Notes on an Exploding Star
I was the enemy of the ordinary.
– Fred MacMurray, Hands Across the Table
When Mitchell Leisen died at the Motion Picture Country Home in 1972, both he and his films were largely forgotten. One of a host of old-style Hollywood directors who had not been rediscovered, re-interpreted or (in some cases) recreated as an auteur by Cahiers du cinéma, Leisen was remembered – grudgingly – as a minor artisan. A dress-designer who turned director, fashioning a string of campy gossamer romances for the lesser Great Ladies of Tinsel Town.
“Leisen was competent and stylish at his best.” Film historian Steven Bach gives the majority view. “He could always make a picture look better than it was, but never play better, for he had no sense of material.” (1) Condescending but benign next to Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, writers whose early Hollywood careers were built on their scripts for Leisen films: “On TV,” Wilder said, “I would watch only a picture by a director I hated. There is no director I hate that much. Not even Mitchell Leisen.” (2)
Wilder and Sturges, in later years, bewailed the havoc Leisen wreaked on their scripts. Painted him as a flamboyant gay aesthete, who preferred décor to drama, party dresses to pithy dialogue. Who deleted pages of script at the whim of his leading lady – focusing instead on a vase of white lilies on a table, a muscular Grecian statue in a corner of the Grand Salon. Flickering and insubstantial as a celluloid ghost, his oeuvre embodied Susan Sontag’s definition of camp. It was “decorative art, emphasising texture, sensuous surface and style at the expense of content.” (3) For Wilder, the problem with Leisen was simple. “He was a window dresser.” (4)
Ironically, though, Midnight (1939) – a frothy romantic farce directed by Leisen from a Wilder script – is a sharper and more stylish satire than Wilder’s own Sabrina (1954) or Love in the Afternoon (1957). A socially-conscious soap opera, Hold Back the Dawn (1941) – again, written by Wilder but directed by Leisen – packs a far greater punch than Wilder’s own Ace in the Hole (1951). Lacking Wilder’s pervasive sourness and contempt, 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
Similarly, Easy Living (1937) – a “screwball” comedy shot by Leisen but scripted by Sturges – is as frenetically funny as The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). Yet it has a quality that Sturges’ film wholly lacks, a visual and emotional grace. Their second teaming, Remember the Night (1940) parades Sturges’ love of small-town Americana. But Leisen, with his drastic cuts to the screenplay, makes it heartfelt rather than hokey. Mercifully, he eschews those Sturges forays into cornball excess.
Leisen, glimpsed in this new light, is no longer a swishy hack. He’s a subtle and stylish auteur who could add heart and humanity to the brittle sophistication of Billy Wilder, lend grace and elegance to the boisterous Americana of Preston Sturges. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson hails Leisen as “an expert at witty romantic comedies, too reliant on feeling to be screwball, too pleased with glamour to be satires – and thus less likely to attract critical attention.” (5)
Such re-evaluation is long overdue, yet it still falls short of the whole story. It overlooks, for a start, Leisen’s bold and flamboyant exploration of the world of dreams. A homosexual artist in a homophobic era and industry, Leisen sought solace (and perhaps a cure) in the arms of Freudian psychoanalysis. As his profile rose – and his relationship with dancer-choreographer Billy Daniels became an open secret – Leisen put his psychoanalytical quest onto film. His wild dream sequences in No Time for Love (1943), Lady in the Dark (1944) and Dream Girl (1948) are as close to the avant-garde as 1940s Hollywood could allow.
Less surprising, perhaps, that Leisen is uniquely forthright in his portrayal of gays. True, many of his films display the “moral frivolity about homosexuality” (6) condemned by the pioneer gay critic Parker Tyler. Franklin Pangborn as a gossipy milliner in Easy Living; Rex O’Malley as a poisonous lounge lizard in Midnight; Mischa Auer as a fiendishly camp fashion photographer in Lady in the Dark. In each case, gayness is “used as a Halloween masquerade to play slyly on the subject of the homosexual, as if he were not real but a sort of charade person.” (7)
But the truth, as ever with Leisen, is more complex. Richard Haydn, the Gay Best Friend in No Time for Love, is more than a comic sideshow. He’s a literal “good fairy” who resolves the crisis in the plot. Frenchman’s Creek (1944) has a cross-dressing heroine and a transvestite pirate ballet. Golden Earrings (1947) has a hero who swathes himself in androgynous gypsy drag. In these films, Leisen subverts the Hollywood notion of “masculinity” – in ways that run far deeper than Johnny Depp’s campy turn in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).
Not even Leisen’s greatest fans will deny that Frenchman’s Creek, Golden Earrings and the 1934 musical Murder at the Vanities are monuments of camp. Their fervid artificiality, their feverish riot of costume and decor, tend inexorably towards that “theatricalization of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility.” (8) Popular yet critically savaged, Leisen’s more flamboyant films need reassessing. Directors as diverse as Kenneth Anger and Baz Luhrmann, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Bartel have redefined our notions of camp. No longer just a failure of taste, camp is fast becoming a genre all its own.
