“Eat it With a Spoon”: On Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living and Midnight

Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937) | image: Paramount/YouTube

Claudette Colbert sits in the backseat of a car moving through Paris streets, decadence floating past her window. She comments as she peers out: “What a day. I could eat it with a spoon.” Colbert’s character has been lifted rapidly from pennilessness to luxury, and gazing from a new perspective, her world is a confection crafted for pure pleasure. 

*

Mitchell Leisen, a star director under Hollywood’s studio system, is little-known today despite repeated efforts by critics, biographers, and programmers to elevate his work. A multihyphenate who began his career as a costume designer and art director for Cecil B. DeMille, Leisen brought a refined visual style, command of narrative and tone, and a deep understanding of actors’ craft to his films, most of which were from scripts assigned to him by Paramount. Open with his peers about his sexual relationships with men, he was an unusually prominent queer figure in this era of Hollywood. Critics have resultantly observed a queer sensibility in his aesthetics and preferred narratives.

I hold that Leisen is as important a filmmaker as his sometime collaborators, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, and I view my appreciation for Leisen as an expression of queer cinephilia. To view films from a queer perspective necessitates elevating the dismissed and finding worth in the margins of film history. The qualities of Easy Living (1937) and Midnight (1939) I love are easily overlooked or dismissed: their sumptuous aesthetics, their focus on the inner lives of socially marginal women, their indulgences in sensory pleasures, their delicate variations in tone and rhythm. Queer touches that don’t denigrate a film, but elevate it. 

I first encountered Leisen’s work through a 2021 Criterion Channel retrospective that (temporarily) made available several of his films that are otherwise inaccessible on streaming. In the thick of the pandemic, I devoured screwball comedies for the glossy, exuberant escapism they provided, more than eager to watch a few witty romances from a queer director previously unknown to me. My two favorites were Easy Living and Midnight, both of which follow working-class women thrust into luxury by sheer coincidence, leading them into chaotic jaunts among the wealthy that finally land them in the arms of attractive and devoted men.

The films contain reliably entertaining tropes of the era: they’re efficient joke-delivery systems—with plenty of mistaken identities, quips, and pratfalls—and highlight their casts’ comic timing and quirks. They also feature melancholic undercurrents, moments of interior reflection, and attention to aesthetic beauty that distinguish them from comparable films. I saw the hallmarks of a director with a specific point of view—one who understood the pleasures of genre conventions, yet knew how to deepen and expand upon these pleasures.

The films’ screenwriters, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, dismissed Leisen’s skills. Sturges thought of Leisen as an “interior decorator.” Wilder, who wrote Midnight with writing partner Charles Brackett, said the following: “… he fucked up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection, let me tell you. Leisen was too goddamn fey. I don’t knock fairies. Let him be a fairy. Leisen’s problem was that he was a stupid fairy.” Motivated to control their work, both began their own directorial careers soon after their collaborations with Leisen ended.

I’m an admirer of Sturges’s and Wilder’s films, but their homophobic dismissals of Leisen’s direction indicate their own biases. What they identified as faults—emphasis on “interior decoration,” interference with scripts—are assets from my perspective. Leisen’s experience as an art director enabled him to understand the importance of detailed mise-en-scène in his films; his settings are lush and luxurious, yet they also inform character and narrative. (The art director for most Leisen films was Hans Dreier, Paramount’s supervising art director during Leisen’s years at the studio.) His script alterations, too, stemmed from his sharp narrative instincts. Take this anecdote from writing sessions for Midnight, relayed by Leisen in David Chierichetti’s biography Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director:

Having done eight years of psychoanalysis, I knew that a character had to follow a certain emotional pattern. I’d say, “Billy, you have this guy doing something that is completely inconsistent. You suddenly introduce a completely different emotional setup for this character, and it can’t be. It has to follow a definite emotional pattern.” Well, Billy couldn’t figure this one out, but Brackett could…As a team they were the greatest. Billy would scream if you changed one line of his dialogue. I used to say, “Listen, this isn’t Racine, it’s not Shakespeare. If the actors we have can’t say it, we must give them something they can say.”

Wilder’s retrospective rage at Leisen’s script changes reads less as righteous anger at artistic meddling than it does egotistical defensiveness. He also evinces an implicit perception that a “fairy” with “fey” sensibilities could never understand writing as well as him.

