Secrets and Leisen

One of the most assured stylists of the studio era, Mitchell Leisen was able to balance wonderfully robust, built environments (thanks to his training in production design) with a sensitive direction of actors — qualities on display in a pair of hard-to-see Leisen films that recently surfaced. The 1950 “No Man of Her Own” from Olive Films offers Barbara Stanwyck in an expressive mix of melodrama and film noir; “Bedevilled,” a 1955 MGM production released by Warner Archive, finds him adapting to the demands of color, widescreen and location shooting with reasonable aplomb, although the film is marred by some flat sequences staged by Richard Thorpe (who took over the production when Leisen fell ill). Reviews here in the New York Times.

87 comments to Secrets and Leisen

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    PS: GIVE A GIRL A BREAK is also about three women.

  • Jean-Pierre,
    That’s an interesting observation.

    The “Casebook” structure Emrys is talking about in Caspary, is the use of multiple narrators to tell different sections of a story, in her novels like LAURA. This certainly is used in LES GIRLS and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES.

    There aren’t any narrators at all in EASY LIVING. But the film does lurch between the Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold locales. These seem to be from different worlds. It is an oddly constructed story-line.

  • I haven’t been able to run down the anti-Leisen quotes from Sturges that Dan references, but Wilder’s very bigoted remarks about the “stupid fairy” who allegedly ruined Wilder’s scripts for “Midnight” and “Hold Back the Dawn” are in the Chierichetti book.

  • Alex Hicks

    Maybe, in the interest of upgrading, Leisen should have directed all of Wilders 40’s comedies? Might have edcuated Billy.

    Personally, I don’t think anyone could have much improved on Wilder’s hard boiled, non-comedic/non-romantic 40s films, not at least “Double Indemnity” and “The Lost Weekend,” which I regard as masterpieces that neither Hitchcock or Clouzot could have improved on.

  • Barry Putterman

    I have always thought it a bit peculiar that both Sturges and Wilder had had previous scripts turned into nondescript films by completely impersonal directors and that does not seemed to have bothered them very much. But when it came to a stylist like Leisen whose films he made from their scripts were well received, they reacted violently. It does make one wonder how much of this was professional and how much was personal.

    In any event, Charles Brackett (remember him?) who had a little something to do with those scripts that Wilder worked on, doesn’t seem to have had any grudges against Leisen. The first film he made as writer/producer after his break with Wilder was THE MATING SEASON. And the director he employed on that one was….

  • Vivian

    Barry, you’re a master of measured tact. I’m glad you enjoyed THE CHILL to whatever extent you did. As has been discussed at great length, so many personal variables go into one’s response to a work of art…

  • Barry Putterman

    Vivian, I can think of a few among us who find my level of tact questionable. I enjoyed “The Chill” thoroughly. The measurement only comes up short in relation to the placement in a personal pantheon you claimed for MacDonald during the Kubrick/posthumanism mashup.

    Put another way, no claims of greatness have been placed on the Leisen directed films TAKE A LETTER DARLING and NO TIME FOR LOVE among his supporters here. And they aren’t really great films, but they have particular significance for me due to the Claude Binyon scripts.

  • Vivian

    Ah yes, the Kubrick/posthumanism mashup….good times….

  • Blake Lucas

    “…good times…”

    Hopefully, they may not be over, Vivian. I’m working on a couple of posts for that thread I want to put up there still. The first is basically written but want them to go up there at the same time. Just need time to finish.

    I had been thinking about Charles Brackett and Leisen before Barry mentioned THE MATING SEASON. Note also that Brackett wrote both story and screenplay for the deservedly well-regarded TO EACH HIS OWN and seems to have had no problems with Leisen directing it. I never heard him complain about Leisen.

  • Robert Garrick

    Dave, I drew the disparaging quotes from Wilder and Sturges from this piece, which I think is probably pretty reliable, though there’s no direct citation:

    http://www.rouge.com.au/12/leisen.html

  • Barry Lane

    I think you will find in the Leisen book that Milland remained warm to Leisen and did bring him in to direct Markham.