It may, in fact, be possible to make a case for Mitchell Leisen as the first Post-Modern filmmaker. Unlike directors that critics tend to adore (Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford) almost none of his films can be evaluated in terms of a single genre. Murder at the Vanities is a frothy musical extravaganza, a raunchy sexual farce and a tough-talking crime thriller. Remember the Night flows from high comedy to road movie to heart-warming rural drama – and becomes, in its final reels, a doomed romance akin to Marcel Carné’s Quai des Brumes (1938). Frenchman’s Creek turns a Gothic into a feminist pirate swashbuckler. No Man of Her Own (1950) is that strangest, most contradictory of beasts, a feminist film noir.
Add in Leisen’s moral and sexual ambiguities, his persistent reversal of gender roles, his delight in masquerade, impersonation and role-playing…a vision of Leisen as Post-Modernist is not far off. From the start, there was a dazzle to his talent that challenged the dour strictures of mainstream “good taste”. His frequent art director Ernst Fegté said: “Mitch’s career was like a star that got brighter and brighter until it exploded and the remnants fell to earth.” (9) What can we do but turn our face towards Heaven and catch the sparks?
HE: Why do young people think they can cure anything by getting on a train?
SHE: You never know who you’ll meet while travelling.
– Larry Keating and Miriam Hopkins, The Mating Season
James Mitchell Leisen was born to middle-class affluence in 1898, in a tranquil Midwest town – Menominee, Michigan. Cut to the first shots of No Man of Her Own, a vista of shimmering suburban lawns and gingerbread homes. “The breeze that stirs the curtains is soft and pleasant.” Barbara Stanwyck speaks a huskily hypnotic voice-over. “There’s the hush, the stillness of perfect peace and security.” It is a mythic landscape, a lost Eden, to which Leisen’s characters repair time and again. A shelter from complex or corrupted lives. Such security, for Leisen, did not last his childhood. His parents divorced before he was five.
A sickly child, operated on for a Byronic club foot, little James spent time arranging flowers and designing sets for his toy theatre. Oddly, his parents sent him to military school. He served as a drill officer in World War I, then worked for a firm of architects in Chicago. Bored, he drifted out to Hollywood to try his luck in the movies. One night at dinner, he sat next to Jeannie MacPherson, the screenwriter (and mistress) of Cecil B. DeMille. Deciding this young man had “interesting hands”, (10) she introduced Leisen to her boss – who promptly hired him to design some Art Deco Babylonian gowns for Gloria Swanson in his new epic, Male and Female (1919).
Although Leisen had never made a dress before, the gowns were a hit. He was next teamed with Natacha Rambova to design a fantasy Cinderella Ball in DeMille’s Forbidden Fruit (1921). He dressed Mary Pickford in a Spanish lace mantilla for Rosita (1923), the Hollywood debut of Ernst Lubitsch. He then designed two epics for Douglas Fairbanks – Pre-Raphaelite Medieval for Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922) and fantasy Oriental for The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924). “If he had wanted to,” Dwan said, “he could have become another Dior.” (11)
But Leisen soon grew bored with couture. Rejoining DeMille as an art director, he designed such triumphantly vulgar spectacles as Mary Magdalene’s banquet in King of Kings (1927). The race in Dynamite (1929), with bathing-suited debutantes strapped inside giant hoops. The masked orgy on board a zeppelin in Madam Satan (1930) – with its Electrical Ballet and chorus of tap-dancing cats. “DeMille had no nuances,” Leisen said. “Everything was in neon lights six feet tall. LUST, REVENGE, SEX. You had to think the way he thought, in capital letters.” (12)
Yet it was DeMille who taught Leisen his central credo. “The camera has no ears. If you want to say it, get it on the screen.” (13) Leisen, to the despair of Wilder and Sturges, was a visual stylist. An aesthete who favoured the image over the word. In 1932, Leisen did both sets and costumes for DeMille’s Ancient Rome epic The Sign of the Cross. With its evil Empress Poppaea afloat to her nipples in asses’ milk, its graphic lesbian dance in honour of the Moon Goddess, its naked Christian maiden trussed up in flowers and mauled by a randy gorilla, this a flamboyantly depraved work to rival Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).
Around this time, Leisen got married. His wife, Sondra Gahle, was an ambitious if not overly gifted opera diva. “I heard her sing once,“ said Ray Milland, “and she was lousy.”(14) She and Leisen lived apart amicably for years (he in Hollywood, she in Paris) and he nurtured a project to direct her in a film of Bizet’s Carmen. Only in the late ’30s, when Leisen started a serious affair with Billy Daniels, did Sondra lose her starring role in her husband’s life. The plush Parisian soirée in Midnight, with its screeching opera diva and public in agonies of boredom, can be read as an “in-joke” at a chapter that had drawn to a close.
