From Boom to Bust

Like probably a lot of people, the first thing I knew about Mitchell Leisen was that Billy Wilder was unhappy with Leisen messing with his scripts. And since Wilder was the legendary director of numerous clever and beautiful films, I assumed Leisen was a Hollywood hack.

The first person to correct this impression was my friend Lawrie Knight, who was old enough to have seen Leisen’s films from the ’30s, ’40s and 50’s when they were new. He may even have seen, as a child, some of Leisen’s work as designer for Cecil B. DeMille, or on Raoul Walsh’s Douglas Fairbanks epid THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. He suggested that Leisen had made some beautiful films, and we managed to get hold of some. In particular, HOLD BACK THE DAWN made me realise that Leisen had certainly not trashed Wilder’s work, while TO EACH HIS OWN showed that Wilder’s writing partner, Charles Brackett, had respected Leisen enough to hire him to film one of his best scripts. And EASY LIVING and REMEMBER THE NIGHT, discovered in the Lindsay Anderson Archive, showed that Leisen could also do great work with Preston Sturges’ scripts. The two films are maybe not quite as great as SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS or THE PALM BEACH STORY, but they’re probably better than CHRISTMAS IN JULY or THE LADY EVE, and that ain’t bad.

David Wingrove opened my eyes further. He’d seen a Leisen retrospective at San Sebastian, and ended up writing the best overview of Leisen on the web, here. He had copies of FRENCHMAN’S CREEK and the excellent noir NO MAN OF HER OWN.

Then the Edinburgh Film Festival shows its own retrospective, curated by the then-director Shane Danielsen. It wasn’t a complete retrospective, and rather than attempting an overview of all Leisen’s styles, it concentrated on his comedies and melodramas, largely ignoring his musicals and period movies, the more “camp” side of the oeuvre — stuff like MURDER AT THE VANITIES that seemed to make Danielsen uncomfortable. But it allowed me to see SWING HIGH, SWING LOW, which became my favourite Leisen of all, perhaps because it combines both his comic and his romantic-tragic side so boldly.

So, as a huge Leisen fan, I was delighted to get my hands on two more of his films. BRIDE OF VENGEANCE was first into the player. Fiona has just quit her job and needed cheering up. I suggested this film.

“What’s it about?”

“Paulette Goddard is Lucrezia Borgia.”


Superb looking but appallingly acted and rather stodgily directed piece of historical melodrama. Totally studio-bound, but one of these days it could find a sympathetic audience. ~ Halliwell’s Film Guide.

Reader, we were that audience!

I admit, I quailed slightly at the prospect of John Lund as the Duke of Ferrara. In my view, any film with someone called Lund or Lundigan has a humanoid hurdle to get over. Ray Milland was supposed to take the part, but went on suspension at Paramount for the only time in his career rather than be associated with what seemed to him a dreadful script. When the film came out, the critics’ comments so resembled Milland’s criticisms, the producer suspected him of being in league with the reviewers.

A hero disguised as a fop — a sort of rennaissance Pimpernell.

But I needn’t have worried — Lund is actually pretty good in this. He was always a fine actor, he just slightly lacked charisma, or gravitas. His lightweight character actually adds tension to the story, since he seems but a slight threat to the advancing invader Caesar (sic) Borgia. He makes an able Ferrara. He also helped out by rewriting a lot of Clemence Dane’s unspeakable blank verse dialogue.

Paulette Goddard is, I suppose, too old, and Milland thought her too worldly. The film casts Lucrezia as something of an innocent, to the dismay of audiences but with some degree of historical accuracy. Leisen found he couldn’t get the performance he wanted from P.G. so concentrated on her looks, co-designing the costumes with Mary Grant (Mrs. Vincent Price). Particular care was taken in diminishing her eighthead (like a forehead, but twice the size). This is kind of a shame as I have long admired Paulette’s towering blind wall of a brow, which looks as white and fragile as eggshell.

MacDonald Carey as Borgia, the part Lund was originally to play, gets spectacular muscly armour, practically a bat-suit. All the costumes aimed for an unusual period verisimilitude, although the studio forbade Leisen from codpiecing the men. “He’s gay! We can’t let him get his hands on codpieces!”

Best performance of all is Raymond Burr as a Borgia thug. Even though it’s only 1949, Burr seems to have fully absorbed the influence of Marlon Brando, who had not yet made a film. He swaggers about with a nasal whine in his voice, cramming food into his face so he can hardly speak his lines. Also, he makes no effort not to be American. It’s a hilariously disruptive performance that the film nevertheless manages to contain — Burr shakes things up, but not to the point of damaging the story. It’s a wonderfully bold and fruity bit of showing-off, and it hereby earns Burr a coveted posthumous Shadowplay award for services to discombobulation. OK, it’s just an old golf trophy with “GOOD WORK FATTY” scratched on it with a key, but it’s the thought that counts.

