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Rouben (Zachary) Mamoulian (1898-1987)


Russian-born film and stage director, who had a successful series of shows on Broadway before entering Hollywood. Mamoulian made 16 films in the 29 years of his cinema career. He was among the liberators of cinema who created his unique rhythm and poetic stylization by blending sound, visuals and camera movement with montage effects. In 1982 Mamoulian received the Directors Guild of America D.W. Griffith Award for a lifetime of outstanding contributions to motion pictures. His most famous films include Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1932), starring Fredric March, and Queen Christina (1933), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.

"What I feel strongly is that the artist – and I broaden this – the great majority of artists in every field are betraying mankind. To me, the hope of the future is in the arts. It's not in politics. It's not in economics. It's not in religion. It's not in the arts. Because the arts are the only truly universal medium. The whole thing should serve to remind you that man still has a potential, that he's not just crawling on earth. He still has wings and he can fly. We need this reminder of faith, of optimism, to reestablish the dignity of a human being." (Mamoulian in Directing the Film by Eric Sherman, 1976)

Rouben Mamoulian was born in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia, of Armenian descent. His father was a bank president. Mamoulian spent part of his childhood in Paris and was trained under Eugene Vakhtangov and Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre. In 1918 Mamoulian organized his own drama studio in Tiflis and two years later he toured in England. He studied drama at the University of London and directed there in 1922 his first play.

In 1923 he moved to America and directed for three years operas and operettas at the George Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Martha Graham and the Swedish modern dancer Ronny Gustafson were hired to stage expressionistic dances for his operas. In 1926 he began teaching and produced many notable plays for New York's Theatre Guild, including DuBose Heyward's Porgy (1927). The Austrian director Max Reinhardt declared the production was one of his "great experiences in the theatre." Mamoulian later directed the premiere of George Gershwin's operatic version of the play, Porgy and Bess (1935).

As a result of his growing reputation in the theatre world, Mamoulian was offered a seven-year contract in the Hollywood film business. However, Mamoulian answered that he signs only short contracts without options. After five weeks studying the mechanics of motion picture making, he was ready to direct. His first talking films for Paramount Pictures were acclaimed among the most innovative sound productions of the day. Applause (1929) was Mamoulian's first step to free camera and soundtrack from the constraints of the early days' techology. Mamoulian put his camera booth on wheels in order to move it about. He also used two cameras to increase the number of possible angels.

Mamoulian's other directions from this experimental period include the horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1932), which used subjective camera, special camera filters, and synthetic sounds. Jekyll's arrival at the medical theater is a long, uncut take, seen from his point of view from his house to the university. "I do believe the cinema is in imagery, not in words," Mamoulian once said. Fredric March won an Academy Award for his performance as the kindly doctor and evil Hyde. The film is considered the best adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novella. However, Stevenson's work contained no mention of a pipe organ, but Mamoulian opened his screen version with Dr. Jekyll playing one in his home. The organ piece, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, possibly chosen by the dírector himself,  has become infamous for its overuse in horror films.

The Jeanette MacDonald - Maurice Chevalier musical Love Me Tonight (1932) had big, densely-populated musical set-pieces. Every member of the cast sang. The opening sequence is famous for its innovative use of sound design: a rhytmic melody grows from the streets of awakening Paris, the heartbeat of the city. Mamoulian's gangster melodrama City Streets (1931), starring Sylvia Sidney, Gary Cooper, and Paul Lukas, was based on Ernest Booth's story Ladies of the Mob. Dashiell Hammett, who was at the height of his literary career and had been signed to create original stories for the screen, co-wrote the script.

Queen Christina (1933) was a tour de force for Greta Garbo, although Mamoulian had thought a few years earlier that she was not ready for the big part in Ivan Turgenev's A Month In The Country, a Theatre Guild production which opened in 1930. "There's a certain luminosity about her freckled face," he said. The film includes one of the most famous moments in Garbo's career. She glides around an inn room, in which she has slept with her lover, memorizing every moment for posterity. Mamoulian's advice for his star was, "I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper. I want the writing to be done by every member of the audience." The camera proceed from a long-shot to a final, extended close-up of the actress's unmoving face. In the final scene she stands in the prow of the ship, the wind blowing her hair. Louis B. Mayer (1885-1957), the general manager of MGM, wanted a happy ending. Laurence Olivier was hired for the male lead, but Garbo had him booted off the production in favour of John Gilbert. The censors kept a close eye on the script due to Queen Christina's supposedly bisexual tendencies. The film did poorly in America, but was popular in Europe. Becky Sharp (1935), based on Thackeray's classic novel Vanity Fair, was noted as the first feature in three-color Technicolor. It won the color prize at the third Venice Film Festival.

