Masters of Screwball Part 2: The Trouble with Mitchell

Once upon a time there was a Hollywood director at the top of his game. He made movies that were widely popular, influential, critically esteemed, and profitable. He was a visual stylist and a practitioner of high Hollywood glamour. He coaxed great performances from top stars. He was on the short list for producers looking to staff their prestige pictures.

But say the name “Mitchell Leisen” today and be prepared for blank stares. I wager that many of the classic movie buffs who would spend their Saturday mornings reading this blog are unlikely to have much beyond a passing familiarity with his name.

So what happened? How did someone who flew so high fall into such obscurity? Ironically, the answer is his own success.



If I’m right and the majority of my readers can’t rattle off a list of Mitchell Leisen films off the top of their heads, let me give you a cheat sheet: Death Takes a Holiday, Murder at the Vanities, Hands Across the Table, The Big Broadcast of 1937, Swing High Swing Low, Easy Living, The Big Broadcast of 1938, Artists and Models Abroad, Midnight, Remember the Night… This is nowhere near a comprehensive list, but I think it hits most of the highlights.

He was responsible for taking glamour queen Carole Lombard and reinventing her as a comedy star. He directed Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, Zasu Pitts, WC Fields, Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Paulette Goddard, Thelma Ritter… the list goes on.

And that’s just to discuss the films he directed. Mitchell Leisen spent decades as a premiere art director and costume designer.

In short, we are talking here about an accomplished artist with an impressive CV. But let’s take a closer look at some of those highlights and see what happens upon closer scrutiny.


For example, Hands Across the Table. This is one of my go-to screwball classics when trying to explain the genre to newcomers. It’s not my favorite, nor is it the funniest, but it is by far the most representative. It Happened One Night gets all the attention for being the breakout hit that defined the genre, but the cycle of comedies that spun out of its success went pinging off in all kinds of other directions such that it doesn’t seem quite like the things it inspired—whereas Hands Across the Table manages to pack in practically every ingredient and approach of the genre as a whole. Which sounds a bit like I’m calling it generic, but not at all. I’m saying it’s more of a point of inspiration than the Capra film, and if anything about it feels overly familiar today it’s because what it did so quickly became standard.

But how much of the credit goes to Leisen? Precious little, because all the attention goes to Carole Lombard. This was a mid-career swerve for her, and she demonstrated such peerless comic confidence it was an absolute revelation. To the extent film historians look behind the scenes to understand how Lombard made the switch to comedy, they usually settle on Paramount studio chief Ernst Lubitsch, who apparently was pushing Carole towards comedy and insisted the script be rewritten specifically to write to her strengths.


Now consider Easy Living, which is in my opinion a contender for funniest screwball comedy and which we talked about here last week. But how did I approach it last week? As a pseudo-Preston Sturges film.

You see, Sturges had written the screenplay, which had become something of a cause celebre around Hollywood before the film was made. Producer Arthur Hornblow knew he had a blockbuster script on his hands—which is why he turned to ace director Leisen to nurture it to the screen. But that cuts both ways—Sturges had written something that was self-evidently a hit before a single frame had been filmed, so when he started insisting he be allowed to direct his own material, it was hard to refuse him.

And that’s the story Sturges told—that he stood on the sidelines throughout the production of Easy Living, fuming at how this journeyman hack was butchering it. Any deviation from his script was like a knife, and he was dying a death of a thousand cuts.


Then we come to Midnight. From a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, Midnight stars Claudette Colbert as a down-and-out chorus girl who arrives in Paris one night having lost the last of her money at a Monte Carlo casino. Unable to find a job, she sneaks into a fancy society gala by cooking up a phony identity as a baroness. Weirdly, every time her deception seems due to be discovered, she is spared from humiliation thanks to a variety of supporters who help maintain her disguise, for reasons of their own. It’s a Cinderella story in which the princess isn’t going to be forced back to her life of poverty—it’s a question of whether she will choose that life all on her own.

Like Sturges’ backstage agony at Easy Living, Billy Wilder raged at what he saw as Leisen’s incompetent mishandling of the material. And just as Sturges was motivated by the experience to become a director, Wilder too determined to avoid a repeat of the experience and willed himself into the role of director.


And that was the beginning of the end for Leisen. Not professionally, mind you—he remained an active and respected director through the 1950s. But in terms of posterity, Leisen’s memory would now be sullied by the likes of Sturges and Wilder. As their stars rose, they continued to tell of their displeasure at Leisen’s directing of their early scripts—and as they became legends, their petty grumblings were preserved and widely distributed.

But did they have a point? How would Easy Living or Midnight have turned out if Leisen hadn’t been involved?

Well, probably not as good, actually.


You see, both films are Cinderella stories (although Midnight is more self-conscious about that fact) that drop their heroines into a world of opulence and luxury, contrasting that high life with their humble origins and the rough Depression-era economy outside. In other words, both films have a distinctly visual component and a fundamentally human one. But these are not characteristics you think of when you think of Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder. Their genius lay in other areas.

Leisen had risen into the world of directing from a background in art design and costuming. Sturges criticized him for worrying about the placement of lamps on the set over the timing of slapstick pratfalls, but this isn’t a proper criticism. Easy Living gets much of its power from the absurd over-the-top luxury of her new penthouse lifestyle. Getting the lamps right is part of the comedy, as much as the slapstick pratfalls.


