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).
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.
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:
- Three on a Match (1932)
- Hi, Nellie! (1934)
- Waterloo Bridge (1940)
- Johnny Eager (1942)
- Random Harvest (1942)
- East Side, West Side (1949)
- Lovely to Look At (1952)
- Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
- Mister Roberts (1955)
- Toward the Unknown (1956)
- The Bad Seed (1956)
- Home Before Dark (1958)
- 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.”
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