Raymond Burr attempts that tricky “Gomez Addams look”.

Ah yes, the plot. “That was a lousy story about a big cannon that went boom,” observed Leisen in David Chierechetti’s essential study, Hollywood Director. Leisen told his producer, “You’re an ass to think anybody would care about this after the atomic bomb.” At this greater historic distance, the weapon of mass destruction makes a decent plot device, and Leisen seems well aware of it’s potential as a phallic symbol. Lund even has to abandon Paulette on their nuptial night to help Albert Dekker with his throbbing great piece of artillery. And then, weakened by Borgia poison, he RIDES IT INTO BATTLE.

“Get your farting gear around THIS!”

Ferrara is building the gun in secret, like Saddam (those W.M.D.s really were awfully well hidden, weren’t they? When Tony Blair swore he had absolute proof of their existence, you’d think some of that proof might pertain to their location. But no), while pretending he’s casting a giant statue of Jupiter. “You must come and see my big Jupiter,” he suggests to Paulette, before snogging her violently. “That was disturbing,” she observes. Fiona resolved to try this line next time I go for her.

Despite everybody’s harsh words about the story, it has some surprises, it’s played in a lighter vein that one would expect (I disagree with Halliwell’s “stodgy” crack) and the marriage is an exact match to the one in Leisen’s next-again film, NO MAN OF HER OWN — a bride takes her husband with the intention of killing him (“I will,” smiles Stanwyck, chilling the blood pleasurably).

There’s a very well plotted moment when Paulette realizes that her brother (rampantly incestuous, which is a surprise in 1949) has framed Ferrara, and her vengeance is misguided — it’s all done through three paintings knocked up by Titian (Don Randolph). “Why have you painted a demon with my brother’s face?” gasps P.G., seeing a likeness of Caesar. “I paint what I see.”

Fiona guffawed: “That’s what I used to say. I was probably five, and I drew our neighbour. ‘You’ve made me look all old and wrinkly.’ ‘I draw what I see.'”

No wonder she’s out of a job.

BRIDE OF VENGEANCE has been dismissed for too long. It’s campy and daft, looking ahead to Sirk’s SIGN OF THE PAGAN and countless Italian peplum films, but also smart and witty, beautifully designed and shot, and we get the vicarious pleasure of watching Raymond Burr stuffing his face. I call that A GOOD NIGHT IN.

Now we have Leisen’s KITTY to watch. It’s supposed by some to be his best film. I’m almost afraid to look.

My cinematic Babelfish translates this as: “Caesar or nuthin’!”

16 Responses to “From Boom to Bust”

  1. Interesting that you should start off a discussion of Leisen with Bride of Vengeance — which is great camp, but doesn’t show off what he could really do. For that you should go directly to Swing High, Swing Low — which is truly amazing for its deft mix of romantic comedy and genuine seriousness. Marty Scorsese was deeply indebited to it for his madit masterpeice New York New York. But Liza isn’t Carole Lombard.

    Hell, NO ONE is Carole Lombard! That’s the trouble with film and everything else.

    I do like his Struges films, but I like Sturges’ own better. I think you underrate Christmas in July. And The Lady Eve is beyond praise.

    Midnight was recently made available as a low-priced DVD and should be immediately epoxied to everyone’s brain pan.

    Murder at the Vanities is pre-code heaven with its topless chorus giils bursting out of marijuana plants. Plus Duke Ellington and his orchestra AND Kitty Carlisle singing “Cocktails For Two.”

    AND Toby Wing.

    David Chierichetti is one of the most deeply strange people I’ve ever known, but his Leisen book is absolutely definitive and a model of Hollywood scholarship.

    Last but really far from least there’s Leisen’s swan song, The Girl Most Likely — a musical remake of Tom Dick and Harry retooled for the ot inconsiderable talents of Jane Powell. Gower Cahmpion did the choerography and the “Balboa” number, which has the cast stomping and splashing about in a few inches of studio water is an unsung mini-masterpiece. Tommy Tune adapted the same idea for the stage with My One and Only, the marvelous version of Greshwin’s Funny Face he created for himself, Twiggy and Charles “Honi” Coles.

    The Girl Most Likely was the very last RKO film. As each scene was completed another set was struck and a department closed forever.

  2. “It was eerie,” was Leisen’s comment on making that last film.

