With all the hubbub here recently over the 99th anniversary of Carole Lombard's birth, it got lost in the shuffle that Oct. 6 also marked the anniversary of the birth of one of her good friends and directors, Mitchell Leisen. Unlike other directors of his time, he rarely gets critical credit for his achievements, but they were considerable.
Born 10 years to the day before Lombard, James Mitchell Leisen's childhood shared a few characteristics with Jane Alice Peters: he was also born to relative affluence in the midwest (in his case, Wisconsin), and his parents' marriage also foundered (they divorced when he was five). He went to military school for a time and lived in several places. Fascinated by the movie business, he moved to Los Angeles in 1919, where he latched onto work designing costumes for Cecil B. De Mille; five years later, he did likewise on Douglas Fairbanks' classic, "The Thief of Bagdad" (here's Fairbanks with Anna May Wong):
Leisen's renown for design encompassed both wardrobe and sets, and by 1928 he was an art director at Pathe, where he and Carol Lombard first crossed paths in "Power," "Show Folks" and "Ned McCobb's Daughter." The following year, he was back with De Mille for "Dynamite," and it was he who told Lombard that De Mille had dismissed her as the female lead.
Leisen continued working with De Mille for a few more films, including the pre-Code favorite "The Sign Of The Cross," before embarking on his own as a director. His first notable success was with "Death Takes A Holiday," a classy, stylish story -- but his follow-up, "Murder At The Vanities," was high camp, released shortly before the pre-Code era ended. (It included a paean to marijuana, making it a popular revival piece in the sixties.)
In 1935, Leisen officially directed Lombard for the first time in the charming "Hands Across The Table," a film that also boosted the acting career of newcomer Fred MacMurray. (Leisen had directed a few sequences in "Bolero" without receiving credit and was listed as co-director for "The Eagle And The Hawk," where she has a small role.) A substantial hit, it elevated Leisen to top status at Paramount.
For the next few years, he would continue as a stellar romantic director, both in light comedies ("Easy Living," 1937; "Midnight," 1939) and in more dramatic fare ("Swing High, Swing Low," 1937; "Remember The Night," 1940). Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder wrote scripts for Leisen, and both often disagreed with his approach to filming them, although Leisen defenders say he held both writers' excesses in check.
Leisen's personal life had many contradictions. Lombard, once asked if she had any girlfriends, famously quipped, "I have two great girlfriends – Mitch Leisen and Billy Haines.” But whereas Haines -- a late-era silent star who later became an interior decorator -- likely never had a serious heterosexual affair in his life, Leisen was decidedly bisexual. He had a wife, opera singer Stella Yeager (although they often lived apart), and had an early affair with silent-era actress Marguerite de la Motte. Later, he had a mistress, Natalie Vizart, who became pregnant by him in the 1940s; unfortunately, she miscarried.
However, Leisen's longest relationship was with a man, dance choreographer Billy Daniels, although that ended by the early fifties.
Leisen's forties output was solid, including his first Technicolor film, "Lady In The Dark" (1944), an adaptation of a Broadway hit with Ginger Rogers taking the role Gertrude Lawrence made famous on stage, and the postwar drama "To Each His Own" (1946). But changing audience tastes in the late forties caused a downturn in Leisen's career, and he only directed a few more features, including the final film released under the RKO banner, "The Girl Most Likely" (1957).
Leisen found work in television, directing a few "Twilight Zone" episodes, including one of its earliest, "The 16mm Shrine," starring actress/director Ida Lupino (who knew Leisen from her Paramount days) as a semi-Norma Desmond, an actress vainly trying to recapture her youth.
However, in 1960 MacMurray vetoed Leisen doing directing work on his new series, "My Three Sons," because it had several juveniles in the cast. (His reaction was not surprising, given how many people -- both then and now -- erroneously equate homosexuality with pedophilia.)
Leisen did occasional TV directing in the sixties, even a few episodes of "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.," but he had serious health problems. A gangrenous left leg was amputated in 1970, and he moved to the Motion Picture Retirement Home, where he died two years later at age 74.