Nov 13, 2010

My top 10 films directed by Mitchell Leisen

UPDATE: Just noticed that the previous version of this post caused a MAJOR crash on Internet Explorer (a browser that you definitively should change) so I had to republish it.

So the guy in the picture with Marlene and a little bunny is director Mitchell Leisen. Last week I noticed that I had seen and loved many of his movies (like "Midnight" and "Remember the night") and started researching a bit about him. I discovered three things:
he worked with the best: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Preston Sturges wrote the scripts for some of his movies; he directed legends like Carole Lombard, Ray Milland, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Paulette Godard and Olivia de Havilland many times.
he was accused of worrying more about the form than the content: Wilder, who started directing because was fed up with Leisen cutting scenes from his scripts, supposedly said of him "He was a window dresser." Ginger Rogers, who worked with him in only one movie, wrote "Mitch's interest was in the window drapperies and the sets, not in the people and their emotions".
his work is not very appreciated in terms of cinematographic contribution . For instance, I think that "Hold back the dawn" and "Easy living" stand out because they were written by Wilder and Brackett the first and Sturges the second, not because they were directed by Mitchell Leisen.
This last point makes me think about what make a director being appreciated. And my conclusion is this: he has to be more than a director of a script, he has to be involved with the whole process of filmmaking, especially with the kind of stories chosen, the script and the way you film it. Think in Hitchcock, Wilder, Capra, etc, etc, they all have something unique in their work, a signature element that makes the audience recognize them. 

I don't know what would have been the result if another director have been in charge of Leisen's films, but despite the criticism I love most of his movies.

The last point also makes me think about what could be an element of unity of Leisen's body of work. On a story level, I think that the most recurrent force is the interaction between members of different social classes ("The mating game", "No time for love", "Hands across the table", "Take a letter, darling", "Easy living", "Midnight"...). Maybe this motivation correspond to the stories that sold and were interesting at the time (screwball comedies often have this kind of plot) but I should use it to generally describe his work.

Also, the women in his movies are generally independent, good workers and getting married for them is a commitment that means less freedom that's why they had to think it over as an option ("Romantic marriage went out with smelling salts. Today it's a common-sense institution" says Claudette Colbert in "No time for love"). Because many of his movies show the points above mentioned, he could visually work on splendorous settings and dress people in elegant clothes. That's another element that stands out.
So I watched and re-watched 17 of his movies. Sadly, there are some important that I couldn't get, like "Kitty" (1942) starring Paulette Goddard. Anyway, now I present to you my top 10 movies directed by Mitchell Leisen and the films that didn't make it:

DIDN'T MAKE IT.- Lady in the dark (1944) 
Remember "Carefree" with Fred and Ginger? Well, this movie has the same Freud-ish, psychoanalysis plot, with dance sequences and all...only that it supposed to be a drama and takes itself too seriously. Ginger is the editor in chief of a fashion magazine that has some issues with dressing prettily and being attractive so she consults a psychiatric. Ray Milland works for her in the magazine, he wants her job and they argue a lot. The dream scenes have out-dated effects and are very boring except for the famous "The saga of Jennie" (watch it in Youtube ). Ginger wrote she was grateful when it was finally over plus she didn't get along with Leisen.

DIDN'T MAKE IT.- I wanted wings (1941) 
I didn't expect much from this movie. I got a bit more than that. The bit is William Holden looking gorgeous and some great scenes of planes flying near the ground. The main problem with this movie is that you don't clearly get what are the characters motivations, so all the situations become just incidental. Holden (an auto mechanic), Milland (a wealthy guy) and Wayne Morris (a college player) are in the Army Air Corps and they want wings. They learn how to fly and get into trouble. Oh, Holden loves Veronica Lake and Milland loves Constance Moore. The last part of the movie gets more interesting, but it's too late. 

DIDN'T MAKE IT.- No Time for Love (1943)
I generally liked this movie, but I found it somehow dull. Claudette plays a high class press photographer that meets a miner played by Fred MacMurray. He gets fired and she gives him a job as assistant. Even when she doesn't want to, she falls in love with him. So the whole movie is them trying to overcome their own prejudices and the class barriers that keep them apart. I liked the scene of the musical chairs the most.

DIDN'T MAKE IT.- Swing high, swing low (1937) 
This is one of the movies that you really want to love, but it paces around and you get more and more bored, and then it's not longer a comedy, but a drama, and then the characters start to remember the "good times" that just happened when it was supposedly a comedy. So, Carole and Fred fall in love in Panama. She misses her ship back to the USA and marries Fred. They have to make $$, so she convinces him to play the trumpet in a joint while she entertains the customers (watch them doing their musical act at 03.50 in   Youtube ) . Then she convinces him to go to NY. He becomes famous and due to a communication failure everything gets more and more dramatic.

