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Leisen, Mitchell (1898-1972)  
 
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Mitchell Leisen was a noted director during Hollywood's Golden Age. He is credited with more than 40 feature films, which are celebrated for their stylishness and visual elegance. He excelled at witty, romantic comedies that are often tinged with a touch of melancholy, such as the classic "screwball" comedy Easy Living (1937) and the clever, cosmopolitan farce Midnight (1939).

Leisen has also been hailed for his "gender role-reversal" films, where the male lead is cast as the sex object and the female lead as the aggressor. Not surprising for a bisexual director working in Hollywood, Leisen's other thematic obsessions included mistaken identity, role-playing, and deception.

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Leisen returned to the same performers film after film, developing strong working partnerships. Although he was instrumental in shaping the careers of such actors as Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, Leisen became typed as a "woman's director" for the fastidious, detailed attention he paid to the costuming and art direction of his productions, as well as for the nuanced, spontaneous performances he coaxed from such actresses as Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and Olivia de Havilland.

Among many film historians, Leisen's artistic reputation has been tarnished somewhat by the stormy relationships he became embroiled in with some of his screenwriters, most notably Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. After working on several films with Leisen, both writers demanded to be allowed to direct their own scripts, in part because they objected to the sophisticated veneer of Leisen's directorial style and to the changes he frequently made to their screenplays.

Sturges considered Leisen an "interior decorator" and a "bloated phony," while Wilder famously complained that Leisen spent more time "counting the pleats in the skirts of the stars instead of looking for the jokes in the script."

Wilder went on to assert contentiously (and offensively) that "Leisen was too goddam fey. I don't knock fairies. Let him be a fairy. Leisen's problem was that he was a stupid fairy."

Although he was married and reportedly had affairs with several women, Leisen was considered to be conspicuously open about his (homo)sexuality, especially in the conservative Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s.

Leisen was married for fifteen years to the mezzo-soprano Sondra Gahle (née Stella Yeager), but their marriage seems to have been in name only, as she spent most of her time in Paris pursuing an opera career.

Leisen's sexual relationships with men were well known and a topic of conversation among many of his colleagues. He was rumored to have had liaisons with the silent-film idol Ramon Navarro, the singer and actor Ivor Novello, and the cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff.

In 1938, Leisen embarked on a long-term relationship with Billy Daniels, a dancer and choreographer; during most of their time together, the two men shared a home.

According to his biographer, "Being bisexual was part of Leisen's unhappiness. Life would have been easier for him if his desires had been wholly one way or the other. . . . The side most people saw was wild and promiscuous, but another side wanted to settle down."

Born James Mitchell Leisen on October 6, 1898, into a prosperous Midwestern family in Menominee, Michigan, he relocated to St. Louis, Missouri while still a child, after his parents divorced and his mother remarried.

Much of Leisen's boyhood was spent in isolation. He was a sickly child who was often bedridden and underwent surgery when he was five years old to correct a club foot, which left him with a slight but permanent limp.

To entertain himself during his boyhood, Leisen built models of buildings, arranged flowers, and designed sets for his toy theater. His mother and stepfather found such diversions inappropriate for a boy and promptly sent him to military school.

After military school, Leisen attended Washington University, in his hometown of St. Louis, where he studied architecture. Following graduation, he moved to Chicago to work for an architecture firm. In his spare time, he acted in productions at several local Chicago theater companies.

Around 1918, at the age of 20, Leisen moved to Hollywood to further pursue his acting career. While he found little luck in landing acting roles in movies, he successfully parlayed his architecture experience into a job designing stage sets for the Hollywood Community Theatre.

His theater work in turn led to an introduction to the noted film director Cecil B. DeMille, who promptly hired Leisen to design gowns for the actress Gloria Swanson for a Babylonian sequence in his new movie Male and Female (1919). Although Leisen had never designed clothing before, both the director and his female star were delighted with his work, and DeMille offered the young man a full-time contract.

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