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During the 1950s, director Mitchell Leisen experienced a rapid decline in his career. After Young Man with Ideas was released in 1952, he completed only three more feature films before moving into television work. He stopped directing entirely in 1967 and then died in obscurity five years later. Though Leisen worked in a variety of genres, his screwball comedies and light romantic fare rank among his best work. Easy Living (1937) and Midnight (1939) are often cited as classics of romantic comedy, yet Leisen lacks the stellar reputation of Capra, Wilder, and Sturges, even considering recent reassessments of his career and retrospectives of his work.
Like many directors of the Golden Age, Leisen's style serviced the content of his films and the performances of their stars to the point of invisibility. He never called undue attention to the elegant, detailed surfaces of the mise-en-scene or the smooth, brisk pacing of his editing. In Leisen's movies, the stars shone brightly as he showcased their charisma, charm, and attractiveness so that the actors were memorable, even while his directorial stamp was less obtrusive. Oft times, directors like Leisen are unsung by the history books, or, at best, dubbed "minor" masters.
Young Man with Ideas reflects many of the best characteristics of the director's style though not all of them. Part of a wave of marriage "dramedies" in the early 1950s, the film follows the troubles of young couple Maxwell and Julie Webster. Maxwell is an overworked, underappreciated legal researcher who can't stand up for himself at home or in the work place. Hoping to become a lawyer in a major firm, he moves his family to California where he plans to take the bar. Julie fears that her husband's self-effacing manner will lead to failure, which derails Maxwell's confidence in passing the bar and in taking care of his family. Glenn Ford, Ruth Roman, and Nina Foch drew good notices for their energy, agility, and light-hearted charms in this film, which is largely due to Leisen's talent for nurturing stars. Much like Fred MacMurray in Leisen's Remember the Night (1940) or Don Ameche in Midnight, Glenn Ford portrays the morally conflicted leading man while still conveying a touching, everyman quality that was the essence of his character's appeal. Ruth Roman, like Claudette Colbert in Midnight or Jean Arthur in Easy Living, expressed a vivaciousness that made her hard-driving, insistent character easier to take. The key to Leisen's romantic comedies is the spark or connection between the male and female leads, displayed or ignited through interaction or dialogue. Ford and Roman communicate a tight bond in their scenes together even as their characters argue. This unity is important to convey because the plot turns on a husband's need to feel his wife's complete support.
The Websters also reflect Leisen's preference for bringing together seemingly incompatible opposites. A working-class girl falls for a rich man; a career woman finds herself in love with a man with no skills; a woman searching for a wealthy husband ends up with a poor taxi driver. In Leisen's films, the man and woman who make up the couple are often at cross purposes for most of the narrative. In Young Man with Ideas, Maxwell and Julie have opposing personalities. Maxwell is so humble and self-effacing that the law firm where he works takes him for granted. He spends endless hours researching to ensure the firm wins a big case, but they do not acknowledge his contribution at the celebratory dinner. Instead, they send him to get cigars for everyone, as though he was their errand boy. Julie, on the other hand, is outspoken, unimpressed with social position or class, and aggressively pursues her point of view no matter the impact on others. Like all marriages and relationships, the couple must learn to compromise to make their differences complement rather than work against each other.
The onscreen warmth between Roman and Ford is a testament to their acting skills because the two did not get along behind the scenes. Originally, a stage actor named Russell Nype, who was costarring in the hit Broadway musical Call Me Madam, was signed by MGM and cast as Maxwell Webster. Apparently, Roman hoped to turn Young Man with Ideas into a vehicle for herself, and she worked hard to steal the film from the young and inexperienced Nype. A week into production, Nype was replaced by Glenn Ford, whose quiet, everyman quality was better suited to the character. The change in leading men angered Roman, and in her scenes with Ford, she deliberately delivered her lines in a way that would render his responses harsh, casting his character in an unsympathetic light. Ford refused to act with Roman until she read the lines as directed, but she refused to portray her character any other way. Finally, the producers stepped in and forced her to read the lines the way Leisen instructed and the script intended.
Leisen was adept at weaving together comedy and melodrama in his films to achieve the right balance of sentiment and humor. The marital woes of Maxwell and Julie provide most of the melodrama. Adding to the comedy are several scenes involving children, including the young actresses who play the Webster daughters. Donna Corcoran, who was the sister of Disney child star Kevin Corcoran, plays oldest daughter Caroline. She steals a scene in which she and her siblings are playing "courtroom" by the front door as her father comes home for dinner. As Maxwell passes by, Caroline can be heard defending her younger sister, who is "on trial." "Sending her to prison for five years," intones Caroline, "will not bring back the candy bar." The Websters' California neighbors include a stage mother who works hard to break her untalented son, Willis, into the movies. Their scenes make for a spoof of child stars and their pushy mothers that is as accurate as it is funny.
Leisen began his career in Hollywood as a costume designer and set dresser for Cecil B. DeMille, who opened the door for him in the industry. He did the costumes for several silent classics, including Douglas Fairbanks's The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and he worked his way up to art director for DeMille on The King of Kings (1927). Leisen learned a great deal about how and where to set up the camera from DeMille, but most importantly, the master director imparted to Leisen the basis of his directorial approach: "The visual image carries more impact than dialogue." Leisen, who spent the majority of his career at Paramount, moved up to assistant director on Tonight Is Ours (1933) and The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), though he took over most of the directorial chores from Stuart Walker on both films. His first credit as director was for Cradle Song (1933), and his first significant film was Death Takes a Holiday (1934). For the rest of his career, Leisen placed the cameras himself on most of his films, and he took an extra interest in the set decoration and costume design.
Unfortunately, Leisen did not have the input on the costumes and set design for Young Man with Ideas that he had on his previous films. The film was his first after leaving Paramount, and it was produced and distributed by MGM. Cedric Gibbons, the long time art director at MGM, was in charge of the set designs for all of the studio's films. Gibbons was responsible for the studio's house style that emphasized glitzy glamour and ritzy luxury. Leisen was forced to adopt Gibbons' plans for the set designs, even though he disagreed with them. The director complained about the inappropriateness of the set decoration in an interview with David Chierichetti, author of Hollywood Director, the only full-length biography of Leisen. For the interior of a bookie joint, Gibbons opted for beautiful copper lamps with plants growing out of them, a dcor too elegant for an illegal bookie operation, while a golf club in provincial Billings, Montana, was too sophisticated in its look and feel for a small-town club.
Though Young Man with Ideas is one of Leisen's lesser efforts and represents the beginning of the end of his long career, the film features a good comedic performance by Glenn Ford, some excellent supporting work from Nina Foch, a brisk pace that reveals a light directorial touch, and a reasonable perspective on the trials and tribulations of romance.
Producers: Gottfried Reinhardt and William H. Wright
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Arthur Sheekman, Ben Barzman
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editor: Frederick Y. Smith
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan
Music: David Rose
Cast: Maxwell Webster (Glenn Ford), Julie Webster (Ruth Roman), Joyce Laramie (Nina Foch), Dorianne Gray (Denise Darcel), Caroline Webster (Donna Corcoran), Edmund Jethrow (Ray Collins), Mrs. Gilpin (Mary Wickes), Willis Gilpin (Bobby Diamond), Brick Davis (Sheldon Leonard), Susan Webster (Nadine Ashdown).
BW-85m. Closed Captioning.
by Susan Doll