1. Leisen also directed a third script by Wilder and
Brackett, Arise, My Love (1940), an uncomfortable mélange of romance,
unfunny comedy, politics (the Spanish Civil War and Nazi aggression) and
anti-war propaganda, starring Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland – a companion piece to the equally bizarre
mixture of similar elements to Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, in which the romantic leads wind up
in a concentration camp (!).
2. David Chierichetti’s Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director (Photoventures Publishing), first published in 1973 and reprinted in 1995, which started out as an Oral History of interviews with Leisen and people who worked with him, is an essential read, as well as the only book about him.
History is unforgiving, implacable and, once written, nearly impossible to re-write. The victors, the wildly successful, are often too generously rewarded. The vanquished and the modestly successful disappear from the annals altogether. Unfortunately, the same is true of film history and, sadly for Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), he is almost completely forgotten today. Even though in the 1930s and ‘40s he was one of the most important and certainly among the most highly paid directors of his time, with many hits to his name, if he is remembered at all today, it is in relation to more famous directors he has been associated with. He did art direction for De Mille’s King of Kings (1927) and Madame Satan (1930). He designed the still very racy costumes Claudette Colbert wears in De Mille’s Sign of the Cross (1932), as well as serving as assistant director and art director. But even more importantly, he directed the delightful Easy Living (1937), with a script by Preston Sturges, who went on to become a more famous director himself when he started directing his own scripts. Leisen directed the wonderful Midnight (1939), certainly one of his masterpieces, and the equally wonderful (although for different reasons) Hold Back the Dawn (1941), both scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. (1)
To give an idea of how powerful and respected he was at the time, he was able to ‘sign’ his credit with his own signature, equivalent to the French un film de long before anyone in America, aside from Hitchcock, Frank Capra and Cecil B. DeMille, were describing their films as ‘a film by...’. Leisen also became an ugly footnote in Wilder’s biography. Wilder is said to have hated so much what Leisen had done to his scripts – although it’s hard to imagine how anyone could fault Midnight or Hold Back the Dawn – that he decided to become a director himself so that his scripts wouldn’t, in the future, be ‘butchered’ by the likes of Leisen. ‘All he did was he fucked up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection, let me tell you. Leisen was too goddamn fey. I don’t knock fairies. Let him be a fairy. Leisen’s problem was that he was a stupid fairy’. (2) Leisen also has the dubious honor of having had the same effect on Preston Sturges, who snidely and indecorously referred to Leisen as an interior decorator.
Leisen initially wanted to be an architect. Through a casual connection, he met Cecil B. DeMille shortly after graduating; DeMille asked him if he would like to design costumes for his movies. His first film for DeMille was Male and Female (1918). He was so good at it, DeMille gave him more and more responsibilities: set dresser, art directing, designing the productions, even second-unit directing. Because of his extensive knowledge of how to put a movie together and especially his input into the way it looked, Paramount asked him to co-direct a film with a stage director whom Paramount had imported from Broadway, Stuart Walker. Everyone soon realised that the reasons the films worked were because of Leisen, not the Broadway director. A film directing career was born.
Of course, no director is better than the script he has to work with. And Leisen’s films, lucky though he was with some scripts, suffered the most when the scripts did not much interest him. He diverted himself, sometimes to the detriment of the movies themselves, by making the costumes or concentrating on the art direction. But he had the good fortune to work with some wonderful actors, many of them several times over. He helped make Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland and Dorothy Lamour into stars. He gave Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck some of their finest roles. And offered the talents of Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland and Paulette Goddard opportunities that they never had before.
It is important to talk about Leisen in relation to Wilder’s and Sturges’ films. Even Sturges’ best films, let’s say The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The Lady Eve (1941), do not have the assured elegance of Leisen’s adaptations of Sturges’ scripts. Sturges’ scripts are crammed with business, distractingly eccentric, cartoon-like minor characters, sometimes overwritten to the point of exhausting the audience with his manic, rat-tat-tat gunfire rounds of bon mots. It is well-documented that Leisen, in the charming and rich in sentiment (two adjectives that were never used in describing any of Sturges’ films) Remember the Night (1940), ripped out many pages of Sturges’ script, cut the excess verbiage, and concentrated on the two main characters, as he did in Easy Living. Both of these comedies are much more leisurely paced than Sturges’ films, which are made with such frantic, almost caffeine-induced speed – as if Sturges sensed he was going to burn himself out in a handful of years, which he did – and are much more character-driven.
