Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 23 September 1894; grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Education: New York University, B.A. in English; Harvard University, M.A. in English; attended Columbia University. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1918. Family: Married Mildred Mindlin, 17 August 1918; no children. Career: English instructor, University of Missouri, 1916–18; assistant national director, American Jewish Relief Committee, 1918–22; drama and film critic, The Jewish Tribune , 1921–22; entered films as a New York-based reader for Samuel Goldwyn, 1921; moved to Culver City, continued as a reader, then trained as script clerk with King Vidor and Victor Sjöström and worked unofficially as an assistant editor, 1922–23; hired as writer by Metro Pictures, 1924; promoted to head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) story department, 1927; promoted to production supervisor, 1929; after death of mentor, Irving Thalberg, moved to Paramount as producer, 1937–40; quit Paramount, founded independent production company with David Loew, 1940; Loew-Lewin released its second production, and Lewin's first as director, The Moon and Sixpence , after which Lewin returned to MGM as a director, 1942; quit MGM after release of his second directorial film, The Picture of Dorian Gray , and revived Loew-Lewin, 1945; dissolved Loew-Lewin again, after one film, Lewin's third as director, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami , and returned to MGM as an executive, 1948; wrote and directed Pandora and the Flying Dutchman while on sabbatical from MGM, 1950–51; retired from films after a near-fatal heart attack, 1959. Awards: As producer, received best picture Academy Award for Mutiny on the Bounty , 1935. Died: In New York City, 9 May 1968, of pneumonia.
The Moon and Sixpence (+ co-exec pr, sc)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (+ sc)
The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami (+ co-exec pr, sc)
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (+ co-pr, sc)
Saadia (+ pr, sc)
The Living Idol (+ co-pr, sc)
The Fate of a Flirt (continuity)
Ladies of Leisure (story, continuity); Blarney (co-scenarist); Tin Hats (continuity)
A Little Journey (scenarist); Altars of Desire (continuity); Spring Fever (co-scenarist); Quality Street (co-scenarist, co-adapter)
The Actress (co-scenarist)
The Kiss (production supervisor, uncredited); Devil-May-Care (production supervisor, uncredited)
The Guardsman (production supervisor, uncredited); The Cuban Love Song (production supervisor, uncredited)
Red-headed Woman (production supervisor, uncredited); Smilin' Through (production supervisor, uncredited)
What Every Woman Knows (production supervisor, uncredited)
China Seas (assoc pr); Mutiny on the Bounty (assoc pr)
The Good Earth (assoc pr); True Confession (pr)
Spawn of the North (pr)
So Ends Our Night (co-exec pr)
The Unaltered Cat (novel), Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.
"Fine Art and the Films," in The Temptation of Saint Anthony: Bel Ami International Art Competition , The American Federation of Arts, 1946.
Interview in The Real Tinsel , Bernard Rosenberg and Harry Silverstein, editors, Macmillan, 1970.
"'Peccavi!': The True Confession of a Movie Producer," in Theatre Arts , September 1941.
Felleman, Susan, Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin , Twayne, 1997.
Arkadin [John Russell Taylor], "Film Clips," Sight and Sound , Winter 1967–68.
Arnaud, Claude, "Les statues meurent aussi," Cinématographe , January 1982.
Combs, Richard, "Retrospective: The Picture of Dorian Gray ," Monthly Film Bulletin , November 1985.
Felleman, Susan, "How High Was His Brow? Albert Lewin, His Critics, and the Problem of Pretension," Film History , Winter 1995–96.
Garsault, Alain, "Albert Lewin: un créateur à Hollywood," Positif , July-August 1989.
McVay, Douglas, " The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947)," Movietone News , 13 March 1981.
Milne, Tom, "You Are a Professor, of Course," Monthly Film Bulletin , November 1985.
Török, Jean-Paul, editor, "Pandora," l'Avant-Scène du Cinéma , 1 April 1980.
* * *
A genuine Hollywood highbrow, Albert Lewin trod the line between the commercially viable and the artistically daring in his own inimitable way. Friends with the likes of writers Djuna Barnes and Robert Graves, artist Man Ray, and director Jean Renoir, Lewin had given up a nascent career as scholar and critic to pursue the grail of movies. Impressed especially by the most stylized and fantastic aspects of silent cinema, from Sjöström to Stroheim, Caligari to Keaton, Lewin left New York for Hollywood in 1922 and—just prior to Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer—joined Metro Pictures early in 1924. He impressed Irving Thalberg with his combination of erudition and sense and soon made himself indispensable at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) story department, where he came to be known as Thalberg's story brain. He thrived first as a writer, then a producer at MGM until Thalberg's death. After a brief and unhappy stint as a producer at Paramount, he embarked upon his career as a director, he claimed, out of financial necessity. Lewin and his college fraternity brother, David Loew, had founded their own independent production company, and Loew urged Lewin to direct his own adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence (1942) as an economic measure.