On top of his film work, Leisen ran an haute couture studio, did interior decorating for luxury homes, and staged and designed lavish nightclub revues at the Coconut Grove. “He had so much talent in all artistic directions,” Ray Milland said. “He could direct; he could write; he did marvellous interior decoration; he could dress people beautifully, both male and female; he staged nightclub acts; he painted, sketched and sculpted. He never stopped.” (15) He continued to design costumes and sets for most (if not all) the films he directed, although he took credit on only one, Bride of Vengeance (1949).
HE: You expect love to be all sky-blue pink and trumpets blowing. Well, it isn’t like that.
SHE: If it isn’t, I don’t want it!
– Philip Terry and Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own
Leisen’s move into directing was gradual. His first two credits at Paramount were as co-director with a graduate of the New York stage, Stuart Walker. Tonight Is Ours (1932) is a comic romance about a Ruritanian queen (Claudette Colbert) who falls for a commoner (Fredric March). The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) is an anti-war drama, with March and Cary Grant as World War I flying aces, and Carole Lombard as a token love interest. Leisen later tried to claim full credit for both films. “Stuart Walker had no idea what a camera was for, or about, or anything else.” (16)
With or without Walker, a style was emerging. Most early Leisen films are swooningly romantic. A character, however cynical or jaded, can always find redemption in True Love. Naïve, perhaps, but true to Leisen’s own emotional journey. A bisexual enduring psychoanalysis and a sham marriage – plus a string of furtive affairs with young men – Mitchell Leisen in the ’30s was, outwardly, a high-toned sophisticate with a glamorous career but, inwardly, a damaged soul on a quest for impossible love.
Such a love was hinted at in his first solo credit. Cradle Song (1933) is a bizarre drama about a lovelorn nun and her “maternal” adoration of a pretty orphan girl. German actress Dorothea Wieck (known for Leontine Sagan’s 1931 lesbian drama Mädchen in Uniform) plays love-struck Sister Joanna. Soft-focus camerawork and kitsch iconography give Cradle Song the aura of a mock-Catholic photo by Pierre et Gilles. Worlds away from such inspirational slop as Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), it anticipates such “naughty nun” epics as Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and Pedro Almodovar’s Dark Habits (1983).
Another cod-religious fantasia, Death Takes a Holiday (1934) stars Evelyn Venable (the doe-eyed protégée from Cradle Song) as a young girl who falls in love with Death – in the earthly form of a suave aristocrat, Prince Sirki (Fredric March). A film whose “artificial situations made it the L’Année derniere à Marienbad of its day”, (17) it is the Orpheus myth told in reverse. A tormented hero lures his willing victim out of the everyday world, into a shadow realm haunted by a spectre of ideal love. Its lush visual delirium outdoes even Cradle Song. A riot of icons and crucifixes; marble palaces, moonlit pools and cypress groves; a Neapolitan carnival in full swing. Its mood is only slightly less rarefied than that of Alain Resnais’ film.
From ethereal to earthy…Leisen’s next film, Murder at the Vanities marked him out as a master of raunchy innuendo and elegant smut. Its centrepiece is a Broadway musical revue of jaw-dropping, eye-popping, mind-blowing vulgarity. Giant powder boxes snap open. Each one reveals, in its mirrored lid, a nude chorus girl lounging Venus-like inside. Lovers croon on a tropical island bristling with phallic palm trees. Around them writhes a “sea” of dancers with ostrich-plume fans. The diva sings a paean to “Sweet Marijuana” – as chorines bloom like peyote flowers on a giant cactus! (Not surprisingly, Murder at the Vanities re-emerged as a cult movie in the ’60s.)
Some lesser films followed. Behold My Wife (1935) is a glum drama of interracial marriage, with Sylvia Sidney as a Native American bride called Tonita Stormcloud. Four Hours to Kill (1935), with Ray Milland, and Thirteen Hours by Air (1936), with Joan Bennett and Fred MacMurray, are both thrillers. But Leisen’s next film was the prototype for all his romantic comedies of the next ten years.
A sparkling but dark-hued love story, Hands Across the Table (1935) stars Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray as two vulnerable souls, both willing to sell themselves in marriage for money. She is a gold-digging manicurist, courted by a wheelchair-bound millionaire. He is a playboy-turned-gigolo, engaged to a spoiled heiress. Both, in theory, are contemptible. Yet Leisen maintains that “nobody’s all good, or all bad, not in my movies at least. There’s a little bad in the best of us, and a little good in the worst of us.” (18)
Both characters are products of a system that condemns people, arbitrarily, to extremes of poverty and wealth. This film marks the start of Leisen’s fascination with class and its corrosive effect. “While an artisan seldom crosses a Lubitsch drawing room,” David Shipman writes, “in the films of Leisen the penniless are in constant conflict with the well-to-do.” (19) This being Hollywood, the two cash in their dreams of fortune. They settle instead for True Love and each other. But only once the director has made his point.
