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Long neglected by critics and film historians, director and art director Mitchell Leisen underwent a reexamination in later years, leading to more appreciation of his work. While not on par with contemporaries like Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges, Leisen did helm a number of notable screwball comedies that have stood the test of time. After making his mark with "Death Takes a Holiday" (1934), he excelled in the genre with "Hands Across the Table" (1935) and "Swing High, Swing Low" (1937), both starring Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray. He went on to direct the excellent romantic comedy "Remember the Night" (1940) and the tragic melodrama "Hold Back the Dawn" (1941), before becoming a notable actress' director with "To Each His Own" (1946) and "The Mating Season" (1951). His feature career dropped off in the mid-1950s, with Leisen turning to television by helming episodes of "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964) and "Wagon Train" (NBC/ABC, 1957-1965). But in his waning days, Leisen directed less substantial films that were better left forgotten. Less a maverick than his more accomplished contemporaries, at the height of his powers, Leisen was an expert craftsman of opulent productions that more often than not featured strong performances, witty banter and lavish set pieces.
Born on Oct. 6, 1898 in Menominee, MI, Leisen was raised in St. Louis, MO by his mother and stepfather following his parents divorce in 1899; his biological father had been a partner in the Leisen and Hennes Brewing Company. When he was five years old, he underwent surgery to correct a club foot that left him with a slight but permanent limp. Much of his childhood was spent in isolation, during which Leisen amused himself by crafting models of buildings. His mother and stepfather became concerned over his allegedly unmanly pursuits and sent him to a military boarding school - a concern that later became the revelation that he was bisexual. Trained as an architect at Washington University in St. Louis, Leisen moved to Chicago after college to work for a design firm. In his spare time, he pursued acting at a local theater company. As Hollywood was experiencing a shortage of leading men because of World War I, he headed west around 1918 to try his luck as an actor.
While finding work before the camera proved difficult - he landed only one bit part - Leisen found success designing sets for the Hollywood Community Theatre. That led to an introduction to director Cecil B. DeMille, who, after viewing preliminary costume sketches, offered Leisen a contract. The two collaborated for the first time on "Male and Female" (1919), as Leisen spent the next two years toiling for DeMille, moving up to working as a set dresser and art director, and reportedly doing uncredited work on DeMille's silent version of "The Ten Commandments" (1923). Because of constant clashes with the director, however, Leisen quit in 1922 to join United Artists, where he created period costumes for such Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. vehicles as "Robin Hood" (1922) and "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924), both major classics of the silent era. When DeMille launched his own production company in 1925, he lured Leisen back in the capacity of art director and production designer. The next seven years proved to be an important training ground for Leisen and he often credited DeMille with teaching him everything he could about making motion pictures. Leisen crafted the detailed decor for such films as "The Volga Boatman" (1926), Lois Weber's "The Angel of Broadway" (1927), DeMille's biblical epic "King of Kings" (1927), the non-musical version of "Chicago" (1928) and DeMille's first all-talkie picture "Dynamite" (1930). With the last, Leisen earned an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction while also serving as DeMille's assistant director.
While serving double as production designer and assistant director on the remake of "The Squaw Man" (1931) and "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), Leisen was preparing for his own directorial career. Moving to Paramount in 1933, he was assigned as Stuart Walker's assistant on back-to-back features, "Tonight Is Ours" and "The Eagle and the Hawk," both starring Fredric March. Reportedly, Walker ceded most of the work to his assistant who rose to the challenge. While the former was a fluffy romance, the latter was a timely anti-war tale that still retained its power and resonance decades later. The studio eventually promoted Leisen to full-fledged director with "Cradle Song" (1933), a negligible film built around German actress Dorothea Wieck. More successful was "Death Takes a Holiday" (1934), an allegory about Death assuming human form (Fredric March) to learn about human behavior. The film was met with a mixed reception upon release, but over time it became appreciated for its visual flair and fine performances, as well as inspiring the Brad Pitt film "Meet Joe Black" (1998).
Leisen went on to direct the startling mixture of musical and thriller, "Murder at the Vanities" (1934), where he insisted on staging the film's musical numbers in a proscenium in hopes of avoiding an overblown, Busby Berkeley-like spectacle in favor of a more realistic Broadway style. Leisen also pushed the envelope by including risqué banter, simulated nudity and references to drug use. The musical set pieces were among the film's highlights but the overall effectiveness of the story fell flat. Leisen scored with the underappreciated screwball comedy "Hands Across the Table" (1935), which starred Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray as star-crossed lovers and marked the first of his so-called role-reversal movies, with MacMurray as the sex object and Lombard the aggressor. Contemporary reviews noted more detailed characterizations and more complexity in Leisen's directorial style, which was not the case with his next efforts, "The Big Broadcast of 1937" (1936) and "The Big Broadcast of 1938" (1937), two formulaic entertainments starring popular radio personalities like Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Martha Raye. On the other hand, Leisen reached the height of his powers with "Swing High, Swing Low" (1937), a comedy-drama that reunited Lombard and MacMurray in love story between a hairdresser and a trumpet player, an overlooked gem some felt featured Lombard's best performance.