The result was a commercial and critical success. Lewin's adaptation of Maugham's strange novel about a milquetoast English stockbroker and family man turned passionate painter and fierce misanthrope (his protagonist, Charles Strickland, was based on the French painter Paul Gauguin) was made on the cheap, but includes several original turns and stylistic and thematic signatures that would return faithfully in Lewin's films, particularly his next two, more lavish productions: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947). All three films feature suave, cynical George Sanders, who clearly represented a kind of ego ideal for Lewin, in variations on what would become his standard film persona.
The three black-and-white films from the 1940s are united not only by Sanders and their fin-de-siècle European settings, but also by the fact that all are essentially morality plays—albeit rather perverse and ambiguous ones—in which art, decadence, and sexual thrall are viewed through the prism of a very pictorial, complex, and studied mise-en-scène. The Picture of Dorian Gray , the most elaborate of the three, is a film of stunning self-consciousness and density—a psychosexual horror film, enacted with choreographic precision in exquisite and mannered late-Victorian interiors. Hurd Hatfield plays the eponymous protagonist with chilling circumspection and Sanders is persuasive uttering the Wildean epigrams of Lord Henry Wotton. Harry Stradling's cinematography won the film's only Academy Award; it along with the sets and costumes realizes Lewin's Beardsleyesque visual conception perfectly, while Herbert Stothart's score employs Chopin's Twenty-fourth Prelude evocatively.
The musical score, this time by Darius Milhaud, was also a strength of Lewin's next film, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami , based on Guy de Maupassant's novel Bel-Ami. This story of a narcissistic and calculating Parisian bounder whose successes are achieved through a series of sexual liaisons secured Lewin's reputation, according to the Times , for achieving "censor-proof depravity." Subtly feminist, this film revolves around a (rather wooden) male object of female desire (Sanders, again, as Georges Duroy, a.k.a. bel ami ) and features impressive performances from its female cast, including Ann Dvorak, Angela Lansbury, and Katherine Emery. Russell Metty's cinematography and Gordon Wiles's set design contribute to Bel Ami 's measured, almost anaesthetic contemplation of desire and duplicity. Here, as in Dorian Gray , the characters move—or are moved—around on patterned floors like chessmen on a checkerboard. The metaphysical implications of this trope are reiterated in Bel Ami by a host of symbols: Punch and Judy, dolls and games, and by a somewhat heavy-handed moral coda.
Notably, these films each include the revelation in color insert of a painting. In the original prints of The Moon and Sixpence black-and- white photography changed to sepia when the scene changed from Europe to Tahiti and then, momentarily, to color when the painter Strickland's "masterpiece" (in fact a mediocre Gauguinesque pastiche) was revealed near the end. In Bel Ami it is a shockingly anachronistic painting of The Temptation of St. Anthony by surrealist Max Ernst that erupts from the screen in color. The technique is put more in the service of the narrative in The Picture of Dorian Gray , where Technicolor enhances the vivid senescence and putrefaction of Ivan Albright's rendition of the titular portrait.
Lewin continued to highlight art works in his color films of the 1950s, including in what is arguably his masterpiece, the singular Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), a heady melange of Greek myth, German legend, Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, Romantic poetry, and Surrealist imagery, all spiced up with bullfighting, flamenco dancing, jazz combos, and speed-racing! From an original story, this dazzling film, often deliberately surrealist and sometimes inadvertently camp, was shot on Spain's Costa Brava and features Ava Gardner (divinely beautiful as costumed by Beatrice Dawson and photographed by Jack Cardiff) and James Mason in the title roles. Its uneven reception—most Anglo-American critics cringed, while the French swooned—is a testimony to its audacity.
Lewin's last two films, made under considerable budget and casting restraints by MGM, were almost unanimously (and fairly) deemed failures. Saadia (1954), based on a minor French novel of colonial Morocco, despite the authenticity and beauty of its location ambience, is an awkward blend of romantic cliché and intellectual speculation. The Living Idol (1957), from an original script, like Lewin's later novel The Unaltered Cat , is an even uneasier synthesis of formulaic romance, sensational supernaturalism, and almost laughable pedantry, in which the plot seems a flimsy armature upon which its director's pet intellectual obsessions are top-heavily disposed.
Albert Lewin was a dilettante in the fullest sense of the word. His profound enthusiasms for the other arts are manifest in his films, several of which have artist-protagonists and all of which incorporate literary allusion, scenes of song and dance (e.g., Tahitian, Indonesian, Parisian, Andalusian, Moroccan, and Mexican), and manifold art objects. But Lewin's (real and anticipated) battles with the Hays Office and his sense of popular taste seem to have led him to add, as sops to the censors and the box office, plot elements and characters for their strictly comedic, sentimental, or moralizing values. Even his best films are thus occasionally weakened by an anomalous scene or banal figure. And, especially in his original scripts, his literary and dilettantish impulses were wont to run amok. But his efforts resulted in a few films of real distinction, of proto-Godardian reflexivity, visual intricacy, and literary pith. In the United States, where critics and audiences are often alienated by such qualities, Lewin's reputation has languored, while in Europe, where his influence on directors like Godard and Antonioni has been claimed, it has borne up rather better.