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The Forgotten Man of The Golden Age

If the purpose of a retrospective is to rediscover and reassess a great talent, who has thus far failed to gain the recognition their output deserves, then Mitchell Leisen is the ideal subject. The d...

If the purpose of a retrospective is to rediscover and reassess a great talent, who has thus far failed to gain the recognition their output deserves, then Mitchell Leisen is the ideal subject.

The director of nearly 40 films in a career that spanned the Golden Age of Hollywood, he has been unjustly overlooked while some of his more celebrated collaborators have secured their places in cinema history. The EIFF screening 13 of his best works should go some way to redressing the balance.

Having worked as an Art Director under the legendary Cecil B DeMille, Leisen got his first opportunity to direct at Paramount in 1933. Within a year came his first commercial success with Death Takes a Holiday, the allegorical tale of death assuming human form and, ultimately, falling in love. While its special effects wowed audiences, its visual style and artistic flair gave an indication of what was to follow.

This was the start of an enduring and prolific association with Paramount that saw Leisen team up with Hollywood’s finest writers and stars. Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray sparkle in the 1935 romantic comedy Hands Across the Table, as a pair of ne’er-do-wells who plan to marry into money. Preston Sturges scripted 1937’s Easy Living, a near perfect screwball comedy, starring Jean Arthur as an office clerk whose chance encounter with a sable coat leads her into the company of a millionaire.

Leisen had more than one string to his directorial bow, displaying an ability to move between genres. In a startling demonstration of his skill and versatility, he managed to successfully weave the diverse strands of comedy, high drama and musical into 1937’s romp Swing High, Swing Low.

Remarkably, Leisen was yet to reach his critical or commercial peak and his collaboration with a pair of writing legends in the late 1930s would produce, arguably, his best work.

Check back on Monday for the second part of our preview.

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