Mitchell Leisen in 1948
Mitchell Leisen in 1948 | image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Leisen’s vision was no less singular than that of Sturges or Wilder, but it had a different essence: If Sturges and Wilder became known as iconoclastic auteurs for their rigorous, uncompromising treatment of their own screenplays, Leisen readily assimilated the voices and skills of his collaborators into his films. To recognize what makes Leisen’s cinema distinctive is to actively be at odds with the very American, stereotypically masculine attitude toward art that prizes hard-fought individual achievement over collaborative creation. That Leisen’s collaborative approach to filmmaking was partially driven by the demands of studio filmmaking doesn’t change the fact that his style not only incorporates but magnifies the work of his collaborators, including the idiosyncratic humor of screenwriters like Wilder and Sturges. His direction emphasized the unique qualities of his actors as well as the extravagant work of his production and costume designers—in Leisen, I see a cinema that proposes aspects other than dictatorial direction as vital and pleasurable to the filmmaking process.

Few filmmakers have directly cited Leisen as an influence. Yet I see glimmers of Leisen in the work of gay male auteurs including Todd Haynes, Terence Davies, and Pedro Almodóvar. Despite their distinct approaches to filmmaking,  all have collaborated closely with their leading actresses and have made films responding to and expanding on female-centered melodramas, a genre Leisen specialized in. Almodóvar, who has cited Midnight and Easy Living as two of his favorite comedies, has a particularly strong link to Leisen in his love of lush, colorful interiors, which both inspire aesthetic pleasure and inform tone and character. (Almodóvar and Nancy Meyers, another devotee of classic Hollywood’s romantic comedies, are in fact the only contemporary directors I can think of who take the same pleasure in meticulously crafted, luxurious interior design that Leisen once did.) 

Despite traces of his legacy in notable contemporary filmmakers, and intermittent critical appreciation, Leisen’s legacy is still small in comparison to his ability. If his collaborative working methods and aesthetically oriented, implicitly queer style have marginalized his body of work, then there is value in reclaiming Leisen’s best works as important, unique films in cinematic history.

*

Easy Living’s intricate plot is classic Sturges. Banker J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), in a pique of spite, tosses his wife’s $58,000 sable coat from a rooftop, and it lands on an unassuming working girl, Mary Smith (Jean Arthur). He lets her keep it, and also buys her a new hat.

This random meeting between classes sets off a chaotic train of events. Mary gets fired from her job because her boss takes the coat as evidence that she’s having an affair with a wealthy man, compromising the morality of the boys’ magazine they publish. Meanwhile, the proprietor of the hat shop that Ball and Mary appeared in calls the owner of the failing Hotel Louis, which Ball is about to foreclose upon, and shares the intel that Ball has a beautiful young mistress. Louis puts Mary up in the hotel in a gambit to keep it open, to Mary’s confusion. A gossip columnist reports on her residency there, causing a surge of business to the hotel with Mary and Ball none the wiser. Mary, by this point, has fallen in love with Ball’s son John (Ray Milland) after meeting him in an automat, where he was moonlighting as a waiter to prove he could function without his father’s money.

Nobody is on the same page in this complex network. Still, after a convoluted incident where Mary accidentally manipulates the stock market and briefly imperils Ball’s business, everyone has discovered one another’s identity, and John proposes marriage to Mary. Mary’s class status has been elevated, and the status quo is otherwise restored.

Sturges excelled at the fast-paced, implausibly plotted screwball, and he also deftly inserted social commentary into his films’ rapid-fire dialogue. Through the characters’ repeated shifts in fortune, Sturges reveals American class position and financial success as arbitrary. The difference between billions and bankruptcy hinges on who a sable coat happens to fall on.

Sturges later developed a snappy, efficient directorial style that matched his scripts’ quick rhythms. But in 1937, he had to hand the reins to Leisen, who had his own distinct approach to Sturges’s material. As quoted by Chierechetti, Leisen leaned into the film’s “slapstick” nature, a change of pace after making several “polite drawing room comedies.” Yet the film contains many classic Leisen touches. He occasionally slows down the tempo to sit with characters in quiet moments, he takes an affectionate interest in Mary’s interior life, and he luxuriates in the dazzling space of the Hotel Louis. None of these techniques disrupt the film’s necessary speed, providing, instead, a series of grace notes, a wistful counterpoint to the dominant tone of controlled chaos.

My favorite scenes in the film highlight Leisen’s idiosyncratic interests. In one such scene, Mr. Louis Louis (Luis Alberini) shows Mary the Imperial Suite, where he hopes she’ll move in. The suite is huge, rooms opening endlessly to new rooms. Leisen shows most of these rooms in wide shots. In rooms decked with chandeliers, grand pianos, floor to ceiling windows, and fountains, among other accouterments, Louis and Mary take up little space in the frame, dwarfed by luxury. Mary barely reacts to the massive suite (there’s more than one “salon”), save for a quiet “Golly.”

