Thursday, January 06, 2011

Book review – “Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director” by David Chierichetti

Before reading this book I knew Leisen best as a director who inspired two top screenwriters to go into directing: Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder. Not due to Leisen’s kindness, but because they weren’t happy with what he did to their scripts. This is a little unfair since Leisen did a good job – I think he just didn’t do the job that Sturges and Wilder envisioned. But for many years Leisen was a top Hollywood stylist, who flourished at sophisticated Paramount. Words like “stylist” and “sophisticated” are often used as code for gay – well, Leisen was gay, but he was also stylish and sophisticated.
He started as a designer, and must have been a very good one – he worked for Cecil B de Mille – before going into directing. He later made some films at MGM where you would have thought he would have thrived, but he clashed. His career went into decline with the demise of the studio system and the loss of his team – things also seem to have gone a little haywire in his private life (a lover killed himself, he became an increasingly dirty old man). He would up directing television, losing a lot of his money and a leg, then denying not very well remembered in 1972 – although this book is an excellent tribute to him, full of terrific interviews.
Lots of interesting bits and pieces: Fred MacMurray, star of numerous Leisen films, refused to give him a gig on My Three Sons because of the director’s lecherous reputation and MacMurray's concern for the welfare of the young boys in the cast; Leisen was forced to make a bunch of films with MacDonald Carey, who Paramount were trying to build into a star; Leisen clashed with Richard Maibaum several times, and had an unhappy experience on the Alan Ladd film, Captain Carey USA; he directed the last film made at RKO, The Girl Most Likely. Well worth reading if you’re interested in the director’s films, or the history of Paramount during the Golden Years.

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