Leisen also plays fast-and-loose with gender roles. Lombard is the “masculine” character. Thrusting, abrasive, relying on her brains. (She even boasts a man’s name, Regi Allen.) MacMurray’s is the “feminine” role. Frivolous, playful, reliant on his charm. For Susan Sontag, “the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s own sex.” (20) Hands Across the Table evokes Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Are these two heterosexual lovers? Or a tomboy and her gay best pal? Doubt is resolved as they lie awake by moonlight in separate beds, and each puffs longingly at a cigarette. It is one of the most achingly romantic scenes in all cinema.
Leisen continued in this vein with Swing High, Swing Low (1937), the tragi-comic love story of a street-smart hairdresser (Lombard) and an alcoholic musician (MacMurray). She takes charge of his career in hand, builds him into a star and he leaves her for a slinky femme fatale (Dorothy Lamour). At last, a dying MacMurray sinks, Camille-like, into Lombard’s protective arms. “When it is funny and happy,” writes David Thomson, “it is as light as play; in love it nearly swoons; but when it turns somber it is a love story noir in 1937!” (21)
Not all Leisen’s projects were so exalted. Under duress from Paramount, he made a trio of films his biographer calls “the banal musicals.” (22) Banal, possibly, but The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), Artists and Models Abroad (1938) and The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938) are rich in minor pleasures. The last is set on a streamlined (and obscenely phallic) Art Deco luxury liner called SS Gigantic – staffed entirely by hunky sailors in clinging white uniforms, who seem to have strolled out of a Jean-Paul Gaultier ad. In its camp highlight, raucous comedienne Martha Raye sings “Mama! Oh, Mama!” while turning cartwheels with a chorus-line of sailors.
One of those dancing sailors was named Billy Daniels. Shortly after Big Broadcast, Leisen suffered a nervous breakdown. His homosexuality, by now, was common knowledge in Hollywood. When Clark Gable complained to wife Carole Lombard about her lack of girlfriends, she quipped: “I have two great girlfriends – Mitch Leisen and Billy Haines.” (23) (Haines, ominously enough, was a silent-screen heartthrob whose sexuality had cost him his career.) Once he recovered from his breakdown, Leisen began to share his life openly with Billy Daniels.
If eyebrows were raised, Paramount executives were unwilling to complain. Leisen was now on a critical and box-office high. Easy Living has Jean Arthur as a penniless Manhattan career girl whose life is transformed when a millionaire throws his wife’s sable coat out a window. It lands on her as she is riding to work on an open-top bus. Mistaken for the tycoon’s mistress, she is installed in a lavish hotel suite “so luminous that it looks as if it had been decorated by a silversmith.” (24)
She now enters a realm that would obsess Leisen for the rest of his career. That of mistaken identity, role-playing and masquerade. By some queer trick of illusion, an outsider has strayed into a world that would normally exclude her. Survival depends on wit, on charm, on talent for playing the role that others expect. Should her true identity ever be known, her luck will run out. Unless, like Jean Arthur, she can marry the tycoon’s playboy son (Ray Milland).
Such themes, for obvious reasons, were common to gay directors in Hollywood. (Think of George Cukor from Sylvia Scarlett  to A Woman’s Face  to My Fair Lady ). Yet none captured their ecstatic pain as acutely as Leisen. In Remember the Night (1940), Barbara Stanwyck is a shoplifter bailed out for Christmas by her prosecuting attorney (Fred MacMurray). He takes her for the holiday to his family in small-town Indiana – who mistake her for his fiancée. At last, the two fall in love for real…but first she must serve her sentence in prison. Mistaken identity, role-play and redemption through True Love. His themes had begun to coalesce.
In Easy Living and Remember the Night, both scripted by Sturges, the heroine’s deception is involuntary. A role is thrust on her, and she has no choice but to play it. Each has a role thrust upon her, and is left with no choice but to play it. But sheer cold-blooded deception can be found in Midnight, the first of three films scripted by Wilder. In Paris, an amoral American showgirl (Claudette Colbert) impersonates a Hungarian baroness. She hopes to separate a married woman from her rich lover, and bag him for herself. Yet Leisen refuses to despise or condemn a single character, and his “lyrical treatment of romantic luxury” (25) hits its apotheosis.
Arise My Love (1940) is a freewheeling lark in which Colbert, a tough-talking reporter, saves charming wastrel Ray Milland from a Spanish Civil War firing squad by posing as his wife. Much darker is Hold Back the Dawn, third and last of the Wilder films – the only one to lack the sparkling surface of farce. Stuck in a grim Mexican border town, a Romanian gigolo (Charles Boyer) marries a virginal schoolteacher (Olivia de Havilland) purely to immigrate to the United States.
