automat? Well, that was just icing on an already yummy slice of cake. Cake I wish I could buy at an automat, of course.