|Mitchel Leisen's trademark signature|
Such is the case with Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), a top director during Hollywood’s golden age. As a contract director at Paramount, he worked with all the top stars during that period: Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Jack Benny, Fredric March, Ray Milland, Marlene Dietrich, and Barbara Stanwyck.
Best known for his elegant romantic comedies, Leisen also excelled at action and melodramatic films. Leisen got his start as an art director and costume designer. Working under famed director Cecil B. DeMille, Leisen received his one and only Academy Award nomination for his art direction of Dynamite in 1930. He eventually worked his way up the ladder, directing his first film, Cradle Song, in 1933. The next year, Leisen directed two popular films Death Takes a Holiday and Murder at the Vanities. In 1935, he knocked one out of the park with Hands Across the Table. This landmark romantic comedy made Carole Lombard a superstar and established Fred MacMurray as a top leading man. During the rest of the 1930s, Leisen made some of the most commercial films at Paramount, including Swing High, Swing Low which was the studio’s biggest moneymaker in 1937. That same year, he directed the classic Easy Living starring Jean Arthur. Leisen topped off the decade with the delightful Midnight starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche. This romantic comedy, one of the many great films released in 1939, unfortunately does not have the status of some of its less-worthy, but better-known contemporaries.
The Fabulous Forties
Leisen, like George Cukor, at MGM, had a reputation for his direction of women. A generation of leading ladies at Paramount owe Leisen a great debt. Many did their best work under his direction. For others, he crafted popular vehicles ideally tailored to their personalities.
His success as a director continued into the early 1950s. Leisen’s last popular success was The Mating Season (1952) starring Gene Tierney, John Lund, and the Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter. After The Girl Most Likely in 1958, with movie projects nonexistent, Leisen turned his attention to television, directing episodes of popular shows like the Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
Of all the directors to come out of the studio system, Mitchell Leisen was one of the best. And one day, I hope, he’ll receive the recognition and honor he deserves.