Design for Living

The campy realism of Mitchell Leisen, a forgotten master of disguise
by David Cairns  posted October 23, 2008
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Anybody coming to Mitchell Leisen with a foreknowledge based on the irate denunciations of Billy Wilder might well find themselves viewing the films through an obscuring screen of misinformation. Wilder spent decades bemoaning the damage done by Leisen to his scripts, griping that Leisen would cut lines of dialogue or whole scenes at actors' requests, thoughtlessly leaving onscreen "holes," or that Leisen, a former art director and costume designer (The Thief of Bagdad, 1924; The Sign of the Cross, 1932) cared only about pretty sets and gowns—and the charge, born of bitterness and reeking somewhat of homophobia, stuck.

But viewed with an unjaundiced eye, Leisen's oeuvre reveals no such glaring holes, and his interest in design informs his narratives rather than smothering them. Beyond that, Leisen displays rare versatility as a director, moving fluidly from melodrama to screwball, pastoral to noir, often within the same film. The other key point is that, far from being a servile hack who butchered screenplays to please powerful movie stars, Leisen cared deeply about the stories he told and invested them with recurring themes and motifs that testify to his close involvement in the writing process. Only when saddled with unsatisfactory material would he divert himself with absorption in pretty visuals.

Spite marriage: in both Bride of Vengeance (1949, luxuriant tosh about the Borgias) and No Man of Her Own (1950, plangent noir with Barbara Stanwyck from a Cornell Woolrich novel) women marry men with the intention of killing them: "I will," says Stanwyck, and we know exactly what she means.

Gold diggers: in Hands Across the Table (1935, trappings of screwball, heart of romance) Carole Lombard is set on marrying a millionaire, but falls in love with Fred MacMurray, who's set on marrying a millionairess, while in The Girl Most Likely (1957), Jane Powell looks for a rich man and gets engaged to one—but also to two poor ones.

Masquerade is an important part of both these narrative devices, and that theme runs throughout Leisen's work. In the high-class screwball comedy Midnight (1939), Claudette Colbert infiltrates a colony of millionaires and passes off smitten communist cabbie Don Ameche as an insane baron: any protestation he can make to the contrary is dismissed as a symptom of his mania. In the middle-class situation comedy The Mating Season (1951), proletarian mom Thelma Ritter pretends to be her son's maid because he's marrying a socialite and she doesn't wish to embarrass him. And in To Each His Own (1946), a weepie so potent it can dehydrate entire audiences, Olivia de Havilland hopes to pass her illegitimate son off as a foundling, so she can adopt and raise him.

To attempt to psychoanalyze Leisen at this historical distance seems folly, although as a devotee of the couch he may well have approved of such an effort. As a gay man in Hollywood, his sexuality an open secret, issues of pretense and disguise must have interested him.

In No Time for Love (1943) Colbert plays a mannishly dressed fashion magazine photographer perturbed by "erotic" (and Salvador Dali/comic book-inspired) dream sequences of MacMurray as a yodeling superman. In Lady in the Dark (1944), Ginger Rogers is a mannishly dressed fashion magazine editor perturbed by musical dream sequences pointing to an undiagnosed Elektra complex. In both cases the independent heroine faces a desire to be dominated by a man. Leisen, no misogynist as his other films testify, may be working through some of his own issues here.

As the above examples show, Leisen was a prolific director within the studio system (Paramount was his usual home) who tackled a range of subjects but was often typecast, and met greatest success with comedies, historical yarns, and the woman's picture. All these genres offer a filmmaker of Leisen's versatility a range of tones to work in, and Leisen was adept at mingling realism and camp.

"If you remind your audience in a hundred little ways that this is 1918, then the plot and the characterizations become more compelling," he told an interviewer. Historical dress was rigorously respected in Leisen's films, although the studio forbade the use of codpieces for Bride of Vengeance. Kitty (1945) is a sumptuous 18th-century comedy of social climbing, as at home in the squalor of Houndsditch as in the studio of Gainsborough or the ballrooms of the aristocracy.

Even in a musical such as Murder at the Vanities (1934), Leisen was concerned with presenting musical numbers that could fit onto a real stage, disregarding the Busby Berkeley fantasies popular at the time. Though Leisen's set pieces certainly don't lack sparkle: a desert island with an ocean composed of fan-dancers, and a delirious bit of Mexicana called "Marijuana," sung by Kitty Carlisle against a backdrop of naked girls emerging from pot plants-the number disrupted when drops of blood from a slain lady detective drop from the rafters and stain one of the porcelain bosoms.

