Swing High!

Above is a very rare clip featuring director Mitchell Leisen (and star W.C. Fields). The only other footage of Leisen I know of is the start of HOLD BACK THE DAWN, where Leisen plays, basically, himself, a top Hollywood director making a wartime romance with Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake (I WANTED WINGS, a real Leisen film from the same year, 1941).

Leisen has been either ignored or devalued for too long. Billy Wilder, who didn’t much enjoy writing for the director, spent fifty years denigrating Leisen at every opportunity (“I don’t knock fairies. Let him be a fairy. Leisen’s problem was he was a stupid fairy,” gives you the tone of the debate). The legend grew that Wilder was compelled to become a director because Leisen mutilated his scripts. But the films he co-scripted for “Mitch”, MIDNIGHT and HOLD BACK THE DAWN, and at least the first half of ARISE, MY LOVE, are far stronger films than Wilder’s first couple of Hollywood movies as director, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR and 5 GRAVES TO CAIRO. Both filmmakers made great films, and a good Leisen film is clearly better than a middling Wilder film.

There’s a resurgence in Leisen’s reputation now, with retrospectives in recent years at San Sebastian and Edinburgh. Leisen is finally on the rise, and this may actually lead to a slight downgrading of Wilder’s standing, although I would expect that films like SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT have a secure place in film-lovers’ affections that cannot be dented.

The reason Leisen’s rise might bring about a dip for Wilder is found in one film, SWING HIGH, SWING LOW, from 1937. Fred MacMurray plays Skid Johnson, a trumpet player with an alcohol problem. The film details his affair with Carole Lombard’s Maggie King, a singer (Lombard and MacMurray had already starred together in Leisen’s HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE two years earlier). There’s a scene later in the film where Skid hits the skids, raggedly walking the real streets of New York and pawning his trumpet to buy more drink. This may surprise anybody who bought the line that Billy Wilder’s THE LOST WEEKEND, seven years later, was the first talkie to take alcoholism seriously. The sequence in that film where Ray Milland goes to pawn his typewriter closely echoes Leisen’s earlier movie.

That would be of only minor interest if SH,SL were a minor film, but it’s a rich and fascinating work that easily stands up to Wilder’s more celebrated film. Starting as a romantic comedy about bohemian musicians in Panama (with a hypochondriac pianist friend, a wisecracking older broad, and a pet chicken), it slides, without us noticing, into romantic tragedy, as MacMurray Makes it Big in the Big Apple, is seduced away from Lombard by an impossibly sultry young Dorothy Lamour, lets success go to his head and falls from grace as the booze goes to his liver. All this happens over the course of a substantial two-hour running time, allowing us a rare feeling of nostalgia for the early, happy part of the film, when the characters were poor and struggling but hopeful. It’s like the contrast between the two parts of LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.


Leisen was a marvel at managing these tonal shifts: REMEMBER THE NIGHT, scripted by Preston Sturges, flips from urban screwball comedy to bucolic sentimentality, slipping smoothly into romantic tragedy at the end, with a couple of other detours on the way — Barbara Stanwyck’s mother lives in a Gothic noir house and extinguishes the only lantern when her daughter leaves: to use a great line from Bruce Robinson, she lives “mainly in the dark, like a tongue.”

Similarly, nifty rom-com HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE features a moody, low-key nocturne in its second act, with low key-lighting, much pensive cigarette smoke, unresolved sexual tension, and an early example of the psychological track-in, as Leisen glides towards Fred MacMurray (his favourite leading man), creating a slowly mounting romantic tension. This kind of camera movement probably originates with Murnau, but is otherwise not much seen until the ‘forties, and rarely then. It became a bit of a tic with Spielberg in the ‘eighties, and was hyped up to new levels by Sam Raimi, who uses it almost musically.

Leisen presents a modest challenge to auteurist critics because his work is disparate, crossing genres and tones, often in the same film. But the same can be said of even as consistent a filmmaker as Hawks. Leisen’s best work falls into three main categories:

Olivia and some guy (John Lund)

1) Melodrama. Leisen’s “women’s pictures” include TO EACH HIS OWN (winning an Oscar for Olivia DeHavilland), a tear-jerker about a girl who, separated from her illigitmate child, struggles for years to win him back. Charles Brackett’s script (unlike his partner Wilder, Brackett had no problem working with Leisen again) leavens the intense sentiment with bitter elements, as DeHavilland tries to take her son back by blackmailing his adoptive parents. Leisen managed to persuade the censors to allow the use of the word “bastard” in its technically correct sense, then dropped it when Olivia couldn’t say the line without laughing. This willingness to change dialogue on the floor is what pissed Wilder off.

2) Comedy. Leisen’s work includes oddities like THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937, but it is in romantic comedies like EASY LIVING (scripted by Sturges) and MIDNIGHT (Wilder and Brackett) that he showcases his skill with light comedy, broad comedy, and elegant design and filming (Leisen began as costume designer and then production designer on DeMille’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and Walsh’s THIEF OF BAGDAD).