Louis makes the following argument to convince her to move in: “This is where you belong. A beautiful young girl like you has got to have a background. This is what you call a background. No matter where you look, you’ll never find another background, it goes so far back!” Here, Alberni waves his arm to highlight the vast space behind him.

Once they come to an agreement on rent (to Louis’s consternation, only $7 a week), Louis leaves Mary to herself. A strain of music begins as Mary sits down, alone, in the foyer. Leisen places Arthur in a medium closeup, glancing around, thinking. “Golly.” She darts to the kitchen and finds an empty fridge. The illusion of abundance is shattered.

The scene is deliberately paced and underplayed, giving the viewer a full view of the furniture while withholding Mary’s response. Leisen described his intentions for this scene in Hollywood Director: “When Jean’s being shown her hotel suite, the obvious thing would be to have her react to every little thing. So I did just the opposite. She didn’t react at all until Luis Alberni left her and then she just sat down and said, ‘Golly.”

He directed Arthur toward a delayed reaction in another key scene. Here, John, lying head-to-head next to Mary on a sofa, kisses her before going to sleep. In this shot, Arthur faces away from the camera, and Milland faces the viewer. This places us closer to Mary’s perspective and frames Milland as our object of desire (a queer shift of the typical gender script, and one Leisen frequently made). Mary, then, turns toward the camera and rests her head on the pillow. Suddenly, her eyes widen, and she shoots up and says “Say!” Then a broad, languorous smile illuminates her face. Per Leisen, “she realizes she kind of liked it, so…”

The surprising pleasures of a massive hotel suite and a new sexual relationship do not spur immediate responses. Rather, Leisen allows for time to process and reflect, landing on Arthur’s expressive face to show her thinking. By doing so, Leisen gives Arthur space to develop a character. He and Arthur endow Mary with interior life. She becomes an emotionally complex person, with inherent intelligence, desires, and the capacity to reason and act, rather than simply react to her outlandish situation. 

As the protagonist of Easy Living, Mary is well-positioned for careful development, but its supporting characters, in keeping with the genre’s conventions, are a menagerie of broad stock characters. Leisen, though, gives the actors playing them space to play with the parts they’re given. Take a short scene where Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn), the hat shop proprietor, phones Louis to tell him that he saw J.B. Ball with the mysterious Mary. Twirling a hat in his right hand, holding the receiver to his ear with his right, he says “Wherever there’s smoke there must be…someone smoking,” with a carefully timed pause, a smirk, and a hint of glee in his voice. Van Buren is a broad gay stereotype—an effete, fussy gossip—and Leisen doesn’t necessarily subvert this characterization. Yet, as this moment exemplifies, he does accentuate Pangborn’s idiosyncrasies and cultivated comic timing, and frames him as a sharp, active character. 

Leisen undoubtedly imbues Easy Living with a romantic, jeweled gloss. And in his attention to character—both the central characters and those around the margins—he also creates subtle glimmers of psychological reality.

*

Midnight is a similarly wacky comedy to Easy Living, but it operates from a more cynical baseline. In keeping with Wilder and Brackett’s sensibilities, its characters are ruthlessly self-interested, and relationships between men and women are defined by constant power plays.

The plot is a riff on Cinderella (hence the title). Former chorus girl Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert), newly arrived in Paris after an ill-fated foray in Monte Carlo, convinces Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) to drive her to nightclubs so she can find a job as a singer. She doesn’t find work, but she and Tibor develop a mutual attraction. Eve, unwilling to fall in love with a working-class man, leaves his taxi and crashes an invite-only concert populated by the wealthy. To avoid being kicked out, she claims to be the Hungarian Baroness Czerny. One guest, Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) clocks her disguise, and puts her up at the Ritz in exchange for a favor: to seduce his wife’s wealthy lover, Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer), and marry him. Tibor disrupts her seduction by crashing a party at Georges’ estate and claiming to be the Baron Czerny—he’d learned of Eve’s disguise and tracked her down. A prolonged power struggle between the two ensues, culminating in them getting a “divorce” so she can marry Jacques. At the last minute, Tibor invalidates the divorce by feigning insanity. Eve, delighted that Tibor fought for her, leaves the divorce court with him to marry. 

