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Favorite directors: Mervyn LeRoy

Mervyn LeRoy is one of the unsung directors of Classic Hollywood. He isn’t revered like William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks or John Ford. Most of his films aren’t either. He was a prolific director with more than 70 credits to his name and his filmography is comprised of all genres. Why is he one of my favorites? Read on to find out!

LeRoy’s films of the 1930s are generally the best regarded and for good reason. He was remarkably adept at trimming sprawling narratives to their bare essentials with fully developed characters. Entire histories unfold in spite of the slim running times. One example that stands out is the pre code film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).

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This is one of the most potent films ever made and even influenced efforts for prison reform. Starring Paul Muni as a war veteran who’s wrongly convicted of a crime, the film chronicles his time in prison, eventual escape, and continuous struggles to be free. Audiences connect to James Allen in a very short amount of time. The film’s pacing is so fluid. I think it’s LeRoy’s masterpiece. All these years later, it’s still as poignant and deeply urgent.

They Won’t Forget (1937) is another “social problem” film, notable for being Lana Turner’s film debut. I was expecting the film to be a disappointment. It was inspired by the Leo Frank case, but the anti-semitism was completely omitted and it focused on tensions between north and south instead, as well as prejudice against northerners. Yet it’s a powerful film that exposes corruption and greed.

When LeRoy left Warner Brothers for MGM in the 1940s, his films greatly differed from those of the previous decade. These films are considered to be inferior. I don’t necessarily agree but the quality of some don’t equal his 1930s greatness. Biopics like Blossoms in the Dust (1941) and Madame Curie (1943) are tedious and much longer than they need to be. But no one can deny how beautiful these films looked.

One of my all-time favorite films is Little Women (1949). LeRoy’s remake of the 1933 version isn’t the favored one, and most people either prefer the original or the 1994 Gillian Armstrong film. It would be impossible for me to not love this film, as it stars a handful of my favorite people and its technicolor is so rich and vibrant.

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It doesn’t just look picturesque. The warmth, sincerity, and love of the March family blossoms under LeRoy’s direction.

Other LeRoy films I love:

  1. Three on a Match (1932)
  2. Hi, Nellie! (1934)
  3. Waterloo Bridge (1940)
  4. Johnny Eager (1942)
  5. Random Harvest (1942)
  6. East Side, West Side (1949)
  7. Lovely to Look At (1952)
  8. Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
  9. Mister Roberts (1955)
  10. Toward the Unknown (1956)
  11. The Bad Seed (1956)
  12. Home Before Dark (1958)
  13. Gypsy (1962)

That list includes precodes, comedies, weepy romance films, musicals, horror, biopics, the works!

Marge and Gower Champion in Lovely to Look At

”Mervyn’s favorite last-minute exhortation to his actors is a whispered, ‘Now let’s have a nice scene with a lotta feeling!,’ and that rather sums up the way he works, the way he moves through life.”

-Greer Garson

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I wrote this post for the Favorite Directors blogathon. Click the banner below to read more!

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6 thoughts on “Favorite directors: Mervyn LeRoy

  1. You speak most eloquently on behalf of the talented Mervyn LeRoy. His early Warners pictures are among my favourites (Five Star Final, Heat Lightning, etc.), but I think it is a mistake to dismiss his output for MGM as some do. There is a reason Random Harvest is a beloved classic. And a film like Any Number Can Play is surprisingly intense and engrossing. All hail Mr. LeRoy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you SO much! This post was honestly a struggle and wasn’t as in depth as I would’ve liked, but I’m glad my effort was recognized. 🙂

      Like

  2. Mervyn LeRoy has always been a favorite of mine. And even if I don’t love all of his films personally (get tf away from me The Bad Seed), I’ve always loved his great diversity. Being the campy soul that I am, I tend to favor his MGM fare (but what else is new as I’m always the oddball when it comes to my opinions on media). Random Harvest alone is enough for me to favor his output there since it’s literally one of my favorite movies of all time. Like you, I’ve always hated how unfairly forgotten he is.

    As for Little Women, I grew up on a diet of Little Women, the book and its sequels, and all the adaptations ever. Jo was certainly one that influenced me heavily. Now, everyone is entitled to their own opinions of course, but I’ve personally never been fond of the 1933 version. I watched it first so it’s not even a matter of being more attached to the one I watched first. I watched the 1994 version second and the only thing I like about it is it has the only, thus far, accurate depiction of Laurie (I’m not really a Christian Bale fan, but damn his Laurie rips my heart out and his pining is so very evident). But when I watched the 1949 film, suddenly I felt like I was really seeing Jo on screen the way I imagined her in my head for the first time. No offense to Katharine or Winona, I just really really really love June as Jo to the point that I’m able to overlook the little things that annoy me such as Amy not being the youngest (but to be fair, Elizabeth puts in a spectacularly snobbish performance as Amy just the same, even if some of the nuance of her impertinence in the book doesn’t have time to flourish in the film).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m really glad more people are LeRoy fans! And I agree, I just connected so much to June Allyson’s Jo. And I just really, really, really love that Margaret O’Brien was Beth, even if she wasn’t the youngest. June, Maggie, Elizabeth, and Janet Leigh, they’re so unbelievably sweet and wonderful together. 😦

      And I’m not trying to give LeRoy credit for just being a decent human being, but the fact that he mentored Lana Turner and was actually a good influence on her makes me really happy. Like with all the stories we hear about men in power exploiting and harming women back then, it’s really great that he didn’t take advantage of such a young girl. I know, I’m praising him for reaching the bare minimum LOL, but I hope I conveyed myself well enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The only films you’ve mentioned that I’ve seen are Random Harvest and Mister Roberts, both of which I love. I really want to see Lovely to Look at and will one day get around to seeing his Little Women.

    I found it interesting how you compared his early films to his later ones. It’s always interesting to see how directors films change as the times and filmmaking styles change.

    Thanks for participating in this Blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

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