This leads nicely to Leisen's counter-balancing tone: camp."If only you were a boy!" sighs Arturo de Cordova in Frenchman's Creek (1944). He's wishing he could take Joan Fontaine to sea, but the sentiment is still a startling one, especially given his opulent white and gold pirate ship with its crew of cross-dressing Frenchmen. Somehow Leisen could get away with stuff like this. Golden Earrings (1947) becomes far more than a routine WWII spy drama when Ray Milland dons those earrings as a gypsy disguise—the whole film might be in disguise, with espionage as a cover story for sexual outlawry.

Between these two extremes, Leisen could find infinite shadings. Remember the Night (1940) starts as a screwball comedy: assistant DA Fred MacMurray (Leisen's regular everyman) is saddled with care of bailed jewel thief Barbara Stanwyck over the Christmas season. The mood plunges into nightmare when we meet Stanwyck's mother, a God-fearing bitch brimming with intolerance. Having driven her only child into the night, this awful woman returns to her front room and dims the lantern—she lives in darkness. MacMurray takes the fugitive from justice home to his own mother, and we get warm scenes of bucolic comedy and sentiment, dovetailing into romantic tragedy as the two fall in love and he's tempted to risk his career by deliberately botching her prosecution to set her free. The film is an astonishing journey. Great credit goes to Preston Sturges, who wrote it (as well as Leisen's Wall Street rom-com Easy Living in 1937), but Leisen had the job of cutting the script from over two hours to 94 minutes, and keeping it coherent. He also cast it to perfection (a number of Sturges's future repertory company make early appearances in the two Leisens he scripted, including of course Franklin Pangborn, Hollywood's chief comedy homosexual) and slid the story around all those turns so that it's only afterward that you look back and wonder how you got where you are.

Clearly Leisen's work has some fairly dark and worrisome things to say about romantic relationships, despite the frequent lightness of tone. His lovers are likely to be separated by class, and triumph over this social obstacle is never certain, though it's shown to be an artificial divide rather than an innate human one; in Easy Living, the mere addition of a fur coat is enough to utterly transform everybody's perception of a humble secretary, and as in all Sturges scripts, perception is everything.

The director's personal relationship with dancer Billy Daniels may have been a source of inspiration for some of this material. Friends thought Daniels too "crass" for the cultivated Leisen. "He brought Mitch nothing but sorrow and yet Mitch just couldn't pull himself away," said one. But the troubled love affairs of Leisen's cinema preceded this long-term relationship, and one of his finest films shows the tortured dynamics of dysfunctional love in full, mutually masochistic depth.

Swing High, Swing Low (1937) is a showbiz rags-to-riches story. Free-living trumpet player MacMurray meets hairdresser Carole Lombard as he's getting out of the army. He becomes a star, with her ascending after him, but he embarks on a hedonistic, self-destructive course once he has money. Lombard tries to pull him together after his career is destroyed and his health shattered.

The first half of the film is a light comedy in the classic '30s manner. Both the stars are associated with screwball humor and play it beautifully. There are comedy brawls, funny best friends, and a pet chicken. Imperceptibly, the tone darkens. The characters' love makes them vulnerable in a way that undercuts comic potential. When MacMurray leaves for New York ahead of Lombard, pursuing a career opportunity, he's like a frightened child. He knows his own weakness, and knows that being alone in the big city with too much money, will play to his self-destructive side.

Now, without warning, we are in a darker, more adult film, with foretastes of The Lost Weekend (1945)—MacMurray pawning his trumpet for drink money, and New York, New York (1977)—long, awkward, and painful scenes of breakup and breakdown. At two hours, the film is extremely long for its period, and it earns that running time by taking its characters a long way: as with Children of Paradise (1945), it's possible to look back nostalgically on the characters' relatively carefree, if impoverished, early days, even as the film is still playing. The journey from innocence to experience is agonizing and beautiful. "If it isn't pain/It isn't love," sings Lombard, MacMurray's arms wrapped around her neck as if to choke the life from her.

At the end of his magisterial study of Leisen, Hollywood Director (Curtis Books) centered on a lengthy, informative, and enjoyably bitchy interview with the great man himself, David Chierichetti expressed the hope that Leisen's films are on the way back into fashion, critical acclaim, and availability. That was in 1973, and the expected rediscovery did not quite happen. With retrospectives at San Sebastian in 2000, Edinburgh in 2006, and now at the Cinematheque Française, Leisen's renaissance may finally be upon us, long overdue but still timely. 


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September 27-November 2, 2008 Retrospective Mitchell Leisen


David Cairns is a writer, director, and blogger. His short film Cry For Bobo (2001) has won 24 awards around the world. He has written for several UK TV series including Intergalactic Kitchen and Twisted Tales. His articles have appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, and Senses of Cinema.

More articles by David Cairns
Author's Website: Shadowplay