Placing Mitchell Leisen alongside Hollywood’s top flight directors is likely to raise eyebrows among those whose brows are already well elevated. Most others will simply shrug their cold shoulders in“Who he? indifference, a stance with which I, whose shoulders are wont to brush against the dusty shelves and musty vaults of popular culture, am thoroughly familiar by now. Respected for his knack of striking box-office gold but dismissed by his peers, the former art director was not among the auteurs whose works are read as art chiefly because it is easier to conceive of artistic expression as a non-collective achievement: something that bears the clearly distinguishable signature of a single individual. Their careful design aside, little seems to bespeak the Leisen touch, which is as light as it is assured. Stylish and slick in the best Paramount tradition, a Leisen picture stunningly sets the stage under the pretense of drama; otherwise, it has few pretensions.
The epitome and pinnacle of Leisen’s dream factory output is Golden Earrings (1947), a sumptuously lensed romance that makes Nazi Germany look like fairyland, replete with quaint villages, enchanted forests, and lusty gypsies. It is a false image conjured up by the words of a paramour with pierced ears. For the darker side of the tale, nearly hidden from view, we are referred to McLuhan’s “tribal drum”—the radio.
One of those gypsies is played by German expatriate Marlene Dietrich, who approaches the brown-face role of Lydia tongue-in-famously-hollow-cheek. To Leisen, Dietrich “was the most fascinating woman who ever lived,” as he later told David Chierichetti, the chronicler of his career. Cast as reluctant lover, Col. Ralph Denistoun, is Ray Milland, whose lack of regard for his older co-star only enhances the screwball dynamics of this improbable coupling. Sheltered by and disguised as one of her kind, Milland’s Romani wry officer is on a perilous mission to evade his Nazi pursuers and get hold of a formula for poison gas, the kind of weapon that would exterminate thousands of gypsies.
Having previously been captured by the Nazis, Denistoun owes his escape to the master race’s slavish devotion to their master’s voice. He takes full advantage of a radio address by the Führer, guaranteed to distract his captors. The scene in which the Nazi officers rise to hear Hitler’s speech and fall at the hand of their prisoner is an apt metaphor for blind faith and mass-mediated control. Unlike those gypsy earrings, the silence of a people whose ears ring with the brass of Teutonic rhetoric is not golden. A mind closed to independent thought and voices at variance, Golden Earrings suggests, is readily silenced. To be sure, this is retrospective romance; and, its ersatz gypsies roaming quite freely, Leisen’s film shows nothing of the silencing perpetrated by the fascists.
Leisen was not about to denounce the medium he had romanced in two of his earlier revues, The Big Broadcast of 1937 and its 1938 follow-up. Instead, Golden Earrings confronts nationalistic, state-run radio with a distinctly American voice of commercial broadcasting. In the narrative frame, the English officer is seen relating his story to Quentin Reynolds (pictured here with Milland), a news commentator known for his on-air missives to Doktor Goebbels and Herr Schickelgruber.
Rather than spouting anti-Axis propaganda or post-war wisdom, Reynolds is shown as a receiver, a listener tuning in to the wondrous adventure of the strangely un-British Englishman who has come under the influence of a nomadic culture foreign to his people. It is a tall tale a commentator like Reynolds, who would later be libeled in the Hearst press for his alleged lack of patriotism, is not obliged to debunk.
The frame permits Leisen to construct Golden Earrings as a romance, told as it is from the perspective of an unconventional officer summoned by his gypsy love. It is all so fabulously escapist that the enormous gamble of glamorizing Germany so soon after the war paid off without causing much offense. That, in short, is the Leisen touch.