- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

The simultaneous release by Universal Studios Home Entertainment of DVD editions of two popular romantic farces from the late 1930s, “Easy Living” (which co-stars Jean Arthur and Ray Milland) and “Midnight” (which co-stars Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche), calls attention to their enduring entertainment value.

Both movies were directed by Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), one of the more successful contract directors at Paramount from roughly the middle 1930s through the middle 1940s. Although his name has grown obscure over the past generation and only a handful of his 40 features are readily available on home video, Mr. Leisen cut a stylish figure in his prime. He merits at least a modest rediscovery, which can commence agreeably with “Easy Living,” circa 1937, and “Midnight,” which appeared two years later.

Mr. Leisen’s apprenticeship in the movie colony dates from the silent period. Initially employed as a costume designer on “Male and Female,” a Cecil B. DeMille high society extravaganza of 1919 for Gloria Swanson, Mr. Leisen added art direction to his resume in the 1920s and concluded this phase of his career in 1932, again collaborating with Mr. DeMille, on the biblical saga “The Sign of the Cross.”

Expertise in costuming and decor remained conspicuous strong points after Mr. Leisen turned to direction. In fact, he moonlighted as a fashionable tailor and interior decorator in Hollywood.

Seldom in the Academy Award chase, Mr. Leisen had an early nomination for interior decoration (DeMille’s “Dynamite” in 1928-29) and later directed Olivia de Havilland’s Oscar-winning performance in “To Each His Own.” But of the 16 nominations his movies accumulated, none were for best direction, and almost half were for art direction, which acquired delirious Technicolor aspects in two of his films made during World War II, “Lady in the Dark” and “Frenchman’s Creek,” overdue for DVD unveilings.

“Easy Living” and “Midnight” are anything but carbon-copy romantic comedies. The former retains more sparkle and staying power, but they share a curious sort of pedigree. “Easy Living” is one of two pictures written by Preston Sturges that Mr. Leisen directed prior to the Sturges emergence as a virtuoso writer-director at Paramount in 1940. “Midnight” is one of three pictures written by the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder that Mr. Leisen directed before Mr. Wilder made his debut as an adroit writer-director at Paramount in 1942.

There are admirers of Mr. Sturges and Mr. Wilder who believe that frustration with Mr. Leisen hastened their determination to start directing their own material. The evidence suffers from hearsay and antiquity. Nothing in the Sturges memoir “Preston Sturges By Preston Sturges,” compiled by his widow, suggests discord with Mr. Leisen on either “Easy Living” or “Remember the Night.” It does suggest wrangles with the film’s producers.

Billy Wilder definitely nursed a grudge against Mr. Leisen — not for “Midnight,” which he regarded as well-directed, but for a subsequent project, the tearjerker “Hold Back the Dawn.” Leading man Charles Boyer was the provocation. He persuaded the director to drop a scene he thought unflattering and absurd, and this acquiescence rubbed Mr. Wilder the wrong way.

At one time, there was probably a tendency to underrate Mr. Leisen because he was a closeted or semi-closeted Hollywood homosexual. Now one can observe a tendency to overrate him as a neglected, versatile gay director, adept at masking certain obsessions in popular filmmaking conventions and evasions. A champion named David Melville, a critic from Edinburgh, advances an agenda on the Web site “Senses of Cinema” that would appear to have chutzpah in its favor, proposing Mr. Leisen as “the first Post-Modern filmmaker.”

I think it’s already a bit crowded in that sector, and the durably enjoyable Leisen movies can probably muddle through posterity without the burden of post-modernist baggage.

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