For the first and only time in Leisen’s oeuvre, the deceiver is a man, not a woman. Adeptly as he plays the smarmy “Latin Lover” (a cruel parody of Boyer’s own screen persona) his bride’s innocent ardour pushes him into a pit of self-disgust. As Boyer walks down a squalid street at dawn, de Havilland’s footsteps echo behind him. She is wholly oblivious to the illusory nature of their “love”. Even when he repents and falls in love with her for real, we are left suspecting that True Love will only carry them so far. “I thought a lot about Emmy Brown and Georges Iscovescu,” de Havilland said, “and wondered what would become of them. I eventually came to the feeling that they would separate.” (26)
Our heart tells us this marriage is doomed, that Boyer will drift into an affair with a woman like his old “dancing partner” (Paulette Goddard). “I’m his sort,” Paulette tells a shocked Olivia. “I’m dirt but so is he. We belong together.” For the first time in a Leisen film, we see love fall short of the ideal. It can only be as pure – or as sordid – as the two people involved.
If you carry a torch long enough, it burns out. I’ve scorched my hands.
– Paulette Goddard, Hold Back the Dawn
As the ’40s dawned, Mitchell Leisen was at his creative and commercial peak. Indeed, his best years were precisely those invoked by Gore Vidal’s hero(ine) Myra Breckinridge, who declares: “the films of 1935 to 1945 inclusive were the high point of Western culture, completing what began that day in the theatre of Dionysos when Aeschylus first spoke to the Athenians.” (27) How much Leisen’s decline in the late ’40s is linked to that of Hollywood as a whole, and how much to the torment in his personal life, is a question that has no answer.
Parting company with Wilder, Leisen shot a handful of lesser films. I Wanted Wings (1941), a wartime flag-waver starring Ray Milland, William Holden and Veronica Lake, was a poor substitute for Leisen’s unrealised pet project, a film of Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. Next, a trio of romantic comedies all centred on high-powered, glamorous women who fall for men of lower status. The Lady Is Willing (1942) stars Marlene Dietrich as a Broadway diva who adopts a baby and finds love with its doctor (Fred MacMurray). Take A Letter, Darling (1942) stars Rosalind Russell as a lady business executive who falls for her male secretary (Fred MacMurray). No Time for Love (1943) has Claudette Colbert as a highbrow photographer who falls head over heels for a “sandhog” digging a tunnel under the Hudson River. (Yes, he’s played by Fred MacMurray.)
It is hard to overlook the parallels with Leisen’s love life. Most of his Hollywood friends rejected Billy Daniels. “Nobody could understand how this could happen to Mitch. He was a person of such taste and refinement, and Daniels was so crass. He brought Mitch nothing but sorrow and yet Mitch just couldn’t pull himself away. It was just like Of Human Bondage.” (28) When MacMurray enters Colbert’s drawing room in No Time for Love, her effete friends stare as if he were a gorilla fresh out of its cage.
The film is disarmingly frank about the gay fascination with “rough trade”. As Colbert enters a tunnel full of workmen, her camera and Leisen’s linger lovingly on their nude, muscular torsos. One photo shoot has a body-builder in a leopard-skin thong. In the dream sequence, MacMurray appears in a clinging Superman outfit. (A cut scene shows Colbert swimming naked, with a man’s nude buttocks mounted behind her on a plinth!) Suspecting her passion is purely physical, Claudette muses: “Maybe one person really is better than another, and there couldn’t be any real happiness – just momentary infatuation.”
Yet Leisen seemed to have no such doubts. After a bit role in Midnight, Billy Daniels “acted” in Lady in the Dark, Frenchman’s Creek and Masquerade in Mexico (1945). He also served, more ably, as choreographer on those films, as well as on Kitty (1945), Golden Earrings and Dream Girl. All six of these films mark an artistic, as well as a personal, “coming out” for Leisen. Camp is present throughout his work, but here it becomes the ruling aesthetic. “Camp,” writes Sontag, “is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.” (29) She might have just finished viewing Leisen’s work from the mid and late ’40s.
Lady in the Dark, from Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s Broadway musical, has Ginger Rogers as a fashion magazine editor plagued by indecision over men (Ray Milland, Warner Baxter and Jon Hall). She seeks help in psychoanalysis, and Leisen visualises her erotic longings in dreams. (Incredibly, this was his first film in Technicolor.) A Blue Dream features a blue-faced chorus, swirl upon swirl of dry ice and a dazzling sapphire Rolls Royce. A Gold Dream takes place in a mythical sylvan glade, where gold candelabra rise among the trees and extras sport butterfly wings on their heads. A multi-coloured Circus Dream sees Ginger in court with a jury of giant Easter eggs. She sings her defence in a dazzling (if gynaecological) ball gown, mink skirts slit to the waist and lined with crimson and gold.
Leisen’s biographer dismisses Lady in the Dark as “a feast for the senses but little else.” (30) Yet it is, perhaps, his most autobiographical work. A full-blown exercise in “dream reality”, foreshadowing Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) – or even “avant-garde” films like Jim Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus (1971) or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 5 (1997).