And Leisen was also a rare openly gay man in 1930s Hollywood, who knew first hand what it meant to yearn for acceptance and peace as an outsider (Leisen was nominally married to singer Sondra Gahle, but they lived apart and his relationship with Billy Daniels was not hidden. Daniels had a bit part in Midnight and began to appear in and collaborate on Leisen’s films from there on). Leisen brought a humanity and a graceful openness to his characters, which might have been at odds with Billy Wilder’s harsh cynicism, but that was ultimately to the better of the material.

In both Sturges’ and Wilder’s self-directed works, the characters tend to come off as programmatic pieces on a comic chessboard, manipulated for specific effect. Leisen brought a warmth to the proceedings, and did so within a context of visual stylization and eye candy that made his films at once earthy and ethereal.


11 Responses Masters of Screwball Part 2: The Trouble with Mitchell
Posted By Tom S : February 14, 2015 5:10 pm

“In both Sturges’ and Wilder’s self-directed works, the characters tend to come off as programmatic pieces on a comic chessboard, manipulated for specific effect.”

Really? I don’t disagree that Wilder was a bone-deep cynic- movies like Ace in the Hole and Double Indemnity couldn’t come from anyone else- but he also made The Apartment, one of the most deeply felt and ultimately humane movies of its kind I can think of, and one that is very much about the humanity of its central couple (and how that humanity is routinely violated.)

Posted By kingrat : February 14, 2015 5:40 pm

David, I think Leisen’s skill at costuming comes through in MIDNIGHT. Look at Colbert’s gold lame gown (sorry I can’t get the accent mark) and how glamorous and sexy she looks in it. Look at the pullover, leather jacket, and leather cap Don Ameche wears. Did he ever look more masculine or have more sex appeal? If I had been a 30s/40s star, male or female, I’d have wanted Leisen to choose and design my wardrobe and my look.

KITTY and NO MAN OF HER OWN are also among my favorite Leisen films. The staircase in KITTY becomes a character in the story, and that seems to show Leisen’s hand as well.

Posted By george : February 15, 2015 5:04 am

Leisen was a director who thrived in a studio environment — he was at Paramount from 1933 to 1951 — and floundered when the studio era ended. He had plenty of company. Vincente Minnelli, another director who put great emphasis on set and costume design, was never the same when his time with MGM ended. Josef Von Sternberg, like Leisen, declined when he left Paramount.

Leisen went into TV in 1959, directing three good “Twilight Zone” episodes (including “The 16mm Shrine,” with Ida Lupino). His last TV work, in 1967, was on “The Girl from UNCLE.”

Posted By vp19 : February 16, 2015 3:27 pm

Fred MacMurray, who had worked on several Leisen films (including “Hands Across the Table” and “Swing High, Swing Low” with Carole Lombard), declined to hire Leisen as a director on “My Three Sons” because he conflated homosexuality with pedophilia. (Sadly, that was the perception in those days.)

“Swing High” was Paramount’s biggest moneymaker of 1937, as Leisen even coaxed Lombard to sing on screen (her previous vocal appearances all had been dubbed). Carole’s competent, which fits her character. Alas, despite its success, it fell into public domain and no complete 35mm print survives (Paramount lent it to 20th Century-Fox for “When My Baby Smiles At Me,” a quasi-remake, and it never was returned.) Some prints include 16mm footage from Leisen’s personal copy, and the difference between the two is obvious from the get-go.

Posted By John Bruner : February 16, 2015 6:17 pm

Can anyone explain why “In Harms Way” has not been shown in over 3 years. “Giant” and other super long movies have been on the channel 6 or 7 times.

Posted By Cristiane : February 17, 2015 11:02 pm

I adore Mitchell Leisen. “Remember the Night” is one of my top five favorites. Love “Kitty” and “Midnight” too – the brilliant Raoul Pene du Bois costumes for “Kitty” are genuinely dazzling.

Posted By george : February 18, 2015 3:03 am

REMEMBER THE NIGHT is a real sleeper. I wish more people knew about it.

Posted By swac44 : February 19, 2015 2:53 pm

Remember the Night just got a blu-ray release from TCM last year, so at least it’s out there. Sad to think that Swing High, a Paramount film, might have been a victim of one of 20th Century Fox’s many vault fires.

Posted By Pete in TX : February 20, 2015 12:37 pm

As Terry Teachout recently pointed out, “Remember the Night” is also noteworthy as the first comedy in which Barbara Stanwyck starred. Like “Hands Across the Table” was for Carole Lombard, it was a turning point in her career.

Posted By Leo Parks : February 23, 2015 6:14 pm

Who decided on the wacky idea of narration voiceover of classic movies to the general public who have no disability. It is very distracting., Leo

Posted By swac44 : March 4, 2015 2:21 pm

Leo, not 100 per cent sure what you mean, but is it possible you have your cable box or TV set to SAP (second audio program) which often features audio description tracks for the visually impaired? Generally SAP is used for that kind of narration, or language translation, or possibly even a director’s commentary. Try checking your settings.

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