DIDN'T MAKE IT.- Death takes a holiday (1934) 
I didn't know that "Meet Joe Black" (1998) was inspired in this movie from the 30s. Anyway, they share only the idea of Death taking the body of a random person, living a few days with a wealthy family and falling in love. Everything else, even the end, is different. This  is very interesting film, visually and emotionally reaches a darkish ambient that supports the contact with something from other dimension, has correct effects but somehow looses tension near the end. It also looses kudos because the acting is too theatrical. Death takes the body of a foreign Prince with heavy accent and monocle played by Fredric March. It only has 3 days to live a human life and discover why human fear him so much. He falls in love with a girl played by Evelyn Venable (she did a few films, made the voice for Blue Fairy in Pinnocchio, went back to college and had a 40-years happy marriage). The last part of the film is too long in my opinion.

DIDN'T MAKE IT.- The mating season (1951)
This is really a drama with touches of comedy that works well because it deeply explores the snobbishness (what's more tragicomic than that?). It has great cast that includes the ever solid Thelma Ritter, Gene Tierney, Miriam Hopkins and John Lund (he also stars in Leisen's "No man of her own" and "To each his own"). John marries wealthy Gene and doesn't tell her that he has a working class background. His mom, Thelma Ritter, worked really hard selling hamburgers to give him a career. The problems of communication lead to the ridiculous situation of having Thelma hiding her identity and working in his son's home as a cook and being pushed around by Gene's mom, arrogant Miriam Hopkins. This is a fine movie that almost made it into the top 10. 

DIDN'T MAKE IT .-Take a Letter, Darling (1942)
I almost included this one in the top 10 because Rosalind Russell is great as always, but lost its place to intriguing "No man of her own" (I'm still not very sure about this decision). Russell plays a very independent woman in charge of a advertising company. She's the one that convinces clients of buying their services. She hires a new secretary, Fred MacMurray. They fall in love but, just like in "No time for love", they have to overcome their own prejudices (plus a really dumb way of Fred to make her jealous)  to be together. What I like about this film are the little funny gestures from the main characters, like this one , the little details like Ros wearing fluffy sleepers at job, and the way Rosalind plays a jealous woman.

10.- No man of her own  (1950)
Probably I picked this one over "Take a letter, darling" because Barbara Stanwyck's performance is simply heartbreaking at some points. Told in racconto  and using Barbara's great voice in off, the film is about a poor pregnant woman that assumes the identity of another pregnant woman, killed in a train crash. The husband of this girl (John Lund) also died in the accident, but his wealthy parents never met their daughter-in-law before, so Barbara is welcomed without questions. Are you still following? Soon Barbara notices that the guy had a brother (John Lund with a mustache) and they fall in love. This movie has one of the most despicable villains in the history of Cinema, as you can see in this dramatic scene: the real father of Barbara's child, a heartless and violent blond with no ethics that starts blackmailing her. Things get REALLY dramatic and tense. Good movie.

Carole and Fred want to marry wealthy people, but they end living together, having fun and falling in love with each other. My only problem with this movie is how it ends for Ralph Bellamy. He's a nice, understanding (and rich) guy that had an accident so he's on a wheelchair. When Carole meets him, his life has a meaning again.
This a good film, that moves fast, that has interesting scenes (I don't know why, but the first scene in the crowded subway always catches my attention) and good secondary characters. Carole, Ralph and Fred are great in their roles, the ending is great and there's a cat involved. What else do you want?
8.- Easy living (1937)
I hadn't seen this one before. It's a really entertaining comedy of errors adapted by Preston Sturges with Jean Arthur being really good as a working girl who is mistakenly identify as the lover of a mogul. You see, when that happens, every company in the country wants to give you things as a marketing strategy. So Jean is welcomed in a luxurious hotel (owned by an hilarious guy played by Luis Alberni) , gets hundreds of presents and phone calls...only that she doesn't know why. She randomly meets the sacked son of the famous mogul, played by Ray Milland, working in a restaurant. She invites him to live with her in the hotel. I think that normal people being smothered with attentions is always appealing to see.
7.- The Lady Is Willing (1942)
Honestly, this one of the few movies from this list that makes me laugh out loud in several occasions. I really don't know why it isn't more appreciated. Ok, yeah, maybe the main story is not veeeery believable, but it really works for me. Marlene plays a famous stage actress that decides to  kidnap take an abandoned baby to live with her. She adores the child, the child clearly adores her, but she needs to be married in order to keep him. So she makes a deal with Fred MacMurray, the baby doctor, and marries him. This film has hilarious secondary characters, Marlene's assistants (played by  Stanley Ridges and Arline Judge ). The three of them really seem to be working together and know each other since ever, which makes their interactions very natural and funny. It also has little interesting details, like Marlene snapping her fingers every time she doesn't find a proper word. The way the relationship between the main characters evolve is great. The movie gets dramatic near the end, but this fact is well managed directionally speaking. On an aside note, while filming the movie, Marlene fell with the baby in her arms and broke her ankle (see the pictures in Youtube).