As for comparing Leisen’s Wilder-Brackett films with those that Wilder himself directed: even if you’re a huge admirer of Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), it is impossible to ignore the cynically sour aftertaste of his movies from his very first film, The Major and The Minor (1941), all the way through Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and beyond, and especially the acidic unpleasantness of A Foreign Affair (1948) and Ace in the Hole (1951). One can almost be assured that Midnight, had it been directed by Wilder, would have been as charmlessly coy and hard-boiled as Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1939), scripted by Wilder and Brackett, instead of the light-as-air soufflé that it is. And Hold Back the Dawn, an unlikely tale of redemption, of gigolos and gold diggers conniving their way across the American border from Mexico, would have been unpalatably depressing under Wilder’s direction. Charles Boyer’s and Leisen’s decision to cut a scene in which Boyer, a down-and-out playboy in his seedy hotel room, toys with and confesses to a cockroach, one can only surmise, was a good choice. It was the elimination of this particular scene that stoked most of Wilder’s hatred for Leisen.
And there’s something else. The romantic comedies, at least the way Leisen directed them, are never strictly comedies. They all have a slight melancholic tinge to them; the characters experience a Mozartean longing and sadness and a wish that life could be something other than what it is, an unspoken ache that one would never accuse Sturges or Wilder (whatever their many virtues) of ever feeling.
3. It might be interesting to compare and contrast
both of them to their roles in Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), a mere
four years later. One might want to take their development even a step further
and re-visit them both as deeply disappointed, middle-aged, former lovers
trying to re-kindle a romance, in Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956).
|Another thing about Leisen as opposed to Sturges and Wilder, or anyone else in Hollywood, for that matter, in film after film, then and now: the interactions between his stars – MacMurray and Lombard in Swing High, Swing Low (1937) and even more so in Hands Across the Table (1935), Milland and Arthur in Easy Living, MacMurray and Stanwyck in Remember the Night, (3) MacMurray and Rosalind Russell in Take a Letter, Darling (1941), Colbert and Don Ameche in Midnight, Colbert and Milland in Arise, My Love, Boyer and Goddard in Hold Back the Dawn, and even Milland and Marlene Dietrich in Golden Earrings (1947) – have an easy and very palpable sexual chemistry which radiates from the screen, suggesting that the physical attraction the characters have for each other is more than merely a given in the script. Credit the director and his relationship with his actors, rather than the script. Similarly, Gene Tierney in Leisen’s The Mating Season (1951) conveys a physical and emotional warmth that one does not sense in any of her 20th Century Fox films. All of this from a director whom everyone in Hollywood knew was gay, or bi-sexual at best, and was frowned upon for his openly gay liaisons. Perhaps the depiction of sexuality, as Nicholas Ray suggested, is not a question of being gay or straight but of just being sexual.
Most Hollywood films see the relationship between men and women as a Battle of the Sexes, something to be won or lost, with men and women fundamentally different and basically incompatible. Even so-called proto-feminist films like George Stevens’ Woman of the Year (1942) and George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949) clearly enjoy presenting the spectacle of an intelligent, sophisticated woman (in both cases played by Katharine Hepburn) taken down a few pegs before she is worthy of the less sophisticated, more down-to-earth man (played in both films by Spencer Tracy). What is unusual about Leisen’s movies, which are almost all about the see-sawing relationships between men and women, is how equal both partners are even when they are from different social strata – and they always are – and how fluid the role-playing is in the relationship. In film after film, we are presented with seemingly incompatible opposites – a poor working girl looking for a rich man, a career woman falling for a man with no skills, a money-hungry woman pitted against a modest, moralistic lawyer, a taxi driver infatuated with a broke entertainer who wants a millionaire. Everyone is at cross-purposes, socially as well as romantically. But they all learn how to negotiate their territories, as well as the other person’s. Falling in love is not a compromise or surrender. It’s more a question of accommodation – who wants whom badly enough to abandon the abstract idea of the lover they think they deserve for a flawed but equally accommodating person who is also willing to change. In movie after movie, the leads discover they like each other so much that learning to overcome the differences that separate them is the least they can do. If Leisen doesn’t exactly present feminist role models, his movies are rich with strong, spunky, independent women who know what they want, alongside indecisive men who don’t know what they want but will know it when they see it. Everybody is weak and strong at the same time. In Leisen’s very generous universe there is no room for steel-jawed, testosterone-driven egotists like John Wayne and Clark Gable or self-sufficient, take-no-prisoners gorgons like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Everyone gradually learns how to change and make themselves over in order to find love.
