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Leisen, Mitchell (1898-1972)  
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A year after meeting Daniels, Leisen directed what many critics and film historians consider to be his masterpiece, Midnight (1939). This was the first of three Leisen films scripted by Billy Wilder (and his co-writer Charles Brackett); the other two are Arise My Love (1940) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941).

Midnight is a vivacious, quick-witted comedy of mistaken identities, set within a rather louche Parisian setting, and involving a group of greedy deceivers and double-dealers. Yet, as directed by Leisen, the characters always remain sympathetic; he refuses to judge any of them.

As Leisen once observed in an interview, "Nobody's all good, or all bad, not in my movies at least. There's a little bad in the best of us, and a little good in the worst of us."

In the early 1940s, Leisen undertook a series of films focused on ambitious, glamorous women who fall in love with men (all played by Fred MacMurray) of a lower social status.

The Lady is Willing (1942) stars Marlene Dietrich as a theater luminary who marries a small-town pediatrician. In Take a Letter, Darling (1942), a high-powered advertising executive, played by Rosalind Russell, falls for her male secretary. No Time for Love (1943) features Claudette Colbert as a sophisticated fashion magazine photographer attracted to a laborer digging a tunnel under the Hudson River. In one scene of note, as Colbert descends the tunnel Leisen's camera lingers on the workmen's sweaty, semi-naked, muscular torsos.

In 1944, Leisen crafted one of his most notorious films, the musical Lady in the Dark. Based on Moss Hart's Broadway show, which featured music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Lady in the Dark showcases Ginger Rogers as a fashion magazine editor undergoing psychoanalysis. Her sessions with the analyst, and the dream sequences they prompt, serve as the material for the film's lush, colorful, unrestrained production numbers.

Inasmuch as the Broadway version of Lady in the Dark reflects Hart's own psychoanalysis and his struggle with bisexuality, Leisen may have had a particular interest in the subject matter even as the bisexual elements are obscured in the film version.

In his assessment of the film, the critic Richard Barrios observed, "Leisen concentrated on the visuals and almost completely neglected sense or sensitivity. . . . The result is insulated gay sensibility run riot, a shopping spree trying so hard to be chic that it forgets about providing cohesive entertainment." Nonetheless, the film remains a perennial favorite among connoisseurs of high camp.

Leisen's notable later films include the period dramas Frenchman's Creek (1944) and Kitty (1945) and the melodramas To Each His Own (1946), with an Academy Award-winning performance by Olivia de Havilland, and No Man of Her Own (1950).

In 1954, Leisen was fired for allegedly propositioning several men on the set of the crime drama Bedevilled (1955); the film was ultimately completed by another, uncredited, director.

With Hollywood studios ostensibly closed to him, Leisen found employment on television instead, directing episodes for Shirley Temple Theatre (1958), Twilight Zone (1959-1960), Wagon Train (1961), and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-1967).

In addition to his film and television work, Leisen also ran a high-end fashion studio, served as an interior decorator for the luxury homes of his Hollywood cohorts, and designed and staged opulent nightclub revues.

As his friend actor Ray Milland remarked, "[Leisen] could direct; he could write; he did marvelous interior decoration; he could dress people beautifully, both male and female; he staged nightclub acts; he painted, sketched, and sculpted. He never stopped."

Leisen's health gradually declined after a series of several more heart attacks. He spent his final years in the Motion Picture and Television Country Home, a residential community for members of the motion picture and television industry, in Woodland Hills, California.

He died of coronary disease on October 28, 1972.

Leisen was one of the most prolific and commercially successful directors of the 1930s and 1940s. As the critic Geoff Andrew summarized, "[Leisen's] best work may have depended on good writers, but the gentle romanticism, the silvery visual elegance, and the relaxed performances in those films are proof of his own light touch. He was expert at combining comedy, melodrama, and a touch of social comment . . . and, as a former costume designer and art director, alert to the importance of décor."

Craig Kaczorowski

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More Entries about The Arts

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arts >> Overview:  Film

Since cinema began, Hollywood has been fascinated with finding ways of representing homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Film Directors

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual film directors have been a vital creative presence in cinema since the medium's inception over one hundred years ago.

literature >> Overview:  Musical Theater

There has always been homosexual involvement in American musical theatre and a homosexual sensibility even in straight musicals, and recently the Broadway musical has welcomed openly homosexual themes and situations.

arts >> Overview:  Set and Costume Design

Set and costume design for stage and film are fields that have attracted a large number of talented gay men and lesbians.

arts >> Dietrich, Marlene

Actress and cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich scandalized society almost as much by wearing trousers in public as by her numerous love affairs with both men and women.

arts >> Hart, Moss

Although playwright, screenwriter, and director Moss Hart achieved great commercial success and popular acclaim, he suffered from severe depression and other emotional problems that were intensified, and possibly caused, by intense anxiety concerning his sexual orientation.

arts >> Novarro, Ramon

The romantic idol of Hollywood silent films in the 1920s, Ramon Novarro has been perceived as a distinctly effeminate performer.

arts >> Novello, Ivor

Show business renaissance man extraordinaire, Ivor Novello not only composed the scores of musical comedies, but also acted in films while dominating the London stage as a playwright and romantic leading man for three decades.


Andrew, Geoff. The Director's Vision: A Concise Guide to the Art of 250 Great Filmmakers. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1999.

Barrios, Richard. Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Chierichetti, David. Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director. Burbank: Riverwood Press, 1994.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kaczorowski, Craig  
    Entry Title: Leisen, Mitchell  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2010  
    Date Last Updated November 11, 2010  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2010 glbtq, Inc.  


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