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’!”