  • dan

    Dave – I believe his ‘difficult’ relationship with Leisen started at the time of EASY LIVING, as he wrote it under Hornblow Jr. supervision, and really wanted to direct it himself, but was let down by Hornblow who chose Leisen, a director he admired and worked with on SWING HIGH. As i recall reading, Sturges knew that was part of the game and other than mumbling the ‘Wilder-esque’s “he’s only a set dresser” remarke a couple of time he accepted the bitter pill politely and with good spirit. The hate arose when it happened the second time around – when Albert Lewin broke his contract and THE AMAZING MARRIAGE was handed to Leisen instead of Sturges. Leisen made cuts that toyed with original screenplay and didn’t care doing rewrites at all (that would mean he would have to work with Sturges). As for the quote i really can’t remember that exact phrasing but it included the word “arrogant” and was known to be the first step in his decision to produce his own films.

  • David Cohen

    In Sturges’ autobiography (page 283), he says he took the script for EASY LIVING directly to Mitch Leisen. And then he says: “I didn’t realize it then, but going to the director over the head of a producer was not a sagacious move; I would come to realize it much further down the road.” … That’s the only mention of Leisen in the book.

  • Robert Garrick

    After doing a little looking around, I see that the “interior decorator” line is attributed to Sturges by Diane Jacobs in her book “Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges” (1992), and she does provide a citation.

    Jacobs suggests that perhaps Sturges meant the comment literally. She writes: “Sturges complained that Leisen overwhelmed his dialogue with ornate sets and physical business.”

    Jacobs goes on to say that Sturges probably had nothing against Leisen personally, and that Sturges (who was only a year younger than Leisen) just wanted to direct his own scripts.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Does anyone know of a source for a decent copy of Swing High, Swing Low? Every time TCM runs it, the print (or whatever-we-call-it in this digital era) is such murky sludge I can’t bear to look at it. I gather this title fell into the public domain in the Seventies, if not before. The one time I did see the movie was via a 16mm rental from Kit Parker Films, 35-40 years ago; it too was pretty coarse, although not as bad as what TCM runs.

  • Robert Garrick

    A number of people in this thread have commented favorably on “Remember the Night” (1940). I admire quite a few Leisen films, but I too put “Remember the Night” in a more elevated category.

    The interesting comparison is with “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). The Capra film has been a popular Christmas film for about least thirty years now (it was more obscure before that), and “Remember the Night,” while considerably less well known than “Wonderful Life,” is starting to acquire a similar holiday reputation. TCM has made it a staple of its December programming, and “Remember the Night” was recently shown a number of times in that month, including on Christmas morning, and heralded as a major “discovery.”

    Both films are set around Christmas and both films feature deeply troubled central characters in crisis. In the Capra film, James Stewart meets a guide (Clarence the Angel) who takes him into his past by showing him the world as it might have looked had Stewart never lived. In the Leisen film, Barbara Stanwyck also meets a guide (Fred MacMurray, whose job it is to prosecute her for shoplifting) who takes her across the country by car to her rural roots in Indiana. This trip has a mystical feel, though it’s not overtly supernatural like Stewart’s journey in the Capra film. MacMurray effectively suspends time (and recognizes the special nature of Christmas) by bailing out Stanwyck and temporarily forgetting about his prosecutorial duties. (Stanwyck’s upcoming trial, which looms over the film, is set for January 3.)

    Stewart and Stanwyck finish their journeys transformed and ready to embark on new lives. The use of terrain in the Leisen film is extraordinary. The trip begins in the city, where Stanwyck (with her love of material goods) gets into trouble. MacMurray takes her deep into America’s traditional heart, eventually finding (in an unforgettable scene) the dark place where Stanwyck grew up. Then he brings her as a guest to his own home and finds a very different atmosphere. The center of the film comes when MacMurray’s family sings “A Perfect Day.”

    As “Remember the Night” continues, Stanwyck drives north to Canada (a neutral zone) to consider her future and decides, to MacMurray’s surprise, to deal with her past by doing time in prison. She crosses back into America, through Niagara Falls, into a new life, cleansed of her past.

    It all seems natural, and in tune with the road trip, and also organically connected to Stanwyck’s growing love for MacMurray.

  • About Antonioni… I am not sure he would have enjoyed Leisen, in his early articles as a film critic he wasn’t that enthusiastic about Hollywood cinema. I would say in NU he uses American glamourous cinema as a counterpoint to his low class characters. (Hollywood vs Neorealism.)

    About Italian dubbing… You must consider that Italian language is a relatively young one. Until 50 years ago most of Italians still spoke their own dialect only, and in fact for example I still can’t properly understand all my grandmother’s speech. TV and dubbed cinema had an enormous importance in spreading Italian language, even if it was a very “bourgeois” Italian. (Pasolini wrote much about this, often lamenting the death of folk poetry.)
    However, I live in Rome and with a little patience if you take the tube you can see many American films in English with Italian subtitles. I have recently seen J. Edgar, for example, and the theater wasn’t so desperately empty as I had imaged, perhaps beacuse the Italian dubbing for DiCaprio was so bad… Now I plan to see Woody Allen’s new film in original version.

