The best Hollywood films are often the least ambitious: the more Hollywood tries to be “important”, the more otiose it generally gets. Do you recall Swing High, Swing Low, Easy Living, or Remember the Night? Probably not. They were made by Mitchell Leisen, who worked through the 30s, 40s and 50s and was never considered a major director. But looking at his films now, you can see at least a minor master.
I have to thank the San Sebastian film festival for reminding me of that. Two years ago, the festival mounted a retrospective of Leisen’s work. Critics from all over the world deserted the main programme to see it, and it was a revelation. Here was style and pace, wonderful decor and costumes, generous wit and unselfconscious romance. And here were stars like Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert handled so sympathetically that they seemed to blossom into superb actors.
It would, of course, be easy to say that during Leisen’s high period Hollywood could give a decent director an assemblage of talent with which a monkey could hardly go wrong. But Leisen’s signature is as apparent as George Cukor’s ever was.
Swing High, Swing Low is a bittersweet romance that was thought to be a little dated at the time of its making. But now it looks great. MacMurray is an ex-soldier who can toot a mean horn, which carries him from a Panama honky-tonk to a class joint in New York. Feckless and unused to success, the trumpeter goes on the skids and a deserted Lombard has to rescue him from himself.
The story is nothing special. But the acting is. MacMurray and Lombard move from flirtation into real love and then something much darker when things go wrong, and the transitions are expertly done. MacMurray is even a convincing trumpeter. And a critic has called Swing High, Swing Low Lombard’s “most flawlessly romantic picture”, orchestrated by a gay director who, like Cukor, understood women.
Leisen was a director who could make things look good, kept plots rolling along pacily, cherished his casts and was never afraid of exploring the many aspects of romance. Only when he tackled big themes did his films become heavy-handed.
He ended up in the 60s making TV movies, then running a nightclub. What a waste! But at least a dozen of his films remain as good and as memorable as many better-known movies. Even with the flimsiest of vehicles, he could reach 100 miles an hour.