Director Mitchell Leisen’s Lavish Vision Employed To Very Different Ends In Two Depression-era Entertainments



Dismissed by at least one prominent screenwriter of the 1930’s, who was later a celebrated writer-director in the 1940’s, as a mere “interior decorator” — and described in terms far more offensive by another — director Mitchell Leisen has been unfairly judged in film history for the attractive sheen of his productions as opposed to the effective content of his presentation. The ‘style over substance’ argument against the director’s ‘gilt-edged’ filmmaking, among other Golden Era Hollywood Studio filmmakers, has more recently been reappraised by classic movie aficionados for its sharp-eyed employment of a keen underlying vision, which in fact subverts and strengthens the story and character of his lavish productions to delightful and complicated viewing effect.

Taking, say, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s risqué script for the Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche-starring Continental Screwball Midnight (1939), and rounding its sardonic edges with a lush romanticism, Leisen was able to express the opposing sentiments both ways, dramatically and thematically, while never sacrificing the story and characters’ direct appeal to both sexes. Far from gleaming surfaces concealing the dry rot of the story, or wooden figures sleepwalking though an overdressed set, a Mitchell Leisen film glows with both the quality of its attractive surface and the inner warmth just beneath. If any director exemplifies the true “golden” in 1930’s studio films — using costumes, sets, camera blocking, light composition, and performance to maximum screen effectiveness — that director may be Mitchell Leisen.

Beginning his film career as an architect designing sets for Cecil B. DeMille during the silent era, a capacity which would extend to all aspects of mise en scene for DeMille films into the 1930’s, including costuming, set design, hair, makeup, and lighting, Leisen turned to directing at that most stylish of classic film studios, Paramount, for a run of masterfully produced melodramas, musicals, and romantic comedies which imparted both style and substance to the studio-era of Hollywood filmmaking.

Based on a 1924 Italian play by Alberto Casella titled La Morte in Vacanza, Paramount Pictures’ decade-later production translates a 1929 English-language Broadway version from stage to screen. Death Takes a Holiday was later remade as a 1971 TV movie with Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas, loosely inspired the 1998 Brad Pitt vehicle Meet Joe Black, and even came full circle back to Broadway in 2011 as Maury Yeston’s stage musical, but undoubtedly the best remembered of all vacationing grim reapers comes courtesy of Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 film.

The stylish, unconventional opening credits introduce the carefree high society enclave surrounding presiding European aristocrat Duke Lambert (Guy Standing) in media res, in turn spotlighting such haut monde inhabitants  as Madame Alda (Katherine Alexander), mustachioed Corrado (Kent Taylor), aging Baron Cesarea (Henry Tavers), and youthful but gloomy Grazia (Evelyn Venable). The 24-hour party that is these rich revelers’ lives come to a crashing halt one evening, however, when a mysterious dark shadow (?) overtakes their two-car caravan through the moonlit hills and leaves one of their open-air roadsters having narrowly avoided severing a poor passing trucker from his life, livelihood, and trailer-riding horse.

Back at his estate, Duke Lambert is visited in the still-darker hours of the evening by the mysterious dark shadow himself, who takes shimmering half-corporeal form in the translucent figure of the traditionally shrouded Grim Reaper (Fredric March). Announcing his intention to pay the Duke and his party a three-day visit, assuming the identity of visiting foreign dignitary Prince Surki, Death soon absents himself from his immortal duties in order to mortally relish the fruits of life, particularly love. An attentive alien among curious sensation-seekers, Prince Surki gradually settles on the pale, morbid, and interesting attractions of young Grazia, who eventually must choose this world in the sedate but eligibly secure Corrado or the next in the equally pale, morbid, and interesting, extraterrestrial avatar of the film-dissolving and credits-rolling sunless lands.

Death Takes a Holiday’s unique comic and dramatic interplay of light and shadow both enacts and embodies Hollywood glamor, Depression-era escapism, and deftly-touched thematic content of a decidedly darker nature in Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman’s witty script, Charles Lang’s luminous photography, Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté’s extravagantly Expressionistic sets, and impossibly gorgeous costumes from Travis Banton and Edith Head. Mithcell Leisen’s lavish taste is of course quite evident in all these opulent visuals — according to Kat Ellinger’s commentary, going so far as to acquire exact replicas of lawn statuaries from the Louvre — while never allowing us to forget in dialogue or performances the impermanence of all such vanities. Fredric March as Prince Surki/Death does attempt to “taste of life”, but the curious separation from his own attractive outer form and the uncertain darkness residing within makes for a 79-minute viewing experience that is both lightly unsettled in feeling and darkly comforting in tone.

Is Death to be feared? The ending may literally suggest its story-and-life-concluding embrace, but in the always entertaining terms of Code-era Hollywood, the ultimate attraction of its romantic pair to decay and dissolution makes for one of the most astonishing story-resolutions to be witnessed in a lifetime of popular entertainment viewing. The substance of Mitchell Leisen’s style, in tandem with a stark visualization of Hamlet’s “consummation devoutly to be wished”, suggests in vivid visual, dramatic, and thematic terms that the lure of death and the love of life are not only mutually inclusive but, astonishingly, that a holiday from death is handsomely coeval with a more permanent vacation. As echoed by dying Romantic poet John Keats in his own immortal “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819): “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/To cease upon the midnight with no pain”.