  • Oh, and I am also very eager to see Marco Bellocchio’s coming soon Bella addormentata (Sleeping Beauty), so I will finally have a chance to hear my beloved Isabelle Huppert speaking Italian with her own voice!

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Simone, it’s great to have a native Italian living in Rome on this site, especially as far as the problem of dubbing vs subtitling is concerned. It was my impression that subtitling of foreign films was still very rare, and that seemed to be confirmed by the article I discussed two days ago. You’re bringing up a slightly different, more encouraging version.

    On a slightly different subject, most (if not all) of the dialogues in Italian films were post-synchronized until fairly recently. I think it was in the late nineties that some directors started using direct sound. I remember seeing Moretti’s “La Stanza del figlio” in Paris (subtitled, of course) in 2001 and noted that the credits
    proudly announced “direct sound.” I wonder if the use of direct sound has spread or is still unusual (we don’t see too many new Italian films in the US these days).

  • Barry Putterman

    It was often said that silent films was a universal medium. But since every country translated the intertitles into its own language, I should think that you run into the same sort of problems that you have with subtitling (if not with dubbing).

    I would be interested to hear from our contributors in non-English speaking countries whether dubbing and subtitling (and intertitle translations) was regularly changed in different areas of the country to accomodate local dialects. As far as I know, the same crappy dubbing applied North, South, East and West over here.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘It was often said that silent films was a universal medium. But since every country translated the intertitles into its own language, I should think that you run into the same sort of problems that you have with subtitling (if not with dubbing).’

    About silent movie in Japan, there was live narrator for domestic movie and foreign movie. Narrator was sometimes more important than movie. Japanese film maker objecting to narrator for changing story and distracting from image, so that law was passed to control narrator. From this time narrator was called benshi.

    Foreign sound movie having vertical subtitle from introduction in 1931, and like that today, but sometimes there is horizontal subtitle. I have not seen dubbed foreign movie, but I have heard that there was few for provincial market in 1950s.

  • Johan Andreasson

    In Sweden dubbing is, with very few exceptions, only used for movies where the intended audience is so young that it can’t yet read.

    I’ve never seen dialects taken into consideration, but minority languages sometimes are. Finnish is a minority language in Sweden (as Swedish is in Finland) and I have on one occasion seen a film in a theatre with double subtitles in Swedish and Finnish, which took up such a large part of the screen that it was very hard to see the actors. I have also seen films in the Sami language (another minority language here) with subtitles in Swedish.

  • Yes, subtitled films are still rare, but if you live in a big city (Rome, Milan, Turin, Bologne…) you usually have a (tiny) chance to see American films in original version. For example, Inglourious Basterds, J. Edgar, Young Adult and Drive were all screened in Rome both dubbed and subtitled. On the other hand, I am attending a Cineteca Nazionale retrospective, and they are showing Becker, Ophuls, Bunuel and even Tati in dubbed prints!

    Direct sound is now fairly common in Italian cinema, even if we still use dubbing as a patch for bad acting or poor sound recording. However, you are right, until late 70s most Italian films were generally post-synchronized. I think the shift was originally connected with a new generation of comedians (the so-called “nuovi comici”), including Roberto Benigni, Carlo Verdone, Massimo Troisi and, yes, Nanni Moretti. Being actors-directors, they cared very much about their own performances, so they demanded direct sound.

  • Following Johan’s remark (April 18, 2012 at 4:18 pm): there is one privilege in belonging to a small language community – movies and tv programs are seldom dubbed with the exception, like Johan said, of programs for children so young they cannot read.

    The bilingual prints with high fonts Johan is referring to must be prints from the 1950s… perhaps from our archive screened at the Cinemateket in Stockholm! Since then, they use shorter subtitle units which change faster. Almost all movies in Helsinki have Finnish / Swedish subtitles which triple the pleasure for a well-written movie if one can both listen to the original and read both translations, sometimes all with a new variation of a joke!