Frenchman’s Creek is still more flamboyant. A Daphne du Maurier tale of an English Restoration lady (Joan Fontaine) who falls for a dashing French pirate (Arturo de Cordova), it has its heroine roistering along the Cornish coast dressed as a boy. Her virile lover is adamant about preferring her in male guise. (They recall Jane Birkin and Joe Dallesandro in Serge Gainsbourg’s gender-bending romance of 1976, Je t’aime…moi non plus.) Pirates cavort about the ship in an impromptu drag ballet, as one dons a corset and kisses another on the cheek. James Agee called Frenchman’s Creek a “masturbation fantasy triple-distilled.” (31) At its “climax”, Fontaine crushes a would-be rapist (Basil Rathbone) beneath a suit of armour. An orgy of Technicolor sadomasochism – worthy of Hammer or a Roger Corman film of Poe.
Leisen took a breather with his next films. Practically Yours (1944) is a drab comedy with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. Masquerade in Mexico, a dreary rehash of Midnight, has Dorothy Lamour and Arturo de Cordova plus a lavish ballet on Mexican history. Suddenly It’s Spring (1947) has Fred MacMurray and Paulette Goddard as a couple who almost get a divorce, but don’t.
His next major work is Kitty, a sly social comedy about an adventuress in 18th century London, hailed by many as his finest film. A dissolute nobleman (Ray Milland) picks up a gorgeous guttersnipe (Paulette Goddard) and grooms her into a “lady” à la Pygmalion. He catapults her to the social stratosphere by marrying her to the right men. For two years, Leisen studied the painting techniques of Thomas Gainsborough – copying the wigs, breeches, hats and fans of Georgian England to the last detail. Although Paramount denied him Technicolor, Kitty is a film whose visual splendour rivals Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).
Yet its warmth and wit put Kubrick’s rather glacial movie to shame. The trollop Kitty is far less sordid than any of her suitors. Her cheerful amorality evokes the Oscar Wilde epigram – “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” (32) Infiltrating the beau monde, she is the supreme Leisen “passing” in an alien world. Milland’s foppish anti-hero, more a stylist than a lover, shows no sexual interest in her until the end. Their final marriage recalls, perhaps, that of Mitchell Leisen and Sondra Gahle.
Provocation of a more serious sort came in To Each His Own (1946). The story of a small-town girl (Olivia de Havilland) who bears an illegitimate baby, its script was rejected outright by the Hays Office. Leisen shot it anyway, feeling that “if you did something in good taste, it didn’t become offensive.” (33) The preview reduced the censors to tears, and they passed the film. Olivia’s secret affair, her separation from her child, her frantic efforts to get him back over 30 years, all gain an Oedipal twist by the casting of one very handsome actor (John Lund) as both lover and son. They also foreshadow the maternal masochism of Leisen’s last memorable film, The Mating Season (1951). As de Havilland herself says, “What other Madame X story still holds up like that?” (34)
Kitsch exotica held sway again in Golden Earrings. A story of a stiff-upper-lip British spy (Ray Milland) and a glamorous gypsy (Marlene Dietrich) in Hungary on the eve of World War II, it is a film “universally despised by spoilsports and the humourless.” (35) It is also in dubious taste for reasons of history. “In 1939,” Steven Bach reminds us, “Hungarian gypsies, along with Jews and other non-Aryans, were being rounded up by real-life Nazis.” (36) What redeems it is a fevered and perverse sexuality. Disguised as a gypsy with shawls, kohl-black eyes and the titular jewels, Milland becomes a near mirror image of Dietrich. A man serenades him by a campfire with the famous title tune – Murvyn Vye as a dusky, bare-chested gypsy chief.
Golden Earrings was Leisen’s last big commercial hit. His oneiric fantasy Dream Girl was an unqualified disaster. He had fought for years not to make a film with the strident bleach-blonde star Betty Hutton, described by Myra Breckinridge as “the demonic clown, the drum majorette of Olympus.” (37) Faced with the inevitable, he staged an operatic dream where she is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and a tropical dream where she is Maugham’s South Seas siren Sadie Thompson. Gossip hinted at trouble between Leisen and his lover. Dream Girl was Billy Daniels’ last credit on a Leisen film. Their relationship ended shortly after.
At his lowest ebb since his 1938 breakdown, Leisen turned out a string of flops: Song of Surrender (1949), a dour New England drama with Claude Rains; Bride of Vengeance (1949), an ambitious fiasco starring Paulette Goddard as Lucrezia Borgia; Captain Carey, USA (1950), a thriller shot in Italy and remembered for its Oscar-winning theme song, “Mona Lisa.” Such a run of turkeys might have ended a lesser career. But Leisen would transcend his pain, transmute it into two great films.
Anyone who lives a normal life in this world of ours becomes a cog in a wheel, a unit in a system. To me that is intolerable. I have become a rebel and an outcast, but I have escaped from such a world.