    I’d list my top Leisen favourites as Swing High, followed by, in no particular order, Remember the Night, To Each His Own, Hold Back the Dawn, Midnight, No Man of Her Own, Hands Across the Table.

    Easy Living and most of Arise My Love are also great.

    But Bride of Vengeance, Murder at the Vanities, No Time for Love and The Mating Season are all terrific fun. I’ve been plugging Leisen since I started here, so this is just the latest step. Bride is interesting partly because NOBODY liked it, including Leisen — a despised film from a neglected artist.

    Leisen’s bad films, if one could agree on which they are, tend to be so excessive as to achieve a kind of interest in spite of / because of their flaws: Frenchman’s Creek and Lady in the Dark are both pretty weak, and not too easy to sit through, but undeniably and commendably nuts.

    His Twilight Zone with Ida Lupino can be seen as both a perfect swan song and a rebuttal to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

  3. Oh and —

    I rather adore Christmas In July, but in the very special company of the other Sturges Paramount classics, it could perhaps be called “minor” (in NO other way would that be the case). And the Sturges-Leisen Remember the Night is both more ambitious tonally and more successful overall.

  4. Tone is really the key with Leisen. The tonal shifts in Remember the Night, Hold Back the Dawn and Swing High Swing Low are incredibly deft.

    No Man of Her Own, BTW, is the first film version of Cornel Woolrich’s delightfully titled I Married a Dead Man.

  5. This is by way of saying that when he has a less than sympathetic peice of material, like Bride of Vengeance or Frenchman’s Creek, Leisen pulls out all the stops and throws subtlety “under the bus” — as the children say nowadays.

  6. Yes, and he entertains himself with details, since the big picture is messed up anyway.

    Alexander Mackendrick noted a similar tendency in himself, obsessively calculating how much money you could fit into a cello case for The Ladykillers. And that was a GOOD film — if the film was defective, he got even more obsessive.

  7. I remember reading that the picture that became “Bride of Vengence” was originally a Val Lewton project. This was during his unhappy, post-R.K.O. period. Heaven only knows, what with chance and ill-will and studio politics, what happened to turn Lewton-ized “Bride” into Leisen-ized “Bride.”

    I’d love to see “Lady In The Dark” again. Yes, I know, a lot of it doesn’t work. Parts of it do, though, and I yearn, I tell you I *yearn* to experience La Rogers again in her fur-lined skirt performing “The Saga Of Jenny.”

  8. Well, I have a copy of Lady…

    That fur-lined skirt was cut into pieces and used to dress Paulette in Bride of Vengeance!

    I’d love to see the deleted scenes… Mischa Auer singing “Tchaikovsky” in particular.

    Bride certainly has the feel of a project that had been around the block a few times — there are clear wartime propaganda references in the script. I suspect Lewton would have boosted the darker elements. I’ve seen his post-RKO western, Apache Drums, and it plays almost like one of his horror films at times. It’s also the only Welsh-accented western I know.

  9. Oh D., I am so sorry I missed this! I haven’t seen this particular Leisen but I have seen Kitty and while it won’t dislodge Easy Living in your pantheon, it is very charming in its way. Kitty is the reason I thought I was going to like Frenchman’s Creek more than I actually did. I can’t wait to see your thoughts on it.

  10. Just watched Kitty and enjoyed it, but you’re right, it doesn’t reach the very pinnacle for me, which is still occupied by the Sturges and Wilder scripted films, and Swing High Swing Low. It probably does have the best story values of all the lavish period dramas, and Paulette is MARVELLOUS in it. More later.

  11. […] those who know and love him, so who better to play him than the Mighty Burr, previously winner of a Shadowplay Award  for services to […]

  12. I want so much to see Bride of Vengeance just for the fact P.G is in it she was also at her best in Kitty. love her!!
    Where is this film available though?? =[

  13. It’s not available at all! The only way to get it at present is to swap DVD-Rs with someone who has it. I’d be happy to arrange a swap myself. The movie is certainly not as good as Kitty but I found it a lot better than its reputation suggests.

  14. Grrrrr how silllyyyy !
    Thanks for your opinion about the film its appreatiated!
    Still determined to see it,it looks rather intreguing aside from the fact P.G stars in it!
    I’d really like to arrange a swap with you! It’s just funny as im not sure i would have anything you would want! .. :(

  15. John Byers Says:

    Even though it is way over a year since you wrote this, I thought you might like to know that Bride of Vengeance is one of the films not on DVD that Netflicks offers for instant viewing. The print is fairly good and, as you’ve already noted, the film is alot of fun.

  16. Thanks for the info!

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