Mitchell Leisen — Hollywood’s Most Colorful Director (1944) 🇺🇸

Mitchell Leisen with Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray |

December 16, 2021

Meet Mitchell Leisen, who has bossed more famous women around than any other man in history and still retains a sense of humor.

by Elizabeth Wilson

Joan Fontaine said she simply wouldn’t wear it. Not in a million years. She closed her eyes to half mast, tossed out her chin in a manner that would have startled Jane Eyre, and took her stand. A red dress with red hair? In Technicolor.’’ Never! No woman in a red wig and her right mind would be seen dead or alive in a red dress. Maybe Lady Dona St. Columb in Daphne du Maurier’s “Frenchman’s Creek” was a little screwy (all royalty was screwy in the days of Charles II, or so history, and Daphne, would have you believe.) Dona wasn’t that crazy. And even if she was — she, Joan Fontaine, was not. She told Director Mitchell Leisen what he could do with his red lamé dress?!

Mitchell Leisen, fondly called Mitch to his friends, was not disturbed in the least by Joan’s outburst. He isn’t the worrying kind. And besides he’s used to firm, strong-willed movie stars with a mind of their own. Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Ginger RogersJean Arthur, Paulette Goddard — he’s directed them all, and there’s not a bird brain in the lot. “Now, listen, Joanie,” he said pleasantly, “all I’m asking you to do is test it. If you don’t like it, after you see the test, out it goes. You can wear any color you like. Isn’t that fair enough?”

Joan tested the bright red dress. And she wore the reddest of the red wigs. (Everybody wears wigs in “Frenchman’s Creek” — no hairdresser could cope with the fancy period styles of 1668.) And later she went with Mitch to the projection room, all prepared to prove her point, and rub it in good. But, when the test had run off, and the lights came on, Joan was as pleased as a kitten with a saucer of cream. “Mitch,” she cried enthusiastically, “you’re a genius!”

When you see the banquet-murder sequence in “Frenchman’s Creek” (Technicolor at its finest) you’ll understand Joan’s enthusiasm. Never in her screen life has she looked so brilliantly beautiful, so thrillingly alive, and so intriguingly sexy, as she does in her red wig and her red dress in the candle-lit ball room of Navron House. Although Joan suffers from no inferiority complex (don’t ever let an actress put that tired one over on you) she gladly gives Mitchell Leisen credit for making her a “glamorous female.” He has given her screen career a double shot in the arm when she was beginning to need it badly. Joan had gotten typed, a nice, colorless, mousey typing. “Rebecca,” “Suspicion,” “Constant Nymph,” “Jane Eyre.” When you thought of Joan Fontaine you thought of pigtails, gingham, and a plain earnest face. Whenever a producer had a mousey part he called up Fontaine. She was rapidly becoming a second Luise Rainer. But after her love scenes with Arturo (“Frenchman”) de Cordova, her fight to the death scene with Basil [Rockingham) Rathbone, it will be something else again. When the producers want a high-spirited wench with a lot of flashy sex they’ll call Miss Fontaine. Thanks to Mitchell Leisen, someone else can now be Hollywood’s Head Mouse.

Teaching movie stars to be alluring is nothing new with Mitch. He started a long time ago with an awfully nice kid, named Carole Lombard. He had seen Carole in small parts in minor pictures and he was convinced that if handled correctly the girl had great promise. He recommended her to DeMille for whom he was working at the time, and DeMille rehearsed her for two weeks for a part in “Dynamite.” “Fire her,” he stormed at Leisen. It was one of the hardest things Mitch ever had to do. But he kept in touch with her, and passed on a little friendly advice about clothes and make-up occasionally, which Carole was smart enough to take, Then when he became a director in his own right he starred her in “”Hands Across the Table” and “Swing High, Swing Low,” two pictures which helped make her one of the most glamorous stars in Hollywood. “Mitch,” said Carole many times, “is one of the grandest guys I’ve ever known.” It was Mitch who stood beside Captain Clark Gable last winter when the U.S.S. Lombard was launched at a Wilmington shipyard.

And teaching, movie people about color is nothing new with Mitch either. When he was starting work on “Lady In The Dark” the color people gathered around to tell him what colors would go with what colors in the different sequences. Mitch listened politely to all their “cannots” and then said, “My theory is that you should handle color in pictures just as you would in your own home. If a woman is giving a dinner party she doesn’t call her guests and say, ‘I’m wearing my cerise tonight — what are you wearing.’ — please, not the orange.’ Or if she has invited a few friends to lunch with her at Romanoff’s she doesn’t call in the morning and say, ‘I’m wearing my purple suit — don’t wear anything that might clash with it!’ “ In “Lady in the Dark” colors were grouped together that had never been grouped together before on the screen. And nobody had to rush to an oculist.

Little over a year ago Paramount had $8,000,000 sunk in unreleased Leisen pictures, “No Time For Love,” “Lady In The Dark,” and “Frenchman’s Creek.” With eight million bucks in red ink in your books you would have thought that the boys in the front office would have been considerably nervous. But quite on the contrary. They’ve got complete confidence in that guy Leisen. “He’s not one of the most publicized directors in the business,” one of the top men at the studio told me, “but he’s one of the best. If we had eight million sunk in the properties of some other directors I could name — well, we’d be nervous wrecks.”