6.- Golden Earrings (1947)
I was expecting this movie to be a total stinker (according to Imdb's ratings it's an average movie) but I LOVED it, it's so entertaining. It's kind of road movie that has suspense, comedy and a unusual romance told in racconto. Ray Milland is an English officer escaping from the Germans in 1939. He meets Marlene Dietrich, a gypsy who hides him by dressing him as one of her people. Their relationship is really funny: she's madly in love with him and tries to please him in her own ways (like preparing fish in the wagon where they sleep) and he doesn't stand her at the beginning (he thinks all her beliefs are foolish and her hair is smelly). There are some really tense scenes with the Germans, visually nice locations and a weird main relationship that works. The main song of this film, also called "Golden earrings", was covered by Peggy Lee

5.- Arise, My Love (1940)
I love this movie. Wilder and Brackett wrote the script which means hilarious/sexy dialogs, combined with tense scenes, great secondary characters and marvelous little details. Colbert is Augusta "Gusto" Nash, a reporter of the Associated Press News in Europe. She's eager to have interesting stories to tell so she rescues a pilot, Ray Milland, just before he's killed. They fall in love but their respective duties during the World War II keep them apart. One of my favorite things from this movie is Mr. Phillips, Gusto's boss played by Walter Abel, he's just so damn funny ("I'm not happy, I'm not happy at all!!"). One of my favorite scenes is the escape sequence in the plane. Oh, the title correspond to the prayer Ray says when he takes off in the plane: "Arise, my love, my fair one and come away".

4 .- To Each His Own (1946)
Oh my god this movie contains the worst plan to recover a baby in the history of humanity. The story was written and adapted by Charles Brackett and its about the life of a girl (de Havilland) that has a baby with a pilot (John Lund in his first movie) who later dies in the war. After a really dramatic turn of events, her baby is taken by another family and the whole film is about all the attempts of Olivia of being close to her son. One of the strong points of this movie is de Havilland's performance, playing a naive girl and then a bitter businesswoman beaten by life. Kudos for the visual and make up departments that really made her look old when needed. Besides that, the story is rich in terms of details, situations and characters. It's very well told, a racconto that keeps you intrigued (is she finally going to be with her son?), plus little things like Olivia drinking milk after a pregnant woman said it was good for her and that way giving you information without dialogs. One of my favorites melodramas.

3 .- Midnight (1939)
Funny, funny, funny. As I wrote some days ago, the story was written by Wilder & Brackett, and is about a girl (Claudette Colbert) that loves crashing elegant parties and a taxi driver (Don Ameche) that falls in love with her. Millionaire (and hilarious)  John Barrymore hires Claudette to attract the lover of his wife. The movie moves fast, the scenes are all entertaining and has a great climax during a crazy breakfast that includes a fake telegram and Barrymore talking like a kid over the phone. 

2.- Remember the Night (1940) 
You probably have seen this movie written by Preston Sturges (otherwise I really don't know what are you waiting for) but I'm gonna tell you about it anyway. Barbara Stanwyck plays a thief whose trial is postponed until after Christmas. The prosecutor, Fred MacMurray, offers her to take her back to her home. Another movie that doesn't bore you a minute, mixing in a smooth way comedy and drama (the scene where Barbara is coldly welcome by her mother is just heartbreaking) . It's a great holiday movie because it shows the importance of the love of a family and has some really warm Christmas moments.It has interesting secondary characters, like Fred's mom, aunt and funny butler. Great end.
1.- Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
Finally, the number one. I talked a bit one about this movie a few days ago. This interesting story --adapted by Brackett & Wilder-- is about a European immigrant (Boyer) that wants to go to the USA from Mexico, a paperwork that means he has to wait a long time before he can cross the border. He randomly meets an ex lover, played by Paulette Goddard, and she gives him the idea of marrying an American. Olivia de Havilland, a naive school teacher, becomes his target. I just noticed that telling the story in racconto is the way to go if you want to have the viewers in the edge of their seats, especially if it has Boyer's voice in off describing the facts. It's also interesting to watch because you know something that Olivia doesn't know, which makes her character's situation really pathetic to your eyes and also makes you really want to see how the things are going to end for this nice girl. The film also has interesting secondary stories, like the pregnant immigrant woman. My favorite scene is the one in the beach, where Boyer finally realizes he's in love with his wife (watch it in Youtube). The performances are superb and the ending is great. I just love this movie.


  1. It seems like Leisen used Ray Milland a lot in his least the ones on this list. MacMurray and Lund also appear in several of his films. I was going to give you the link to Kitty on YouTube but unfortunately it was removed. Darn! I didn't get to see it yet either. Oh, well. Thanks for the fun list and recaps.

  2. Hi Audrey! You're welcome, thanks for your comment :) Uhm, yeah seems like his favorite leading men were Ray Milland, John Lund & Fred Macmurray. Thank u very very much for trying to provide me the link!! Recently I found an old copy of Kitty recorded in VHS quality with French subs (???), and I'm downloading it :) Bests :)



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