Leisen's next film, "Easy Living" (1937), earned a better reputation more because of its screenwriter Preston Sturges then for Leisen's contributions. The film revolved around a mink coat which is discarded by a millionaire (Edward Arnold) during an argument with his wife (Mary Nash) and ends up in the hands of a working woman (Jean Arthur) who, in turn, is thought to be the millionaire's mistress. During this time, Leisen - whose sexuality later became more a topic than his films - entered into a long companionship with actor-dancer-choreographer Billy Daniel, whom he met in 1938. Having been married to opera singer Sondra Gahle, and in relationships with actress Marguerite DeLaMotte and costume designer Natalie Visart, it was widely speculated that Leisen may have in fact been bisexual. Meanwhile, in teaming again with writer Preston Sturges, Leisen helmed "Remember the Night" (1940) - which also marked his producing debut - a romantic comedy about the relationship between a district attorney (MacMurray) and a jewel thief (Barbara Stanwyck) who reforms after spending the Christmas holidays together. Unlike "Easy Living," the film focused more on character and was more typical of the director's usual efforts. Sandwiched between these two Sturges scripts was the film that was considered to be the director's masterpiece, "Midnight" (1939), a darkly cynical screwball comedy overlaid by sentimentality. Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, "Midnight" was a witty comedy of mistaken identities that revolved around a wily showgirl (Claudette Colbert), a Hungarian cab driver (Don Ameche) and an aristocrat (John Barrymore). Lavish in its presentation, "Midnight" marked a defining moment in the Leisen's career.
Coming into his own as a director of actors, Leisen followed with a handful of finely performed features in the early 1940s, notably "Arise My Love" (1940), a drama starring Claudette Colbert set against the backdrop of Europe on the brink of war; "I Wanted Wings" (1941), a romantic drama featuring Veronica Lake making a peek-a-boo splash in her film debut; and "Hold Back the Dawn" (1941), a tragic melodrama recounting the tale - told in flashback - of a shifty refugee (Charles Boyer) who marries a spinster (Olivia de Havilland) to gain American citizenship, only to renew his relationship with a former mistress (Paulette Goddard). From there, Leisen went on to direct films of varying quality, some of which had a detrimental impact on how future generations looked back upon his career. Motion pictures like "Practically Yours" (1944), "Lady in the Dark" (1944), "Kitty" (1946) and "Golden Earrings" (1947) possessed fine production values but suffered from bad scripts or miscast leads. On the other hand, the wartime drama "To Each His Own" (1946) offered Olivia de Havilland an Oscar-winning tour-de-force as an unmarried woman who gives up her child, only to remain in contact by pretending to be his aunt.
After directing such forgettable films as "Dream Girl" (1948), "Song of Surrender" (1949) and "Bride of Vengeance" (1949), Leisen helmed "No Man of Her Own" (1950), a romantic drama featuring a game Barbara Stanwyck that was on par with his better work. He next helmed "The Mating Season" (1951), a familiarly plotted comedy of errors involving mistaken identities that greatly benefited from Thelma Ritter in an Oscar-nominated performance. Sticking mostly to comedy, Leisen wound down his directing career with mundane fare like "Darling, How Could You!" (1951), "Young Man With Ideas" (1952) and "Tonight We Sing" (1953), before showing brief signs of his old self with the dark crime drama "Bedevilled" (1955). Around this time, his long-time relationship with Billy Daniel was over, while his film career was also nearing its end. He turned to the small screen in the mid-1950s, directing episodes of "Shirley Temple's Storybook" (NBC, 1958-1961), "Wagon Train" (NBC/ABC, 1957-1965) and "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964). He also directed his final feature, "The Girl Most Likely" (1957), notable only for being the last film ever made by RKO Pictures. Due to declining health in the mid- to late-1960s, Leisen left the business. He succumbed to heart disease on Oct. 28, 1972 at 74 years old, somewhat forgotten and underappreciated. Thanks to the publication of David Chierichetti's 1973 biography, however, there was a renewed interest in his work and contributions to American cinema that continued for decades.
By Shawn Dwyer
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Cast (Feature Film)
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Underwent operation to correct a club foot at age five (date approximate)
Moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career (date approximate)
Began designing stage sets for the Hollywood Community Theatre
Hired to design costumes for Cecil B DeMille's "Male and Female"; put under contract by DeMille
Left DeMille to join United Artists; worked as a costume designer; first film for UA "Robin Hood", starring Douglas Fairbanks
Created the costumes for "The Thief of Bagdad"
Returned to work for DeMille as a set dresser; later promoted to art director
First credit as assistant director (to DeMille), "Dynamite"; also designed sets; received Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction
Joined Paramount Pictures
Served as associate director on "Tonight Is Ours" and "The Eagle and the Hawk"
First film credited as director, "Cradle Song"
Helmed "Death Takes a Holiday", starring Fredric March
First of nine feature collaborations with Fred MacMurray, "Hands Across the Table"; also starred Carole Lombard
Directed "Easy Living", scripted by Preston Sturges
Had success with "The Big Broadcast of 1938" which introduced Bob Hope's signature song "Thanks for the Memories"; suffered first heart attack at the end of filming in November 1937
Helmed what many feel is his masterpiece, "Midnight", starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore; first of three scripts by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett
Directed second Sturges script, "Remember the Night"
Last collaboration with Brackett and Wilder, "Hold Back the Dawn", starring Olivia de Havilland and Charles Boyer
Helmed the screen version of "Lady in the Dark"; also rewrote script and designed costumes
Directed de Havilland to an Oscar in "To Each His Own"
Last film with MacMurray, "Suddenly It's Spring"
Experienced a downturn in career with the film version of Elmer Rice's play "Dream Girl"
Critical response to "Captain Carey, USA" was also considered a bomb; film is remembered for its theme "Mona Lisa"
Rebounded with the film noir "No Man of Her Own"
Had modest success with "The Mating Season", featuring a strong supporting performance from Thelma Ritter
Began directing for television
Made last feature "The Girl Most Likely"
Credited as co-director of the documentary "Spree", which utilized footage he had shot in prior years
Had left leg amputated