The Deluxe Treatment

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My favourite bit in EASY LIVING is probably the guided tour of the opulent suite at the Hotel Louis. A bewildered Jean Arthur is shown around by Louis Louis himself (Luis Alberni). The sequence seems to exemplify screenwriter Preston Sturges’s concerns — sudden reversals of fortune, the fickle finger of fate, the absurdity of the lives of the rich, funny foreigners, linguistic play — and those of director Mitchell Leisen — most of the above, plus lavish sets. There’s a lot more to Leisen than that, of course — one might mention his love of all different modes of camp, his fondness for Mexicana, Freudian motifs, and romanticism. In a way, this scene shows how for years critics have tended to regard the deep stuff in Leisen’s films as entirely the work of the writer, while regarding his own contribution as window dressing. Yet the visual choices of a filmmaker are not secondary to the thematic ones. And Sturges couldn’t have staged this scene as well as Leisen, because Sturges’s visual style favoured vulgarity and boisterousness over elegance. If Leisen had made THE PALM BEACH STORY, it wouldn’t have been as funny but Claudette Colbert would have had better frocks. The Hotel Louis IS vulgar, but it’s also beautiful.

The scene could have been written for Leisen, since it’s suck a design showcase. At the same time, Louis’s garbled descriptions of the suite’s features provide a ludicrous counterpoint — I particularly like his cockeyed neologism “gymnasalum,” which suggests some kind of workout regime for the nostrils — perhaps Kenneth Williams had such a facility in his flat (we’ll never know because he banned visitors).

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The gymnasalum features a hobby-horse, leading to a surprise bit of slapstick. It’s not surprising that Louis should attempt a demonstration, but it is a surprise that Luis Alberni should prove to have such very short legs. They’re like thumbs. Since most of the film is shot in that forties mid-shot standard, the sudden appearance of the micro-limbs is startling, and we suddenly see that Alberni’s tailoring makes him virtually a circus clown, with the costume exaggerating rather than concealing his physical oddities. And, mounted on the horse, his movements acquire a herky-jerky peculiarity perfectly in tune with his dialogue.

The most fabulous thing is the bathroom, with its “plunge” (see top) — it’s bigger than it looks, as we see later when both Jean Arthur and Ray Milland get in together. And, in operation, it looks like it might be annoying rather than invigorating — little¬†streams of water spouting from all directions. Like Dolby Atmos only wet. But I like to believe the plunge is as wonderful as it looks, and to hell with such practical considerations. When I’m a billionaire, I’ll order four.

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The only bum note here is one I’ve got only myself to blame for. When I wrote for a Channel 4 “education” show called The KNTV Show, I borrowed Louis Louis’s habit of randomly pluralizing singular words, and gave it to the Eastern European characters on the show. And then a set of commercials featuring a CGI meerkat stole this idea from me — otherwise, how to explain that the meerkat has an Eastern European accent? I don’t like most commercials, and I certainly don’t like the idea of some rich advertising jerk-off making money off an idea he stole from me, even if I stole it from Preston Sturges in the first place. Probably the meerkat isn’t as annoying as KNTV was. But I’d prefer, on the whole, not to think of either.

Meanwhile: I score co-authorship on a limerick. And a movie Fiona and I wrote seems to be tumbling erratically towards production. Remain skeptical, but we’ll see…

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18 Responses to “The Deluxe Treatment”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    “Where there’s smoke, there must be somebody smokin’!”

  2. “How can such a phemonenoms be such a flop?”

  3. That hotel suite is like L’Herbier on acid.

  4. It always surprised me that Leisen apparently took the project on a whim, as a change of pace from the dramas he’d up till then been associated with. I’d have sworn that scene had been written by Sturges in a brazenly cynical approach to appeal to the former art director…

    The film also feature THE most beautiful automat you ever saw, a gleaming marble temple of commerce.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    That automat is the setting for possibly THE funniest scene of pure slapstick I’ve ever seen! One that also makes a serious point about Depression-era America.

  6. I loved the Automat as a kid growing up in New York in the 50′s.

    In Douglas Carter Beane’s new play “The Nance” (starring Nathan Lane) he recalls how in days of yore select Automats were gay pick-up palaces.