    The first movie I saw as a child was the 1962 re-release of SNOW WHITE, which also happened to be the first feature film dubbed into Finnish (during the previous releases it, too, had been shown only with subtitles). Before, only occasional spoken commentaries to films were being read in Finnish, for films by Sucksdorff, Cousteau, and Munk (PASAZERKA) for instance. But NUIT ET BROUILLARD was screened with the original Michel Bouquet commentary.

    Digressing from “le grand couturier”…

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Barry I’m pretty sure that such changes to accomodate local dialects as you mention never were made in France, simply because dialects — unlike in Italy, say — were never different enough from standard so-called “Parisian French” to motivate even minor changes. I have never heard of French moviegoers complaining that they didn’t understand the dubbing, although it may have sounded weird or funny compared to their own accent.

    On a slightly different subject, changes in both dubbing and subtitling of the original dialogue have always been
    common, for censorship or other reasons. One of the most notorious case of such changes was the replacing of everything concerning the communist spies and their precious microfilm with drug trafficking in PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (the film’s French title became “Le Port de la drogue”). I’m sure I mentioned this before here, sorry if I repeat myself!

  • Richard, I’m afraid there’s little chance of a decent copy of Swing High Swing Low turning up — the only surviving print seems to have been Leisen’s own 16mm copy, and the negative is lost too.

  • Rick: “In EASY LIVING, it was Sturges’ distraction for slapstick which seemed to throw things off for Leisen … its centerpiece, the automat scene, though celebrated, lacks timing and comic punch which Sturges undoubtably could have given it.”

    Leisen was very enthusiastic about the slapstick brawl, though. It’s not my favourite thing in the film, but Leisen shoots it better than Sturges could’ve (and the set is gorgeous). I always feel Sturges shoots slapstick as if it were dialogue, in medium shot, which makes things inelegant when people fall down and the camera has to pan. It makes it a little more painful-looking than it should be, because we’re too close.

    I love Sturges, but I think the people saying Leisen was a better director have a point. Sturges wins out because he was one of the greatest writers Hollywood ever saw.

  • Barry Putterman

    “I always feel Sturges shoots slapstick as if it were dialogue, in medium shot, which makes things inelegant when people fall down and the camera has to pan.”

    I’m a little confused. Why would the camera have to pan if somebody fell down in medium shot? It would have to pan if somebody fell out of the frame in close-up. It would have to pan if somebody fell down off camera. But couldn’t a medium shot be easily composed to include somebody falling down? Personally, I think some of the best pratfalls in movies are one that you never see. It is just indicated that they have happened and then you see the results of the fall.

    And is is absolutely necessary for somebody falling down to look elegant? Sometimes the awkwardness and painfulness of the fall is central to the gag.

    For me, the issue isn’t whether Leisen was a better director than Sturges (or Wilder for that matter), but who would have made a better film from those particular scripts. And, of course, it is one of those questions which could be debated forever since there is nothing to go on except personal feelings and conjecture.

  • Alex

    In the interest of cinephilic reconciliation I have resolved to square a circle or two. The plan is to nurture deals that reveal the fragility of some commonly voiced aesthetic dvides. The goal is to narrow the divide between the palpably sweet and the ostensibly cynical by getting Camerone Crowe to commit himself aremake of “The Lost Weekend” (or “The Dinning”)and George Romero to do go for a personal version of “Remember the Night.” I’ll hang out at the Brighton Coffee Shop and Nate ‘N Al’s days and Dan Tana’s Italian evenings until the connections are made and the deals done!

  • david hare

    There is/was a 16mm print of Swing High from Australian TV which was deposited with the then Australian Film Library in Melbourne some time in the 70s by a “collector”. It may or may not still be sitting on the shelves in the endlessly re-named and re-moved OZ Film LIbrary/National Library collection which is currently housed in Sydney, but nobody could tell you because “unofficial” acquisitions like this were not catalogued (also like their 35mm near mint copy of Zangiku Monogatari.) The quality was quite good, far superior to the TCM/various boots around these days. Even the Cinemateque Francaise Leisen retro during late 2008 was obliged to rely on the very same multi gen 16mm source as the TCM, plus electronically generated French subs on the run, which kept failing. I saw Bertrand Tavernier leaving the packed cinema after the screening and expressed my disappointment at the same old rubbish print (“quelle pellicule atroce”.) He shrugged his shoulders as if to indicate “that’s all there is.” That entire season at Bercy was packed to the rafters, which really did restore my faith in Parisian cinephilia, I have to say.

  • Just watched Easy Living again.

