Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Mitchell Leisen, Hollywood Director

"Mitchell Leisen, Hollywood Director" first published in 1973 and reprinted in 1995, by David Chierichetti, is a fascinating return to Hollywood's golden age, from the 1920s onwards. The blurb says: "Mirchell Leisen's lengthy film career which spanned the silents through the advent of television, began in 1919 when he was hired as a costume designer for Cecil B DeMille. In the 1920s he moved up to set design and art direction, and he began directing in the 1930s. As director, Leisen's unique cinematic eye was responsible for such hits as TO EACH HIS OWN, EASY LIVING. LADY IN THE DARK, MIDNIGHT, REMEMBER THE NIGHT, and DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. His story is a fascinating study of Hollywood's Golden Age." The book also gives an indication of Hollywood's rampant gay and bisexual scene back then ... Amusing stories too on those Leisen was great pals with (Carole Lombard) and those he wasn't (Miss Fontaine). 

My friend Daryl, also says this about Leisen:  "Mitchell Leisen was one of the master directors at Paramount in the 1930s; as a former set and costume designer, his films always had an elegant visual surface, and when that was coupled with a script of some merit, the results were some of the true delights of the period. (It's unfortunate that Leisen's reputation was tarnished by Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder - their anger over what they perceived as his meddling - he often cut the scripts if speeches got too unwieldy - caused them to strike out as writer-directors.)"

Leisen (1898-1972)  is now perceived as one of Hollywood's gay directors, but he was also avidly bisexual, being married and also having a long-time mistress, as well as his relationships with men. His early costume designs for Douglas Fairbanks for ROBIN HOOD and particularly THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD in 1924 are still marvellous now.In 1932 he was assistant director, and did art direction and costumes for DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS which I like a lot (see Peplums-1 label). He had to measure up a nude Claudette for her bath in ass's milk which DeMille wanted to come up to her nipples - but the heat of the studio was turning the milk to cheese .... 
Lets have a look at some of his successes:

MIDNIGHT, 1939. Today' guest reviewer, my friend Martin did this review of it on IMDB ten years ago, and sums it up perfectly:
As good as a movie can get. Claudette Colbert is the flapper/gold-digger/chanteuse, (take your pick), who arrives in a very rainy Paris in an evening gown and not much else. She is momentarily rescued from her predicament by a gallant taxi driver, (played gallantly by Don Ameche), with whom she immediately falls in love but from whom she runs as fast as her well-turned-out legs can carry her. She runs straight into the clutches of John Barrymore, (a magnificent comic performance), who saves her bacon, so to speak, if only she will seduce gigolo Francis Lederer who is stealing away Barrymore's wife, the always delectable Mary Astor, and thus save Barrymore's marriage.
This is a French farce of the very best kind, although it is written, not by a Feydeau, but by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and directed with supreme elegance by the under-valued Mitchell Leisen. Colbert is wonderful as the wide-eyed chorine, torn between love and riches, Barrymore displays sublime comic timing and Astor is as sharp as a new pin. It feels and looks like a Lubitsch but I doubt if even Lubitsch could better it.

HOLD BACK THE DAWN, 1941. Told in flashback from a preface in which the main character visits Paramount to sell his story - to a director played by Leisen himself. Romanian-French gigolo Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) wishes to enter the USA. Stopped in Mexico by the quota system, his old flame Anita (a doxy on the make) advises him to marry an American, whom he can then desert and return to her, who's done likewise. But after sweeping teacher Emmy Brown (Olivia De Havilland) off her feet, he finds her so sweet that love and jealousy endanger his plans. This is a perfect romantic fantasy where the varied characters have their own stories and motives for what they do. There is that nice very pregnant American lady Rosemary DeCamp (though she is so covered up one can hardly see that she is expecting) who connives to get her baby born on American territory. Olivia again plays a good woman without being cloying - I love that school bus she drives around. She is injured in a trafffic accident after Anita (a terrific turn from Paulette Goddard) confronts her and tells her the truth about how and why gigolo Boyer married her - he then risks all to cross the border chased by the immigration people, to get to her hospital bedside to comfort her and give her the will to live .... does it all end happily? You bet - even Anita lands a new rich patsy.