– Arturo de Cordova, Frenchman’s Creek
Mitchell Leisen’s break-up with Billy Daniels is swamped in rumour. Kenneth Anger writes salaciously in Hollywood Babylon II: “The gay Hollywood couple, seemingly Semper Fidelis, until Billy’s one indiscretion was discovered by Mitchell, who complained cuttingly. Billy snuffed himself.” (38) Doubtful, as Daniels went on to choreograph films with Esther Williams – Dangerous When Wet (1953) – and Jane Russell – The French Line (1954). Moving to Germany, he had one of his last credits on Fritz Lang’s remake of The Indian Tomb (1958). His death in 1962 was officially put down to a heart attack.
Twenty years older and less mobile, Leisen did his best to stay on at Paramount. Early in No Man of Her Own (1950), a middle-aged woman (Barbara Stanwyck) is cruelly dumped by a vulgar and epicene younger lover (Lyle Bettger). In a scene that reeks of masochism, she drops the money he has slipped her, flees into the night and hops aboard a cross-country train, which promptly crashes. Surviving the wreck, she is mistaken for the widow of a rich Midwesterner. She finds shelter in that mythic Middle American suburb of Leisen’s own childhood, that world of “perfect peace and security”. (Stanwyck’s voiceover is as haunting as Joan Fontaine’s in Rebecca.) Yet her lover, and shared memories of a sordid past, will not let her go.
As spiritual and emotional autobiography, No Man of Her Own is up there with Lady in the Dark. Stylistically, it is a film without equal. Leisen recreates the haunting shadows of film noir, that classic male urban genre, for a female protagonist in a small-town setting. He wraps it all in his cloak of masquerade. Based on I Married a Dead Man by alcoholic gay pulp novelist Cornell Woolrich, it captures that author’s tortured essence as no other film has done, apart from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha (1974).
A comic variation on similar themes, The Mating Season has Thelma Ritter as a working-class woman who moves in with her ambitious yuppie son (John Lund) and his high-toned wife (Gene Tierney). She hides her identity by posing as their servant. If every other Leisen character “passes” for the sake of security or status, Ritter abases herself out of pure love for her son. She suffers the snobbery of Tierney’s mother (Miriam Hopkins), a café society Gorgon who “fills every corner of the flat like poison gas.” The world in which Lund hopes to rise is not exotic or glamorous. It is an ugly and philistine place, embodied in the young couple’s flat – where hideous floral curtains clash with vile pagoda wallpaper.
Beneath its acerbic wit, The Mating Season is Leisen’s cruellest study in masochism. A more trenchant critique of America’s class system than George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (a ponderous and preachy drama made the same year) it shows a bitter disenchantment with love in any form, a revulsion at the rules of the social game. His career rescued by No Man of Her Own and The Mating Season, Leisen was still a Hollywood player. But had he lost the will to play?
He made a few more minor films: Darling, How Could You? (1951), a fey romance with Joan Fontaine; Young Man with Ideas (1952), a comedy with Glenn Ford; Tonight We Sing (1953), a biopic of music impresario Sol Hurok. Bedevilled (1955) was a gloomy thriller shot in France with Anne Baxter, and The Girl Most Likely (1957) a frothy musical with Cliff Robertson and Jane Powell. None of these did much for him, but none harmed him appreciably. Leisen was too much the aesthete to make a truly ugly film.
As his film work ebbed away, Leisen continued to design gowns, stage nightclub acts, decorate luxury homes. He found employment on TV, with episodes of Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Temple’s Storybook and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. It did not depress him unduly. “There was always something of the old grand manner about Mitch,” Ray Milland said, “even when he was doing television.” (39) In a pinch, he would decorate the shabby sets with art and antiques from his own apartment. Bits of his nightclub work showed up in two documentaries, Here’s Las Vegas (1964) and Spree! (1967), on which Leisen preferred not to comment.
Shortly before his death, he gave interviews to film scholars eager for titbits about the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was the start of a posthumous career, in which has films were revived and rediscovered by new audiences. In a Post-Modern world that revels in moral and gender ambiguity, in a mingling of style and genre, in a gleeful anarchy of masks and androgyny and camp, Mitchell Leisen seems very much a man of our time. We can still bask in the light from a Star That Exploded. Leisen’s oeuvre was decades ahead of its time. Can it be the world is starting to catch up?