  7. Makes sense! You go in, everything you could want is on display, you choose what suits your palate… The Erotomat!

    There are lots of slapstick scenes I prefer, but that’s a really good one, and certainly one of the very best in American films of the thirties and forties, which had largely lost the art of slapstick. It’s better than Sturges’s own pratfall sequences, though some of those do crack me up.

  8. La Faustin Says:

    Speaking of eroticism (well *I* am), I love Jean Arthur admiring the sleeping Ray Milland. There’s a similar scene in HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, with Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray unable to sleep in a shared apartment. There’s must have been some archetypal moment of yearning at a sleepover for Leisen.

  9. Christopher Says:

    The Good Fairy is a good example of Sturges overpower in another directors film..love the mock-movie at the cinema…”GO?..you can’t mean go!?”

  10. I’d say The Good Fairy moves like a Wyler film, but luckily Wyler respected the script and so Sturges’s style comes through very strongly. “This is this, I suppose?”

    Hollywood seems to have had the idea that gay male directors were a good way of getting into the female characters’ minds, and female audience’s minds. The way Leisen’s women, and his camera, look at the men, you can see there’s something to the idea.

    More Leisen soon!

  11. I’m not sure if I quite go along with that. Cukor certainly loved to direct women — and gave great actresses some of their best roles. But “Woman’s Director” was also a “polite” way of saying “FAG!”

  12. It’s only a theory, but I suspect studio bosses saw these directors as useful for particular genres which straight guys might not be so good at. Since I don’t envisage the likes of Louis B Mayer as particularly pro-gay, I think they capitalized on what they saw as a useful quirk.

    Within the stereotype of the “woman’s picture,” of course, Leisen and Cukor were able to work across a broad range of genres and tones.

    And James Whale doesn’t fit the stereotype at all in his work, using camp in genuinely subversive ways.

  13. Christopher Says:

    manly directors like Hawks and Huston seemed to understand women..Hawks more in the 30s and 40s..

  14. Hawks was reportedly bisexual… but I think his secret was to respect women and see them as not too unlike men. Huston was certainly worldly, he seemed to have a confident understanding of people generally. Perhaps not himself.

  15. david wingrove Says:

    I wouldn’t say gay directors are necessarily better at directing women. Despite his snide reputation as a ‘woman’s director’, George Cukor got Oscar-winning performances out of James Stewart, Ronald Colman and Rex Harrison – rampant heterosexuals, to a man!

    Meanwhile, Bette Davis did her best work for the heterosexual William Wyler, as did Marlene Dietrich for Josef von Sternberg. In contrast, Franco Zeffirelli directed Olivia Hussey in ROMEO AND JULIET and Brooke Shields in ENDLESS LOVE. (Dear, oh, dear!)

    It’s possible, however, that gay men tend to be more attuned to the notion of ‘life as performance’ – for the simple reason that many of us had no choice but to spend years of our lives pretending to be straight. An intense and extreme form of acting, most often at a very young age! Well, it must be good for something…

  16. I would never say that gay directors, as a body, have one particular skill set. I just think that under the studio system, that was the boss’s perception, and some directors happened to have the skills expected of them. Otherwise, I rather doubt some of those bosses would have wanted to have gay men around, if they didn’t see some commercial advantage in it.

    Also, I think Leisen’s filmmaking has a different slant on the “male gaze”, using female POV in an interesting way.

    Leisen and Cukor certainly both had in common that understanding of the performative aspect of life, and it informs many of their best films.

  17. Don’t forget Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Adored women, wrote matcheless insightful roles for them and outside of his affair with Judy Garland had nothing at all gay about him.

  18. Whale to Jean Harlow (on Hell’s Angels) “I can teach you how to be an actress. I cannot teach you how to be a woman.” So there were straight directors who were particularly empathetic with women and gay directors who weren’t. All I’m saying is there was a stereotypical perception which studio bosses somewhat believed in, and gay directors whose skill-set matched it could capitalize on that. Perhaps the short-lived nature of Whale’s success had to do with his being ill-fitted to any stereotype.

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