Kismet

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“Say, what’s the big idea?”

“Kismet!”

Another viewing of EASY LIVING confirms its supremacy. Seems we’ve all spent decades admiring Frank Capra comedies when we should’ve been admiring Mitchell Leisen comedies. This is complicated by the fact that the good Leisen comedies are also Wilder & Brackett films or Preston Sturges films, and that means something different to us than saying that of course Capra owed a great debt to Robert Riskin and the Swerlings etc. It shouldn’t, though — Sturges and Wilder’s distinguished future directing careers don’t impact on the quality of the films Leisen made from their scripts.

(You might find yourself, briefly, thinking less of Leisen if you attempt to watch MASQUERADE IN MEXICO, a protracted and miscast remake of MIDNIGHT. Wilder must have hated that, since he felt that MIDNIGHT was the one of his scripts he’d managed to protect from Leisen’s alterations. Leisen got his revenge, you could say, but the movie is pretty lousy and didn’t do its director any favours.)

Sturges’s debt to Wodehouse looks even stronger now — Ray Milland, very effective as the fatheaded idler son, is a pure Wodehouse “young man in spats” type. Lovers saying “Ha!” to each other in moments of high emotion. Jean Arthur working at The Boy’s Constant Companion — these kind of trashy magazines are regular employment for Wodehouse heroes, suggesting that his early days of journalism fixed his world view permanently.

The fur coat that drops from heaven and transforms Jean’s life, however, is pure Sturges. The idea that appearance is all anyone cares about, and success is a matter only of perception, and the heavy hand of the author intruding to transform character’s lives in a blatant manner, all that is the stuff of Sturges writ large.

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One could wish that the last line — “This is where we came in!” — were different. I have no doubt that Sturges was the first to use it, but it has become a dead sitcom cliché. Perhaps for younger audiences, it has already lost those associations, and will seem fresh again. But then, younger audiences never had the experience of walking into a movie partway through, sitting through the whole programme, and then getting to the point you recognise and leaving, with those words. I did: I think we only did this on double bills, but I certainly remember entering the cinema while a strange movie was partway through. Hitchcock didn’t affect a total transformation in cinema-going habits all at once with VERTIGO, and at any rate in the 70s or even 80s your cinema ticket bought you admission and you were entitled to sit in the dark all day if you felt like it.

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Who is that girl? I wondered, when the fur coat incident from the beginning was repeated with a new girl at the end. It didn’t seem right that she should just be an anonymous extra (she’s uncredited). One wants it to be an aspirant Jean Arthur, with something of a career ahead of her. And, according to the IMDb, it was — Marsha Hunt, still with us today, is the girl. I love her in Zinnemann’s CSI 1940s crime flick, KID GLOVE KILLER.

Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)

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10 Responses to “Kismet”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Leisen was a genius and Billy Wilder’s attacks on him were simply a case of sour grapes. Not to mention mean-spirited and grossly homophobic!

    Sure, MASQUERADE IN MEXICO is a bad movie (largely because Dorothy Lamour and Arturo de Cordova are unable to carry the lead roles) but it looks gorgeous and has spectacular dance numbers choreographed by Leisen’s long-term partner Billy Daniels.

    In fact, I’ve never seen a Leisen film that was wholly devoid of interest. Even his much-maligned later works (BRIDE OF VENGEANCE, BEDEVILLED) are far more watchable than their reputation would suggest!

  2. Marsha’s a friend, and still as lively as ever. She worked to end world hunger eons ago — which of course got her into trouble with American fascists (who are still with us — arguably now more than ever)

    David Cherichetti’s book on Leisen is DEFINITIVE. Leisen had a great an multi-faceted career. And here’s a memorable clip from his last hurrah.

  3. The Cherichetti book is superb and should be reprinted to take advantage of the gradually increasing interest in Leisen. Encouragingly, all it took was for a few of his better films to actually be seen for more people to recognize that he wasn’t the murderer of scripts Wilder painted him as.

    Interestingly, in Cameron Crowe’s book, when he tries to get Wilder to repeat his anti-Leisen stories, Wilder just kind of sighs and says, “I don’t know, he was a good director I suppose…” Crowe then makes up something about Leisen focussing excessively on bouquets of flowers and set dressing, which is the old homophobia again in disguise.

  4. I have always loved Leisen, and Wilder’s abuse of him only reflects badly on Wilder. Sturges said that the films Leisen made of his scripts drove him to directing, though apparently he owned prints of EASY LIVING and REMEMBER THE NIGHT.

  5. Remember the Night was too long, and Leisen ended up being the one who cut the script, which was a no-win situation… the movie is terrific, though. Arguably it delivers the sentiment with less schmaltz than Sturges would have been able to manage. I love Sturges, but his schmaltz is always self-conscious.

  6. Sturges’s script for Easy Living, found in the “Three More Screenplays” book, shows that Leisen was quite faithful to the material and made only minor cuts. And Leisen’s skill at slapstick is evident in the automat sequence. Most of Sturges’s attitude toward Leisen can be chalked up to his impatience to direct–he would later go out of his way to thank Leisen for supporting him at Paramount.

    Leisen’s cuts did indeed improve Remember the Night–he pruned the overlong getting-lost sequence and much of the racist humor from the packing scene with Rufus. The only missed omission from the script is the first iteration of the paying-for-mistakes line. I also prefer the original ending, but it’s otherwise hard to improve on Leisen’s direction and handling of the material.

  7. La Faustin Says:

    I’m a big fan of Leisen’s FOUR HOURS TO KILL, with Ray Milland as a sleek cad. The gimmick is fascinating: a Grand Hotel/Union Depot/Counsellor at Law intertwining-lives plot, taking place during the performance of a Broadway musical and diegetically underscored by its songs, but never showing the stage. Leisen himself appears at the beginning as the conductor.

  8. Wilder watched Midnight being shot to learn about directing. What annoyed him about Leisen (outside of the attention he’d pay to his leading ladies’ outfits) was the way he’d give in when an actor like Claudette Colbert would say “I don’t like this line. Is it alright if I say it like THIS?” When he became his own director he’d never let an actor alter so much as a semi-colon.

  9. Here’s another Leisen I’m mad about:

  10. Must watch Four Hours to Kill!

    Swing High Swing Low is a devastating masterpiece. It only survives because Leisen preserved a 16mm copy.

    I heard it was Ball of Fire that Wilder hung out on the set of, watching Hawks.

    Thinking about it, the famous cockroach scene in Hold Back the Dawn, which Leisen cut at the behest of Charles Boyer, is exactly the kind of thing Wilder would cut from his own movies: kill your darlings, he would say. The scene was a neat idea but the movie doesn’t miss it.

    I like some of Sturges’ slapstick, but I think he tends to frame it as if it were dialogue. Too close. Leisen has a better touch for pratfalls.

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