Midnight (1939), in which penniless cab driver Don Ameche pursues American gold-digger Claudette Colbert across a Paramount–back lot Paris, is one of the most well-turned, crisply paced comedies of the antic 1930s. Its director, Mitchell Leisen, was once Paramount's contract mainstay, but his reputation has shriveled in subsequent decades — a state of affairs that the UCLA Film & Television Archive hope to redress with a 16-film retrospective, beginning Nov. 16.
Though he handled film noir and musicals admirably, Leisen is mostly associated with his deft romantic comedies. Midnight — written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, two among Leisen's many invaluable screenwriting collaborators — establishes a favorite template for the director's films, which frequently deal with a character torn between economic and biological impulse in determining a mate. That dilemma is in 1941's Hold Back the Dawn (also by Brackett and Wilder), which has Charles Boyer's Romanian roué reformed by Olivia de Havilland's American schoolteacher; in 1935's Hands Across the Table, in which Carole Lombard's angling manicurist falls for Fred MacMurray's spoiled wastrel; and in 1943's No Time for Love, which teams MacMurray and Colbert, the latter a cultured Margaret Bourke-White–type lady photographer who, by the final reel, literally descends into primordial muck to get her he-man. (Leisen was by most accounts bisexual, and his and his heroines' frank appreciation of MacMurray's physique well and truly reverses cinema's traditionally hetero male gaze.) Throughout, Leisen shows a generous pleasure in the panoply of human types, a true democrat's delight in the easy vaulting of social barriers, and a glee in “making a scene,” in both senses of the word.
THAT SIGNATURE STYLE: THE FILMS OF MITCHELL LEISEN | Billy Wilder Theater | Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | Nov. 16-Dec. 16