Mitchell Leisen: The Best Director Nobody Knows

Mitchell Leisen Screwball Comady DirectorGuest blogger Stephen Reginald writes:

Sometimes history isn’t always fair. For example, there are movie directors and actors who, in their day, were enormously famous and successful, but for whatever reasons are almost forgotten today.

Paramount Director
Such is the case with Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), a top director during Hollywood’s golden age. As a contract director at Paramount, he worked with all the top stars during that period: Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Jack Benny, Fredric March, Ray Milland, Marlene Dietrich, and Barbara Stanwyck.

Early Commercial Success
Best known for his elegant romantic comedies, Leisen also excelled at action and melodramatic films. Leisen got his start as an art director and costume designer. Working under famed director Cecil B. DeMille, Leisen received his one and only Academy Award nomination for his art direction of Dynamite in 1930.  He eventually worked his way up the ladder, directing his first film, Cradle Song, in 1933. The next year, Leisen directed two popular films Death Takes a Holiday and Murder at the Vanities. In 1935, he knocked one out of the park with Hands Across the Table. This landmark romantic comedy made Carole Lombard a superstar and established Fred MacMurray as a top leading man. During the rest of the 1930s, Leisen made some of the most commercial films at Paramount, including Swing High, Swing Low which was the studio’s biggest moneymaker in 1937. That same year, he directed the classic Easy Living starring Jean Arthur. Leisen topped off the decade with the delightful Midnight starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche. This romantic comedy, one of the many great films released in 1939, unfortunately does not have the status of some of its less-worthy, but better-known contemporaries.

The Fabulous Forties

During the next decade, Leisen produced more winners for Paramount. In 1940, he directed the classic Remember the Night starring Stanwyck and MacMurray. The sensitive Hold Back the Dawn (1941) provided Olivia de Haviland with one of her best film roles up to that time. Leisen’s masterful direction helped de Haviland receive her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Later in the decade, he would direct de Haviland in her Oscar-winning performance in To Each His Own (1946). In 1944, Leisen was trusted with directing two big-budget Technicolor productions: Lady in the Dark starring Ginger Rodgers and Frenchman’s Creek starring Joan Fontaine. Both films were huge commercial successes and both focused on the talent and beauty of the female leads. As Dona St. Columb, Joan Fontaine never looked more beautiful. In 1945 Leisen directed Paulette Goddard to one of her biggest commercial and critical successes in Kitty. After seeing Goddard in that film, French film director, Jean Renoir decided to cast her as the lead in Diary of a Chambermaid the following year.

Paramount’s George Cukor
Leisen, like George Cukor, at MGM, had a reputation for his direction of women. A generation of the leading ladies at Paramount owe Leisen a great debt. Many did their best work under his direction. For others, he crafted popular vehicles ideally tailored to their personalities.

TV Director
His success as a director continued into the early 1950s. Leisen’s last popular success was The Mating Season (1952) starring Gene Tierney, John Lund, and the Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter. After The Girl Most Likely in 1958, with movie projects nonexistent, Leisen turned his attention to television, directing episodes of popular shows like the Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Of all the directors to come out of the studio system, Mitchell Leisen was one of the best. And one day, I hope, he’ll receive the recognition and honor he deserves.

Stephen Reginald is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant. A long-time amateur student of film, Reginald hosts “Meet Me at the Movies,” a monthly classic movie event held in his South Loop Chicago neighborhood. Reginald has also taught adult education classes at Facets Film School in Chicago. For more information, visit Classic Movie Man and South Loop Connection.

  • Rafael Pires

    I would love to see a Universal Backlot series or a TCM Vault Collection dedicated to Mitchell Leisen.
    Arise My love, Hold Back the Dawn, Take a letter Darling, Lady n the Dark, Frenchman’s Creek, Kitty and To Each His Own need desperately to be released on dvd!

    • Ed Miller

      Sadly, Universal, which owns the rights to the classic Paramount films, doesn’t see it that way.

  • El Bee

    One thing you didn’t point out, but something we should all be thankful for: Mr. Leisen’s treatment of “Remember the Night” so annoyed the movie’s writer, Preston Sturges, that Sturges decided then and there he would also direct all his own scripts from then on. And, thus, the birth of another director who also does not always get his due.

    Incidentally, Sturges’ experience with Barbara Stanwyck on “Remember the Night” led to her role in his great screwball comedy “The Lady Eve.”

    How nice it would be to have some source, say a series of short films on TCM, explaining these connections with short snippets of the films involved.

  • Jon DeCles

    There is a cocktail named “Arise My Love,” and I wonder if it is connected with the film. Another good reason to take a look at a film I have not seen! Of course, “Death Takes a Holiday” is one of the great films, and remains well known, even if the director isn’t.

    • Ed Miller

      I’m certain it is, since Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland drink a cocktail that consists of champagne and creme de menthe in that wonderful movie.

  • Chuck Neumann

    I also thought Mitchell Leisen was a very good director, as mentioned he was a George Cukor type director. He did some excellent work on the Twilight Zone. He directed “The 16mm Shrine” starring Ida Lupino and Martin Balsam, about a 1930’s actress escaping into her past when she was forgotten by 1960 filmgoers. He also directed David Wayne and Thomas Gomez in “Escape Clause” about a deal with the devil gone bad. His last Zone was “People are alike all over” with Roddy McDowall, concerning what happened to the first astronaut on Mars. Rod Serling and the Producers were concerned if a movie director like Mr. Leisen could adapt to the fast pace of TV, but he did so easily.

  • Classic Movie Man

    I think more people would come to know about Leisen if more of his films were released on DVD. His films have a real human touch that I don’t think is appreciated as much as it should be. And I agree, “Remember the Night” was wonderful. Not sure what Sturges’s problem was. Brackett and Wilder had similar complaints with “Midnight,” but that was great too. Can’t imagine it being any better with Wilder directing.

    • Ed Miller

      You are 100% correct in your assessment of the great, and sadly neglected, Mitchell Leisen. Unfortunately, Universal owns the rights to the classic Paramount film library, and its executives think that releasing “old movies” on DVD is unprofitable.

      • Stephen Reginald

        Thanks for the comments, Ed. Didn’t think anyone was looking at this post any more! Of course I agree with you. 🙂

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  • Sturgis

    Don’t forget 1937s “Easy Money” where Leisen made the most of a radiant Jean Arthur and a prickly Preston Sturgis script, or 1947s “Golden Earrings” one of Dietrich’s best post Sternberg outings, or the deliciously demented 1955 “Bedevilled,” a darkly stylish cinemascope and color “noir”. Universally maligned by critics (“Miss Baxter plays a cabaret singer who sometimes wears as many as two or three sequins”) it was dumped on the market by MGM and deserves another viewing, which fortunately it can now get through a Warner Archives release