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Mitchell Leisen: Recognition at Last

By Mike McCrann
There have been a number of famous gay directors from Hollywood's Golden Age. George Cukor (A Star is Born, The Philadelphia Story); James Whale (Frankenstein—the film Gods and Monsters was based his life) and Dorothy Arzner (Dance Girls Dance). Mitchell Leisen belongs in this select group, and yet he is pretty much forgotten today. Finally a long overdue film retrospective just opened in Los Angeles at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood.
Mitchell Leisen directed some of the finest films of the '30s and '40s. Among his most famous works are Death Takes A Holiday, Easy Living, Hold Back the Dawn, No Man of Her Own, Lady in the Dark, Golden Earrings, etc. Leisen was a great director of women, guiding Olivia de Havilland to her first Academy Award for the great unwed mother saga To Each His Own
The fact that Mitchell Leisen is being honored at the Billy Wilder Theater is the supreme irony. Billy Wilder hated Mitchell Leisen, as did Preston Sturges. Both of these famous directors thought their scripts were ruined by Leisen. But Easy Living, Midnight, Remember the Night and Hold Back the Dawn are brilliantly directed. If you look further, the real reason Sturges and Wilder loathed Leisen is the fact that he was gay. In an interview with Wilder (Sunset Blvd, Double Indemnity, The Apartment) the late director fumed, "Leisen was too goddamn fey. I don't knock fairies. Let him be a fairy. Leisen's problem was that he was a stupid fairy." In later interviews, Wilder toned down his hatred a bit to be politically correct, but the anti gay bias came through loud and clear.
Mitchell Leisen lived with a male dancer, Billy Daniels, and was pretty open about it. Leisen's leading ladies loved him. Carole Lombard, Olivia de Havilland, Dorothy Lamour, Claudette Colbert—the list goes on and on. And Leisen was a good director of men as well. Charles Boyer gave one of his great performances as the foreign gigolo who tries to marry American Olivia de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn. This wonderful film, with his script by Billy Wilder, is one of the finest dramas of the '40s. And for extravagance, check out the Joan Fontaine pirate drama Frenchman's Creek (profiled in last week's blog), Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark and Paulette Goddard in the pre-My Fair Lady drama Kitty. Leisen could also do cutting comedy like The Mating Season with Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter and cold film noir like No Man of Her Own with Barbara Stanwyck.
You can check out all these films at The Films of Mitchell Leisen running through Dec 16. There is exactly one book on this wonderful director—David Chierichetti's Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director. Before Leisen died in 1972, David interviewed him and they screened almost all of the directors' films. The book—republished and still available—is up there with the Truffaut/Hitchcock and Crowe/Wilder interview books as one of the best studies ever written. Back in '72, almost all of the Leisen stars were still alive and freely talked to Chierichetti about their films with Leisen. Even homophobic Fred MacMurray was coaxed by Dorothy Lamour to participate.
If you do not know who Mitchell Leisen is and have not seen any of the films mentioned above, do yourself a favor and get to these screenings. You will see some of the finest films ever made. As Kenneth Turan wrote in last week's Los Angeles Times, "Mitchell Leisen's zingy films are pillars of Hollywood's golden age, yet today we do not know him that well. It's time to change that."