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Mitchell Leisen Edit Profile

Costume designer , Art director , Film director

Mitchell Leisen was an American film director, art director, costume designer.

Background

Mitchell Leisen was born on 6 October 1898 in Menominee, Michigan, United States.

Education

Leisen was trained as an architect and he worked on interior design before entering movies.

Career

His first credits came for the costumes on Male and Female (19, Cecil B. De Mille) and two Douglas Fairbanks swash bucklers: Robin llood (22, Allan Dwan) and The Thief of Bagdad (24, Raoul Walsh). He then joined De Mille as art director and worked on The Road to Yesterday (25), The Volga Boatman (26), Chicago (27, Frank Urson), Dress Parade (27, Donald Crisp), King of Kings (27), Dynamite (29), The Godless Carl (29), Madame Satan (30), The Sign of the Cross (32), and This Day and Age (33). After being assistant director on Tonight Is Ours (33, Stuart Walker) and The Eagle and the Hawk (33, Walker), he became a director.

II Lubitsch has too generous a reputation as the mastermind of Paramount in the 1930s, then Leisen is surely a neglected figure, and a minor master. From the early thirties to the early forties, Leisen was an expert at romantic comedies, too reliant on feeling to be screwball, too pleased with glamour to be satires—and thus less likely to attract critical attention. Leisen was temperamentally more generous than Lubitsch, or Wilder. He loved sets and clothes; he was especially good with actors like Fred MacMurray and Bay Milland, who often grew bored in other films, being told to stand there and look good; and Leisen was as good with actresses, as kind and tender, as George Cukor—like Cukor.

Take Swing High, Swing Low, the enchanting, bittersweet story of a feckless trumpet-player (M acMurray) and his love for Carole Lombard. When it is funny and happy, it is as light as play; in love it nearly swoons; but when it turns somber it is a love story noir in 1937! Murder at the Vanities is a raunchy variety show—Leisen was always good at musical numbers, and at integrating them in a story. In Hands Across the Table, Lombard is a manicurist going after MacMurray—those two players, both a little shy, both at ease in quick comedy with deep feelings, never had a more supportive director than Leisen.

Easy Living, from a Preston Sturges script, is a delicious comedy about a fur coat in a hypocritical society, and one of Jean Arthur’s best films. Midnight is the closest Leisen came to screwball, an elaborate web of deception and flirtation, beautifully played by Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, jolm Barrymore, and Don Ameche—it is also one of the gentlest comedies ever written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (which is to guess that Leisen warmed them up). Remember the Night is a prosecutor (MacMurray) in love with a shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck); it is close to a great film, and arguably the most human love story Preston Sturges ever wrote. Hold Back the Dawn (another Wilder-Brackett script) has Charles Boyer marrying Olivia de Havilland to get into America.

The case has been made—not least by some of the writers—that Leisen depended upon good scripts. Perhaps. But delighting in good material is no crime, and there are seven or eight Leisen films from this period (with many different writers) that have a distinct refusal to go stale or dry. Swing High, Swing Low, one of the best, was written by . . . Virginia Van Upp and Oscar Hammerstein II.

In the forties, Leisen came to grief trying bigger pictures. Ladtj in the Dark, from the Moss Hart play, is terribly uneven, consistently pretentious, and no vehicle for Ginger Rogers—it needed Margaret Sullavan or even Judy Garland. Frenchman’s Creek is rubbish and endless. Kitty is a case of costume smothering interest and proof that the pretty, funny Paulette Goddard could not carry a film. Golden Earrings seems bizarre . . . until you see Bride of Vengeance, which is absurd.

However, two other films stand out. To Each his Own is a super weepie, with Olivia de Havilland playing young and old, and John Lund as the father and son to whom she is devoted. De Havilland won the Oscar for herself, but the film as a whole has that rueful romance that Leisen understood so well. No Man of Her Own (adapted from Cornell Woolrieh) has Stanwyck masquerading her way into a wealthy family and being black-mailed by Lyle Bettger. This is a richer noir than many more famous works, lovingly composed from coincidence, menace, and calm, and Stanwyck’s equal skill at being tough and wounded.

His last years were spent as a night-club proprietor and an occasional director for TV. The falling off should not conceal Leisen’s proper position as a leading American director, or the need for proper revaluation of his lyrical treatment of romantic luxury.