If Leisen was sometimes very fortunate in his choice of scripts, or not-so-fortunate in the inferior scripts that he was assigned to direct, his lot was no different from many other directors who benefited from the studio system and who, with few exceptions, floundered when that system cut them adrift. They had access to superb art directors, set designers and builders, costume designers and a team of top-notch cameramen and lighting technicians, all thorough and experienced professionals, who helped them immeasurably in achieving, seemingly without any great effort, a unified ‘look’ from film to film, that identified the film as theirs. Think, for example of Vincente Minnelli’s unprecedented 20 years at MGM, Michael Curtiz’ films at Warner Brothers from the mid-‘40s to the early ‘50s, Douglas Sirk at Universal-International in the ‘50s, and Otto Preminger’s films from Laura (1944) to the early '50s at 20th Century Fox. And Leisen at Paramount. Of all of these directors, all of whom were visual stylists of the highest order and who relied very heavily on the art direction to be the handmaiden in helping to reveal the narrative, only Preminger was really able to make a successful transition to directing outside the stifling but nevertheless very often supportive confines of the home studio.
Without making too extravagant claims for Leisen’s work, I should like to suggest that in Hold Back the Dawn he has redemptive love scenes that pre-figure the endings of both Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) as well as Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954) and, even though it may smack of heresy to suggest it, are every bit as moving. And speaking of Bresson: in Leisen’s 1950 No Man of Her Own (a hideously soap-operatic title that doesn’t do justice to the gravity of the film, re-made, from a Cornell Woolrich novel, into a vehicle for Nathalie Baye titled J’ai épousée une ombre ), he employs editing ellipses and quick fade-outs of scenes that will soon become part of Bresson’s arsenal of formal strategies even before Bresson himself invented them.
Every director, no matter how great or beloved, has his or her share of misfires, movies which for whatever reason are uneven, not fully-realised or even downright poor, despite how strenuously the most ardent apologists may champion them. Leisen’s batting average may not be as high as some (like Hitchcock’s or Buñuel’s, to mention the very greatest), but any career that includes Hands Across the Table, Swing High, Swing Low, Easy Living, Midnight, Remember the Night, Frenchman’s Creek (1944), Kitty (1945), Song of Surrender (1949), and No Man of Her Own is hardly a negligible one. In fact, it’s a major one. Other enthusiasts are likely to include To Each His Own (1946), The Mating Season and maybe even Lady in the Dark (1944) in the roll call. In addition, there are many pleasures in small moments and events to be found in his other films. If he is dismissed as only an actor’s director, what of it? So was Cukor, until very recently. If, in the past, he was dismissed as a director who was overly interested in décor, so what? Hadn’t Minnelli been ignored and belittled for decades for similar reasons?
For those of you who know some of Leisen’s films, this is a splendid opportunity to get to know more of them. For those who have never seen any, or have barely heard of him except as a footnote to Wilder’s or Sturges’ or De Mille’s careers, this is an unprecedented opportunity to discover the works of a forgotten master and some of his masterworks. I envy you the pleasure of seeing some of these movies for the first time. Is there is anything more rewarding for film lovers and cinephiles than discovering still another rich chapter of film history that was previously shrouded in darkness, in a vast history still full of dark pockets and as-yet unilluminated treasures?
This text is the introduction to a Mitchell Leisen retrospective at the Cinémathèque française, 27 August to 2 November 2008.
© Mark Rappaport and Rouge September 2008. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.