Mitchell Leisen – elegance personified

MITCHELL LEISEN was a Costume Designer, Set Decorator and Art Director who became a Director of glossy, stylish Romantic Comedy, Period Films and Romantic Melodramas in Paramount’s heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg may have been the cream of the auteurs in Paramount’s glory years, but at his best Mitchell Leisen was a consistently elegant metteur-en-scene for that classiest of studios. David Chierichetti’s 1973 study of Leisen (Hollywood Director) revealed him as a consummate professional who excelled across a wide range of genres. There were notable forays into Romantic Comedy (including the delightful, Midnight, blessed with a malicious no-holds barred Wilder/Brackett script centring on Claudette Colbert on the make in a gloriously Hollywoodised Paris and at her most alluring in her lamé evening gear; and Remember the Night, memorably scripted by Preston Sturges when he was himself on the verge of becoming Paramount’s golden boy, allowed Leisen’s stylish and uncharacteristically warm mise-en-scene full rein, while holding its potential for sentimentality in check by allowing the oil and water chemistry of Barbara Stanwyck’s hardboiled thief and Fred MacMurray’s terminally flustered prosecuting lawyer to run its course during Stanwyck’s brief Christmas reprieve); Costume Melodrama (Kitty is a sublimely cynical, witty tale of Paulette Goddard’s rise from rags to riches in Gainsborough’s London, with Ray Milland’s cut-price Pygmalion pulling the strings in every sense. Leisen served a lengthy apprenticeship designing sets for some of De Mille’s most extravagant films and brought a strong authenticity to the film’s period detail); Romantic Melodrama (To Each His Own) is a revival of a long line of 1930s melodramas built around unrequited mother love and self-sacrifice, but in this case it transcends its origins through Leisen’s careful, effortless manipulation of mood from light to dark and back again, his attention to the tiniest points of visual and behavioural detail, and an extraordinarily committed performance from Olivia De Havilland; Hold Back the Dawn, is another dark, bitter, underrated melodrama, again scripted by Wilder and Brackett, with suave European war refugee Charles Boyer charming his way into a loveless marriage to ugly duckling naif Olivia De Havilland in order to gain entry to the US (via Mexico).
Like Cukor, he was often labelled a “woman’s director”, although, like Cukor, he guided just as many males into some of their better performances (Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Fredric March and Charles Boyer among them).Again like Cukor, he brought a distinctive sensibility and refined taste even to his slightest vehicles, even when his career was in precipitate decline through the late 1940s and into the 1950s. One of his last good films was an excellent Film Noir, No Man of Her Own, just one of a number of films based on Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man, with an intense performance.

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