Wilder and Preston Sturges, in later years, bewailed the havoc Leisen wreaked on their scripts. Painted him as a flamboyant gay aesthete, who preferred d├ęcor to drama, party dresses to pithy dialogue. For Wilder, the problem with Leisen was simple. “He was a fag window dresser.”
Ironically, though, MIDNIGHT is a sharper and more stylish satire than Wilder’s dull  LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1957). Lacking Wilder’s pervasive sourness and contempt (to the fore in ACE IN THE HOLEKISS ME STUPID and THE FORTUNE COOKIE), HOLD BACK THE DAWN views its hicks and whores and schemers through a veil of sympathy, suggesting they might have reasons to act as they do.  
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’ . "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." 
"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."

I did these reviews here some while back:
Back to 1944 for FRENCHMAN'S CREEK, a costume drama about pirates from a novel by Daphne De Maurier, with her REBECCA star Joan Fontaine. This is now a Spanish dvd: EL PIRATA Y LA DAMA (The Pirate and the Lady), by that interesting gay director Mitchell Leisen. Mexican Arturo de Cordova is the pirate, with hissable Basil Rathbone, dependable Cecil Kellway and blustering Nigel Bruce. 
Joan is the noblewoman who tires of her husband and his decadent friends in bawdy Restoration London and who decamps with her children to her country estate, run by kindly Cecil, in remote Cornwall. She soon finds out that a French pirate moors his ship in a nearby cove and has been using her house and bedroom. They get to meet and have a chaste affair.  She soon enjoys herself dressing up a his cabin boy and getting involved in his pirate activities. 
Then her husband and suspicious Basil turn up as the plot works out to a satisfactory, for its time, conclusion as she has to give up her pirate lover and settle for dull marriage and looking after her children. Joan gives it her all and gets to wear some nice gowns. Arturo and his pirate gang seem a gay lot .... a subtext picked up by my IMDB pal melvelvit, who commented:  "I see what cinema scribes mean when they speak of Leisen's "gay sensibility"; the camera practically caressed Arturo's hairy (unusual for the time) chest and there were lots of lovingly photographed bare-chested pirates" ... A sometimes campy swashbuckler then. Joan's and Basil's fight to the death on the stairs is certainly well done and packs a punch! 

Then there is GOLDEN EARRINGS made after the war in '47 - is it a comedy, a romance or a thriller? perhaps a bit of each then as Ray Milland is on the run in Germany presumably before or during the war and has to depend on gypsy Marlene Dietrich to help him get around the country. Its actually quite amusing as directed by Mitchell Leisen and Marlene is droll in her gypsy makeup and not playing a heartless vamp for once. Bland Milland is dull - the stars did not get on - I read that Marlene sucked the eye out of a fish-head from her her stewpot during his first closeup to disconcert him. Again we get lots of comic Nazis and they do not seem to mind the gypsies roaming around or telling their fortunes - or maybe the gypsies were not being rounded up just then ! You have to laugh at the end: he comes back after the war and there is Marlene with her gypsy caravan and her stewpot as though he had left just a few minutes before...

Leisen continued into the 1950s - I caught THE MATING SEASON from 1951 once on television but it does not seem available at all now, but provided great roles for Thelma Ritter, Miriam Hopkins, and Gene Tierney. We will be looking out for more Leisen films ....  NO MAN OF HER OWN with Barbara Stanwyck sounds an interesting one.

3 comments:

  1. You are a doll, of course, for posting my review in your ab-fab blog. I haven't read it since I wrote it and it is rather good, if I say so myself. You're not half bad yourself as an aul critic, (a camp Philip French?) though I disagree with you when you call Wilder's LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON dull. It charmed the pants off me (but then that's not hard to do, ahem). I've never seen FRENCHMAN'S CREEK but it is on the wishlist.

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  2. FRENCHMAN'S CREEK is now a Spanish dvd, so next time you are over there on a spree .....

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