Twelve years ago the guy who run up an eight million dollar bill on Paramount without causing the flutter of an eyelash was doing his Hollywood entertaining at the drive-ins. DeMille had gone on a trip around the world, depression had set in, and Mitch was working as an extra. Two girls who are still good friends of Mitch’s tell about those days. “He’d ask us for dates,” they relate, “when there was a Paramount preview because he knew he could promote passes. Then he’d take us later to a drive-in. Sometimes we’d long for a chocolate soda and a club sandwich, but we didn’t want to embarrass him. so we’d swear we weren’t the least bit hungry and really couldn’t eat a thing — we’d settle for a five cent cup of coffee.” Today these same two girls, an actress and a designer, are still invited out by Mitch. But what a difference. Vintage wines, and the most deliciously cooked foods in the world. Exquisitely served. An orchestra. The best in entertainment. Mitch’s parties make all other Hollywood parties look as if they came from Macy’s basement by the way of the five-and-ten.

Mitchell Leisen could easily have been an architect, a sculptor, a designer, a draftsman, an interior decorator, an aviator, or a musician. But he chose to be a director. He has had a far more interesting life than most of the actors he has directed. He was born in Menominee, Michigan, in a house that had more than its share of ginger-bread decorations, due to the fact that the Leisens owned the local brewing company, and were the town’s leading family. When his father, a dashing young captain in the U.S. Army, died as the result of a tropical disease contracted while fighting in Cuba, Mitch fell heir to the brewery fortune and properties. “Quite a tidy sum,” he recalls. “At least it was until prohibition. The brewery folded in those dry years, and so did my fortune. The full endowment I ultimately received amounted to exactly $600.”

Mitch inherits much of his sense of humor and his joy of living from his grandmother, Mathilda Veronica Mitchell, who crossed the wilderness from Ohio to Kansas in a covered wagon, popping Indians along the way. With her family reared, her children married properly, Grandmother Mitchell was for twenty years the prim and proper “little old lady” her children wanted her to be. She sat quietly on her front porch, rocking and knitting. Then suddenly, at eighty, Grandmother Mitchell got pretty fed up with the quiet life. She moved out to Hollywood to live with her favorite grandson, and what a whirl she had. Mitch dressed her in fashions he especially designed for her which put the Hollywood beauties to shame, He took her to Hollywood premieres and parties, where her laughter was gayer than that of any starlet. She enjoyed her daily nip too, in fact, she insisted upon it.

When Mitch, “a callow youth,” came to Hollywood some twenty-five years ago he came out on what he thought would be a short vacation. He had a job as draftsman with Marshall and Fox, well known architects, who at that time were planning the famous Drake Hotel in Chicago. Mitch had presented some ideas for the new hotel, which they liked, and they had given him a job. Vacationing in Hollywood with a cousin, he met Cecil B. DeMille and his noted scenarist, Jeanie MacPherson, at a party. At Miss MacPherson’s request (she had been struck by Mitch’s artistic and capable hands) the great C. B. summoned Mitch to his office a few days later and suggested that he submit some sketches for Gloria Swanson for “Male And Female,” which was just about ready to go into production. In less than two days he designed three original costumes for Gloria, and designed and made 35 others. (He also designed the famous peacock dress which Gloria wore in that picture, and which is still considered one of the greatest pieces of designing ever done for motion pictures.) DeMille was tickled pink. At last he had found someone with originality, and who wasn’t afraid to work. He put Mitch under contract at once, and for twelve years they worked together on one successful picture after another. “Marshall and Fox built the Drake without me,” says Mitch with a sigh.

Under DeMille, Leisen worked as set dresser, designer, art director, assistant to anyone who needed a job done. It was the best way in the world to learn the movie business, and Mitch was smart enough to realize it. When DeMille embarked on his famous bathtub period which was responsible for revolutionizing the bathing habits of Main Street from Maine to California, it was Mitch who designed many of the black marble plumbing fixtures. (His masterpiece was the milk bath for Claudette Colbert in “The Sign Of The Cross.”)

One of the most humiliating experiences of his life occurred on the set of a Gloria Swanson picture. He was carving up plain ordinary bars of soap into charming rosebuds for Gloria’s next dunking. A newspaper man from the East saw Mitch fashioning roses out of soap and was. horrified. “This,” he roared, “is typical of the decadence of Hollywood. Flowered soap!” He wrote a lengthy article about flowered soap in that Sodom and Gomorrah called Hollywood, and it was syndicated all over the country. So what? So a few months later department stores all over the United States were selling soap in the shape of flowers. And still are

In the early 1930s Cecil B. DeMille decided he needed a vacation, so he sailed on an extended trip around the world. For the first time since he came to Hollywood Mitch found himself without a job. You’d think that after twelve years as the master’s right hand he’d find it easy to get his name on a studio payroll. But everyone assumed that Leisen would carry on the “DeMille tradition.” And the depression was on in full force. Hollywood, overplaying as usual, was economizing like mad. ‘”Sorry, Mitch,” the movie moguls would say, “you’re too expensive. You’ve been trained by DeMille. Too lavish. No more chinchilla night gowns, old boy. Nothing luxurious in pictures now.”