Many of the key artistic collaborations cultivated by Leisen at Paramount carried over to later productions, and while the luxurious “look” supplied by similarly overwhelming Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté sets are equally effective — along with story-crucial designer fashions from Travis Banton — the bright, low-contrast images provided by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, who earlier worked in a similarly romantic vein with director Leisen on 1935’s Hands Across the Table, provides a different sort of visual bite to 1937’s screwball farce Easy Living. From a script by Preston Sturges, adapting a story by Vera Caspary (Laura), comes one of the most successful examples of the genre that was born in and inextricably-tied to the Depression and post-Depression years; subsequently resisting most attempts to transplant its essential wit, irreverence, and pace to other eras.

Plenipotentiary New York City banker J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) throws a financial fit in his 5th Avenue mansion one morning, first impugning the sponging honor of his wastrel son John Jr. (Ray Milland) — who promptly states his intention to move out and “stand on his own two feet” — and soon after expunging the overstuffed wardrobe of his spendthrift wife Jenny (Mary Nash) of several thousand dollars’ worth of priceless furs. Leading a slapstick pursuit up three stories of backstairs to the mansion rooftop overlooking the city, J.B hurls one particularly egregious example of Mrs. Ball’s animal-hirsute, Depression-era extravagance down to the busy thoroughfare below.

The result of J.B.’s monetary temper tantrum drifts down to the open-air car of a double-decker bus, covering unassuming working girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) in literal manna from heaven. Honest to a fault, however, Mary intends to find the flying fur’s source and return it to its owner among the stately townhomes lining the numbered blocks of the Fortune 500 neighborhood. Recognizing the fur on his way to the bank, as Mary frantically rings every doorbell on the block, J.B. Ball registers surprise and admiration for this forthright young woman’s integrity and tenacity. Offering the bewildered yet indignant Mary a ride to work, Ball stops at an upscale dress shop presided over in efficiently tasteful fashion by the inimitable Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn) in order to replace Mary’s crushed hat and, heck, lets her keep the offending fur in the bargain.

Meanwhile, reporting separately to their individual endeavors in life, J.B. warns a loan-defaulting luxury hotelier named Louis Louis (Luis Alberni) of his impending foreclosure, the latter of whom finagles a one-week stay of eviction, while Mary, wearing the (unknowingly) costly sable coat to her lowly position on a junior magazine, causes a stir of offensive innuendoes which builds to an office melee and Mary’s quick dismissal from her position. The continued fate of the fur, Louis Louis’s empty hotel crisis, John Jr.’s futile pursuit of work from the bottom, and J.B.’s kindly act to a blameless young lady story-collide with a gossiping clothier, a scandal sheet newshound (William Demarest), another comic melee in a futuristic Automat, endless publicity and mounting levels of “easy living” on credit; all culminating in a nationwide stock market crash.

Juggling about fifteen escalating loose strands that all miraculously tie together by film’s end, Preston Sturges’s mastery of comic insanity, pre-dating his own writer-director efforts by three years, finds its perfect visual analogue in Leisen’s heightened mise en scene. Building to scenes whose settings defy adequate description — whose designs themselves comically-dramatically build to a stadium-sized suite of rooms whose centerpiece is a ceiling-high bath resembling a Roman emperor’s throne — the sustained lunacy of its plot plays hilarious artistic chicken with the overt artifice of its telling. Admirably grounded by Leisen’s sensitive handling of actors, Jean Arthur, on loan from Columbia, then-Paramount contract player Ray Milland, and especially Edward Arnold in his comic wheelhouse of the bellowing capitalist individually register the complications, cunning misdirection, and arch miscommunications of its screwball shenanigans, while great character actors ranging from fast-talking reporter William Demarest to prissy retailer Franklin Pangborn parlay their individualistic areas of screen expertise to their usual antic heights.

In all, balancing the sharp edges of the script with a seasoning dash of romanticism, Easy Living remains 1930’s entertainment at its zenith, with keen intelligence and lowbrow humor often co-existing in the same scene. And while one might assume this comic synthesis derived exclusively from the involvement of Preston Sturges at the scripting level, who later joined slapstick and satire to masterful effect in the high society nonsense depicted in, say, 1941’s Lady Eve, one of the most surprising revelations in returning Kat Ellinger’s audio commentary is that director Leisen himself developed the malfunctioning Automat food riot that ends up being one of the simultaneously broadest and breadlines-era incisive scenes in the film. Precisely the sort of thing Sturges might have dreamed up himself had it occurred to him first, as it later would in the orgy of gift-giving that story-climaxes his second directorial effort of Christmas in July (1940), a viewer today finds a perfect fusion of artistic sensibilities in Easy Living despite the later comic director’s dismissal of his earlier artistic collaborator which prefaces this review.

Having had recourse to mention them twice already, viewers of Kino Lorber’s new Blu-rays of Death Takes a Holiday and Easy Living are as always strongly referred to Kat Ellinger’s pair of commentaries for more insights into Mitchell Leisen’s neglected status as a prime Golden Age of Hollywood auteur. Utilizing the ne plus ultra of studio filmmaking both in front of the camera and behind it, the dedicated working methods and larger-than-life personality Ellinger describes is clearly evident on the screen, with Death Takes a Holiday’s infectious black humor and Easy Living’s brightly satirical comedy offering a respectively complicated screen vision mixing extravagant production values with profound emotional content and air-tight plot construction.

Appropriate to the glossy sheen employed to maximum big screen effect for their original 1930’s audiences, Kino Lorber’s Blu-rays visually preserve both Death Takes a Holiday’s cozy chiaroscuro effects and Easy Living’s comic-romantic glow with the home video label’s usual fidelity to their source material. Like the flamboyant character of Leisen’s films, his equally flamboyant personality lives on through them.

With the exception of the still from Death Takes a Holiday, which does not reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray, the stills from Easy Living are credited to DVDBeaver and are captured from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release.