EASY LIVING features the world’s most beautiful automat, scene of an escalating slapstick food fight that gave employment to every pratfall specialist in Tinseltown, as well as Jean Arthur in an accidentally acquired fur coat (“Kismet!”) causing a run on the stock exchange despite a complete innocence of financial matters.

3) Camp. Which of course can combine elements of 1) and 2), but in Leisen’s case also introduces historical and musical elements. MURDER AT THE VANITIES is a boisterous backstage mystery with ludicrous, gorgeous musical numbers, such as “Marijuana”, in which a cactus-like pot plant sprouts naked girls. The song is interrupted by a screaming showgirl as blood drips from the rafters onto her bare bosom*, which should give you some idea.

Although Leisen’s oevre crosses genre boundaries, sometimes in the same film, he does have themes and motifs that spring up again and again: psychoanalysis (Leisen was an ardant devoteeof the couch); Mexico and Central America; gay characters (Richard Hayden in NO TIME FOR LOVE is the rom-com’s best-ever Gay Best Friend); impostures (especially in the comedies, Shakespeare-style, but NO MAN OF HER OWN, Leisen’s sole noir, uses the device for suspense and pathos); abrupt mood swings (see above); elaborate design of sets and costumes (a virtue with which the director has often been beaten by homophobic Wilderists); love stories in which one lover is virtuous, the other shiftless or untrustworthy (this may have had an autobiographical component).

David Melville’s Great Directors essay, online at Senses of Cinema (http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/05/leisen.html), should be your first port of call for more information and analysis (after the films themselves, slowly becoming available on DVD).

David Chierichetti’s HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR, available secondhand, is an interview book and critical study: Leisen, retired and in ill-health, cooperated fully, hoping to salvage his reputation. Maybe it’s finally working.


*According to psychologists advising the British Board of Film Censors, the sight of blood on breasts acts as a Rape Trigger in some male viewers, but the intended audience of MURDER AT THE VANITIES is perhaps immune to such auto-suggestion.

6 Responses to “Swing High!”

  1. […] Mitchell Leisen would annoy Wilder by cutting his scripts to make things more comfortable for the actors, Wilder, […]

  2. I’m dealing with memory afain, which can be chancy, but I have a *distinct* memory of an on-camera cameo for Leisen in “To Each His Own.” At the circus? De Havilland’s son is still a child, in any case, and Leisen shares a an “opera box”-like seating arrangement with her.

    Always glad to see people saying good things about Leisen!

  3. I’ll have to check that — when I can find my copy.

    My hope is that Leisen is slowly being rediscovered — the DVD release of Midnight and Easy Living is a good sign.

  4. could not agree more about Leisen– I LOVE Sturges, and, while I am less consistently impressed with Wilder, I do love Sunset Boulevard + The Apartment–but their objections to Leisen have ZERO foundation in the films themselves… it’s pure auteur pique, that’s all (which I understand–I get annoyed when people want to change the stuff I write for meaningless DVD-insert booklets!)

    I really have trouble though, picturing either pantheon figure making a BETTER film of their scripts for EASY LIVING, MIDNIGHT, REMEMBER THE NIGHT or HOLD BACK THE DAWN (Easy Living, in particular, would never have looked as god as it does in ANYONE else’s hands)…

    Stanwyck and Arthur are my two favourite actresses of the studio are–and Leisen gets astonishing performances out of both of them (Easy Living’s piggy bank scene is, to me, the ultimate jean Arthur scene–and I can’t picture Sturges delivering the goods on that one), and Stanwyck never had a better opportunity (not even in my beloved early thirties Capra/Stanwycks) to convey every aspect of greatness (a greatness that, for me, most definitely does not include the venality of DOUBLE INDEMNITY) than she gets in REMEMBER THE NIGHT (she’s wonderful in THE LADY EVE too, of course, but I’ve always thought that story about Sturges promising to write Stany a “really great” role AFTER RTN sounded bizarre–he had just done it!)

    I also love HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE and NO MAN OF HER OWN (an adaptation of a favourite Woolrich book)… and I think you may be on to something with SHSL, which I’ve only seen once, but plan to return to very soon

    the mood shifts are most definitely the key to Leisen’s auteurism–almost all of his films go further with this than anyone else’s (although Gregory La Cava comes close–as does Borzage, on occasion)

    love this blog! So glad there’s nothing for me to do at work today!


  5. Agree with all your favourites. Kitty is also excellent, the best of the period films. LaCava impresses me with the sheer “wrongness” I feel in a lot of his films — they aren’t as emotionally smooth as Hollywood films are “supposed” to be. My favourite is The Half-Naked Truth, but Bed of Roses is awesome too.

  6. […] Swing High, Swing Low (thanks to DC Cairns) […]

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