    Don’t have a full checklist for Leisen.
    He likes working women, and showing their workplaces: the manicurist in Hands Across the Table, that awful office in Easy Living, Thelma Ritter wrapping packages in a department store and working as a maid in The Mating Season.
    Lots of fancy breakfast scenes in Easy Living, Midnight, The Mating Season.
    Frenzied foot preparation in the Automat in Easy Living, the hamburger joint and apartment in The Mating Season.
    Food is passed through walls in the Automat in Easy Living, the apartment in The Mating Season.
    People get new clothes and thus new identities: the heroine’s coat in Easy Living. the hero pretending to be a Gypsy in Golden Earrings.

    There is a long complex pan in the Automat in Easy Living. It follows the heroine as she slowly walks down the food machines. Both the hero and heroine pass in and out of the frame, in fairly complex staging.

  • Barry: “Personally, I think some of the best pratfalls in movies are one that you never see. It is just indicated that they have happened and then you see the results of the fall.”

    Just seen The Good Fairy (1935), written by Sturges and directed by William Wyler. Much better and much warmer than Leisen, of course, but slapstick too was shot with a far superior comic timing than Easy Living (and I do enjoy the Automat scene).
    Look at this amazing fall by Margaret Sullavan…
    http://youtu.be/KSi1NN7OvGk

  • jbryant

    Simone: Great scene (and great movie), but I imagine that’s a stunt-Sullavan.

  • Barry Putterman

    Indeed, THE GOOD FAIRY is GENUINE foxene! And thank goodness for Margaret Sullavan and Preston Sturges. Because if we were counting on William Wyler either for warmth or comic timing….

  • Golden Earrings was more-or-less remade, unofficially as an episode of the TV Western The Big Valley:
    12-19-66 HIDE THE CHILDREN Writer: Jack Curtis Director: Arthur H. Nadel

    It’s lively and well done. The late Peter Breck has one of his better roles, in the old Ray Milland part.
    There is no equivalent to the Nazi menace in the Old West. So the story becomes a Civil Rights allegory instead.
    *
    A good mystery treatment of the Romani: the short stories by Edward D. Hoch about Michael Vlado, a Gypsy sleuth based in modern day Romania. There is one collection: THE IRON ANGEL. Good mystery plotting. And a vivid protest against the discrimination the Romani face in modern Europe.
    *
    On a lighter note, a favorite book is the now mainly forgotten collection of comedy sketches, A PEARL IN EVERY OYSTER (1938) by Frank Sullivan. Among the gems here: a parody of gourmet dining clubs. This one is known as “Les Amis d’Automat”, and rhapsodizes over the food found in those nickel slots. Good reading after watching Easy Living. Frank Sullivan wrote for the New Yorker, and one suspects that Sullivan and Sturges must have encountered each other in New York City in the 1930’s.
    And don’t miss Sullivan’s account of a 15 minute trip on the Staten Island Ferry, done in full One Way Passage / A Night to Remember splendor!

  • Johan Andreasson

    Yes, THE GOOD FAIRY is indeed very good. As I understand it Sturges didn’t leave a single line of Molnar’s play in his script, but the movie still has a nice European feel, and Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan seems to feel right at home in Budapest, Hollywood already five years before THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER.

  • Rick K.

    Regarding Sturges and physical comedy … one could most conveniently cite his onscreen dedication at the beginning of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to confirm his adulation of the silent clowns who created and perfected that tradition in cinema, which so obviously rubbed off in some of Sturges’ eccentric screenplays and in his sometimes ruff and tumble execution of slapstick scenes, capturing the essence and spirit of the form. The automat scene in EASY LIVING is a marvelous concept, great gags deriving almost exclusively from an extremely cunning comic idea. There’s no doubt that Leisen exploited it to the best of his ability, utilizing the savvy visual sense of an art director (one of the best in the business) and his innate good taste, though slapstick is often at its best when “confronting” good taste with its own anarchic proclivities, which may be where Leisen fell short, at least for those in the audience to whom Sennett etc. form the crux and inspiration of that particular form.

    I certainly hope that the Australian print of SWING HIGH SWING LOW finds its way into mainstream circulation. I think the same problem once existed with McCarey’s LOVE AFFAIR, which could only be seen in dupe copies for so long, then as better prints began to surface, they gradually took the place of the poor copies. I’m most anxious to see the new blu-ray of Vidor’s BIRD OF PARADISE, which is due from Kino in the next week or so. Its another one of those films which really NEEDS a quality print to fully appreciate … I’m actually very fond of that film!