Tonight Is Ours (1932) co-directed with Stuart Walker
The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) co-directed with Stuart Walker
Cradle Song (1933)
Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
Murder at the Vanities (1934)
Behold My Wife (1935)
Four Hours to Kill (1935)
Hands Across the Table (1935)
Thirteen Hours by Air (1936)
The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936)
Swing High, Swing Low (1937)
Easy Living (1937)
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
Artists and Models Abroad (1938)
Remember the Night (1940)
Arise My Love (1940)
I Wanted Wings (1941)
Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
The Lady Is Willing (1942)
Take a Letter, Darling (1942)
No Time for Love (1943)
Lady in the Dark (1944)
Frenchman’s Creek (1944)
Practically Yours (1944)
Masquerade in Mexico (1945)
To Each His Own (1946)
Suddenly It’s Spring (1947)
Golden Earrings (1947)
Dream Girl (1948)
Song of Surrender (1949)
Bride of Vengeance (1949) also costumes with Mary Grant
Captain Carey, USA (1950)
No Man of Her Own (1950)
The Mating Season (1951)
Darling, How Could You? (1951)
Young Man with Ideas (1952)
Tonight We Sing (1953)
The Girl Most Likely (1957)
Here’s Las Vegas (documentary) (1964)
Spree! (documentary) (1967) co-directed with Walon Green
Television Credits (selected)
G.E Theatre (1955–61)
Shirley Temple’s Storybook (1958)
The Twilight Zone (1959)
Wagon Train (1960)
Adventures in Paradise (1961)
The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966)
As Designer (selected)
Male and Female (Cecil B. DeMille, 1919) costumes
Forbidden Fruit (Cecil B. DeMille, 1921) costumes with Natacha Rambova
Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922) costumes
Rosita (Ernst Lubitsch, 1923) costumes
The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924) costumes
Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (Marshall Neilan, 1924) costumes
The Road to Yesterday (Cecil B. DeMille, 1925) set decorator
The Volga Boatman (Cecil B. DeMille, 1926) art director with Anton Grot
The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille, 1927) art director with Anton Grot
The Godless Girl (Cecil B. DeMille, 1929) art director
Dynamite (Cecil B. DeMille, 1929) art director with Cedric Gibbons
Madam Satan (Cecil B. DeMille, 1930) art director with Cedric Gibbons
The Squaw Man (Cecil B. DeMille, 1931) art director (& assistant director)
The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille, 1932) costumes, art direction (& assistant director)
Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon II, Arrow Books, London, 1986.
Steven Bach, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, Harper Collins, London, 1992.
David Chierichetti, Hollywood Director, Curtis Books, New York, 1973.
David Chierichetti, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director, Riverwood Press, Burbank, 1994 (revised & expanded edition).
Charlotte Chandler, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2002.
Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder, Faber and Faber, London, 1999.
Bernard F. Dick, Anatomy of Film, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston, 2005.
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses, W. H. Allen, London, 1978.
Graham Greene, The Pleasure Dome (edited by John Russell Taylor), Secker & Warburg, London, 1972.
Maria Riva, Marlene Dietrich, Bloomsbury, London, 1992.
David Shipman, The Story of Cinema, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1982.
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, Vintage, London, 1994.
Parker Tyler, Screening the Sexes, Da Capo Press, New York, 1993.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Midnight by David Boxwell
El Criticon – Cine Clasico y Actual
Leisen biography and reviews (in Spanish).
Perceptive article and film reviews (in Spanish).
Guardian Unlimited | Swing High, Swing Low
Derek Malcolm’s review of Swing High, Swing Low, from 18 May, 2000.
Movie Diva | Lady in the Dark
Review and article on Lady in the Dark.
Reel Classics | To Each His Own
Jack Shadoian’s article on To Each His Own from Film Comment, no. 5, vol. 34, 1 September, 1998.
Leisen reviews, credits and titles for sale.
The New York Times
Reviews and release information on Leisen films.
Leisen DVDs, videos and posters for sale.
Click here to search for Mitchell Leisen DVDs, videos and books at
- Steven Bach, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, Harper Collins, London, 1992, p. 266.
- Quoted in Charlotte Chandler, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2002, p. 84.
- Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”, Against Interpretation, Vintage, London, 1994, p. 278.
- Quoted in Cameron Crowe, Conversations with Wilder, Faber and Faber, London, 1999, p. 262.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Fourth Edition), Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 512.
- Parker Tyler, Screening the Sexes, Da Capo Press, New York, 1993, p. 211.
- Tyler, p. 211.
- Sontag, p. 286.
- Quoted in David Chierichetti, Hollywood Director, Curtis Books, New York, 1973, p. 73.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 25.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 31.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 28.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 27.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 91.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 90.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 56.
- David Shipman, The Story of Cinema, Volume One – From the Beginning to “Gone with the Wind”, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1982, p. 405.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 169.
- Shipman, pp. 404–405.
- Sontag, p. 279.
- Thomson, p. 512.
- Chierichetti, p. 100.
- Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon II, Arrow Books, London, 1986, p. 54.
- Bernard F. Dick, Anatomy of Film, Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston, 2005, p. 95.
- Thomson, p. 512.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 174.
- Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge, Granada, London, 1969, pp. 31–32.
- Anonymous source quoted in Chierichetti, pp. 21–22.
- Sontag, p. 287.
- Chierichetti, p. 206.
- Quoted in Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide 2000 (Fifteenth Edition), edited by John Walker, Harper Collins, London, 1999, p. 309.
- Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Harper Collins, London, 1992, p. 1205.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 247.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 240.
- Bach, p. 324.
- Bach, p. 323.
- Vidal, p. 46.
- Anger, p. 142.
- Quoted in Chierichetti, p. 312.