Mitch didn’t worry. He became an extra. And while he was making a few dollars a day a few days a month, he gathered up a lot of valuable knowledge. One thing he learned was about extras, the most scorned bunch of people in Hollywood. “Extras are actors,” says Mitch, “and much more intelligent than a lot of accepted actors. The main reason they don’t do things properly is that they are told to walk or stand or sit down or do a million other things by an assistant director who never tells them why. In my pictures I make it a point to know that every extra knows what the story is about, and what he is doing. It makes a lot of difference in a picture.” Apparently Hollywood’s extras like to work with Mitch. They recently voted him their favorite director.

Mitch who had been trained in camera technique by DeMille, along with everything else, next got himself a job as a camera assistant with Stuart Walker, famous stage director, who was starting “Tonight Is Ours,” with Claudette Colbert and Fredric March. “The most horizontal picture I ever worked in,” says Mitch. “It wouldn’t get past the Hays Office today.” And then timidly, and with plenty of misgiving. Paramount handed him the megaphone on “Cradle Song.” “Cradle Song,” made from buttons, firmly established Mitchell Leisen as a director to be reckoned with. He has been under contract to Paramount ever since. His present contract gives him the privilege of producing his pictures also — but Mitch insists that being a director is quite sufficient.

Mitch’s passion for accuracy is well known. And it had Paramount going around in circles when he was handed Daphne du Maurier’s best seller, “Frenchman’s Creek.”

“I believe quite firmly,” says Mitch, “that if the set is wrong the audience will be aggravated without realizing it — but if the set is right the audience will be completely at ease.”

In a Victorian living room you can be quite sure you won’t find anything from Louis XlVth in a Leisen picture. And you won’t find anything from Grand Rapids in any living room, “Frenchman’s Creek,” and you can bet your bottom dollar that the studio would never have bought the story in the first place if they had known the trouble and expense they were in for, was something new in periods in Hollywood — it was the little known period of 1668, when Charles II of the Stuarts was on the throne in London. A period with which Hollywood was utterly unable to cope. Neither, suspects Mitch, was the author. Miss du Maurier wrote the novel in an air raid shelter during the London blitz and filled it with inaccuracies. Largely, Mitch thinks, because she placed it in the Victorian era and belatedly moved it back to 1668 when she discovered that to be the heyday of pirates.

“There was not one costume or prop of the period available anywhere,” says Mitch. “We had to make everything.” It was the ruffly period for men, and the actors had to be supplied with tons of lace, not to mention 300 “poodle-dog” wigs. Hooks and eyes were unknown in the days of Charles II, said research, so Joan Fontaine had to lace up her nineteen changes of costumes. A few timid souls in the front office faintly suggested that Mitch might fake a few props, but they received merely a scornful glance from Mr. Leisen who is a stickler for authenticity. Even when it comes to detail. For instance, for the banquet scene Mitch ordered a quantity of king size prawns imported from the North. The company that shipped them sent only enough for one dish. The banquet scene took three days to film. And the shrimps weren’t getting any younger under those high-powered Technicolor lights. Finally Joan spoke up, “Mitch, don’t you think these shrimps are getting a bit high.’’ Could we just use some papier mâché ones from the prop department?” But racy or not, turned up actors’ noses or not, those shrimps stayed right there on the banquet table until the sequence was in the can. Nothing faked in a Leisen picture. Not even shrimp.

Among the props which had to be made to order for the picture were rose-patterned china; two-tined solid silver forks; a harpsichord; Venetian glassware; a coach (copied from the Royal Museum of Portugal); chicken skin gloves to keep hands soft, and playing cards of the period especially designed and printed from plates. And of course the 110-foot pirate ship which was built on the Paramount lot, trucked to San Pedro, and towed 650 odd miles to the location in Northern California.

Daphne du Maurier thoughtlessly wrote how fond Sir Harry (Ralph Forbes) was of his two spaniels, Duke and Duchess, and that started nothing less than a five alarm fire. King Charles spaniels are a breed now almost extinct in America. But Mitch finally ran down a couple of them in a kennel in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Paramount bought them, at a great expense of course. When Miss du Maurier writes another book, and the studio assigns it to him to film, Mitch says he hopes she’ll make it George VI of England. But he doesn’t really.

Quick lunch while studying the script. Despite formal elegance of his office, Mitch is hard-working. informal.

Portrait Mitchell Leisen is holding is of Paulette Goddard as Duchess of Malmunster. in current Leisen film; Kitty.

Leisen, gifted composer and pianist, well grounded in all the arts, is probably Hollywood’s most versatile director.

Collection: Screenland MagazineDecember 1944

Collection: Motion Picture Herald, February 1937