Again, the plot is constructed on coincidence and mistaken identity. But here, unlike Easy Living, self-interested actors concoct these false identities for monetary gain and romantic one-upmanship. Leisen took an interest in Eve’s complicated morality: “You see, there’s a little bit of good and a little bit of bad in all of us. A lot of poor girls want to get rich. Eve wants money more than anything else, but in the end, she admits that she’s in love with Czerny and is willing to go in and wash his spare shirt and scrub floors if necessary.”

This statement indicates the treatment he gives Midnight: a sympathetic balance between its characters’ “good” and “bad” motivations. Wilder and Brackett’s cynicism can be subversive and bracing, but Leisen’s humanism provides a counterbalance that allows the viewer to sympathize with its characters’ baser instincts. By refusing to morally judge his characters, he provides space for his audience to enjoy their subversions and transgressions (a relative rarity in Hays Code-era filmmaking), and also identify with the emotional and financial quandaries that lead them to misbehave in the first place. 

See, for instance, Eve waking up in the Ritz for the first time. She finds her bedroom invaded by deliverymen carting luggage for the “Baroness Czerny.” As they drag in luggage, Eve is still undressed under blankets, bleary-eyed and baffled. When a delivery man sets up a trunk beside her bed, Leisen uses this action to frame Colbert. The man is on the left side of the frame, the trunk on the right, and Colbert, blankets up to her chin, is in the center of the frame and on the far side of the bed. She watches him reveal the trunk’s upscale attire with a passive, tired expression. As the man moves back and forth, Eve’s face is repeatedly obscured and revealed. This is Eve at her most vulnerable. We’ve seen her scam her way through Paris, but now that she’s set up in its best hotel with free couture, she’s unable to process her improved circumstances. Leisen shows the disconnect between her sharp surface and the uncertainty lying beneath. 

Like Mary, Eve is an outsider-turned-insider, but here she’s in a fairy tale’s heightened realm. The film balances on the line between fantasy and reality, where the edges of the life Eve has been leading and the one she’s dreamed of blur. Her disguise leaves her with one foot in high society and one foot in the street, on the edge of “midnight” when the spell will be broken. Leisen keys into this dreamlike register through elegantly composed images: Eve running through Paris in the rain, covering her head with a newspaper, in a gold lame dress that glints against the damp surroundings; Eve turning on the light in her darkened suite to reveal an ornate four-poster bed; Eve sinking into Tibor’s chest mid-argument, revealing the erotic and romantic connection they can no longer avoid. Again, these moments don’t occur at the expense of the film’s broad comedy, which Leisen leaves plenty of room for. Instead, they dot Midnight with moments of glittering intimacy, creating a complex tone and giving its love story a sensual spark.

*

In a Film Comment essay published in 1994, Dennis Drabelle argued Leisen’s closeups were his artistic emblem. Leisen “used the device so often and at such pivotal points in his films that it amounts to a kind of trademark, a culmination of what he believed movie acting at its best was all about.” He quotes Leisen from Hollywood Director: “Thoughts alter the muscular structure of the face and you are able to read the thoughts going through their minds without dialogue.”

To put so much stock in closeups takes trust: in actors to fill the frame with meaning, in audiences to follow the implications in the thoughts flashing across the actor’s face, in oneself to pause the action and dispense with explanation. It indicates a belief in the meaning of the unsaid, in visual experience over verbal explanation.

I don’t think the closeup is Leisen’s signature or sole achievement—some of his best framing of faces occurs at a distance—but it is a singular touch. It shows Leisen’s interest in subtleties of meaning and feeling that develop, moment by moment, over a film’s arc.

When I think about Leisen’s articulation and skilled deployment of tricky techniques like silent closeups, it’s hard for me to swallow that Wilder denigrated him as a “stupid fairy.” Far from it: Leisen brings an acute emotional, narrative, and formal intelligence to his best films. Wilder’s epithet represents a strain of homophobia that denigrates the aesthetic and the feminine as unserious and shallow, no matter the context. In the case of Easy Living and Midnight, the elements that are aesthetically oriented, or feminine or queer in style, are vital to their artistic success.

If Wilder and Sturges excelled in creating meaning through dialogue and plot, Leisen was equally attuned to visual expressions of meaning, whether through an elaborately designed hotel suite or the subtle muscular movements on an actress’s face. His techniques reject pinned-down, binary interpretations, but instead suggest emotional ambiguities and depths beneath even the most cheerful surfaces. As a queer viewer, I do find surface pleasures in Leisen’s works—beautiful gowns, virtuosic actresses, alluring actors—but his films’ introspective moments are what I’m most impressed by. They’re marginal moments, but important ones. I would say the same about Leisen’s body of work: marginal in popular narratives of film history, important as works of art.