"Director Rouben Mamoulian, who took over when Lowell Shwrman died, did a remarkable job with color experimentation. He decided to use color thematically to express character mood, and added more and more color as the film progresses and the plot thickens. Every shot looks color-coordinated. The most famous sequence in the panicky exit of the quests at the Duchess of Richmond's gala in Belgium on the eve of the battle of Waterloo - rather than having all the red-jacketed soldiers in attendance exit first (as would be the case), Mamoulian had guests leave according to their color group so only the one in red remained in the ballroom." (Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic, 1986)

In The Mark of Zorro (1940) Mamoulian combined elemets from Robin Hood and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Tyrone Power played the role of the foppish Don Diego, who actually is Señor Zorro, a mysterious vigilante and swordsman. He leads his caballeros and peasants against the tyrannical Don Luis Quintero and Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Power's duel with Rathbone is the highlight of the cat and mouse game. Blood and Sand (1941) was based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez. It had been filmed in 1922, starring Rudolph Valentino. In the new version Tyrone Power played the great but naive matador, Juan. Linda Danell was his devoted sweetheart and wife and Rita Hayworth a temptress, Dona Sol. "Was it Oscar Wilde who said, 'The sphinx is an enigma which has no solution.' That's Rita. Casting her was a hunch, something I felt rather than saw. I've always been strong on my impressions of people, usually first impressions. Nobody else could have played it, because you couldn't play Dona Sol, you had to be it. Garbo is the only other woman who could have done it... The rarest thing on stage or screen is a beautiful walk. On the screen there is Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Cyd Charisse and Rita Hayworth, and after that... period." (Mamoulian in Rita Hayworth by John Kobal, 1978) Mamoulian's film pulsed again with color and had references to works of such Spanish painters as El Greco and Goya. Mamoulian considered red the most exciting color. "A progression of color should lead to a climax, which can only be red," he has argued. "Not blue, not yellow, red."

Mamoulian periodically returned to the Broadway stage when his ideas clashed with the Hollywood studio hierarchy. A unique stylist, he was the right choice to direct Laura (1944), based on Vera Caspary's novel, but after a few days' shooting he was replaced by Otto Preminger, a comparative newcomer to Hollywood. The portrait of Laura, a target of obsession in the film, was first painted by Azadia Newman, but Preminger scrapped it with the rest of the set and used a photograph by Frank Polony, smeared with oil paint. According to Gene Tierney, who played Laura in the title role, "I am not being modest when I say that people remember me less for my acting job than as the girl in the portrait, which was the movie's key prop."

Azadia Newman (1902-99) and Mamoulian married in 1945; they met at a party at Tierney's home. Their marriage lasted until Mamoulian's death. Mamoulian also developed an interest in portraiture and made collage pictures of his lynx-eyed wife out of stamps, maps, shells, leaves and flowers. By the late 1950s his poetic visions received little understanding. " I feel that any subject – it doesn't have to be a fantasy – any subject should be approached from a poetical point of view, and therefore stylized," Mamoulian argued. He lost in 1958 assignment of directing the film version of Porgy and Bess, and he was also fired from the set of Cleopatra, because he wanted to shoot in Rome and the studio opted for London. Both films turned out to be critical and commercial failures. When Mamoulian abandoned Cleopatra, $7 million had been spent, and Mankiewicz took over. Mamoulian lived his last years a forgotten man in a Beverly Hills mansion, filled with cats and old furniture.

For the theatre Mamoulian directed the premiers of such landmark productions as Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945), and Lost in the Stars (1949). Among his later films were Summer Holiday (1948), a musical version of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! and Silk Stockings, (1957), a remake of Ninotchka, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. In this musical comedy an icy female Soviet official is sent to the West where she is melted by romance. Astaire did a rock 'n' roll number which both he and Cole Porter, the composer, loathed. Ninotchka and Silk Stockings were forbidden in Finland because of their jokes about the Soviet system. In 1982 Mamoulian received the Directors Guild of America D.W. Griffith Award. Mamoulian died in Los Angeles on December 4, 1987. "A film must have two elements – it must deal with the real world and show how it could be made better," Mamoulian said in an interview in 1983.

For further reading: Mamoulian by Tom Milne (1969); Directing the Film: Film Directors on Their Art by Eric Sherman (1976); Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, edited by Richard J. Anobile (1976); Sound and the Cinema: The Coming of Sound to American Film, edited by Evan William Cameron (1980); The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz (1994); Reinventing Reality: The Art and Life of Rouben Mamoulian by Mark Spergel (1993); The Literary Monster on Film: Five Nineteenth Century British Novels and Their Cinematic Adaptations by Abigail Burnham Bloom (2010); Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear, edited by Neil Lerner (2010)


  • Applause, 1929
    - written by Garrett Fort, novel by Beth Brown, starring Helen Morgan, Joan Peers and Fuller Mellish Jr.
  • City Streets, 1931
    - written by Max Marcin, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Dashiell Hammett, story 'Ladies of the Mob' by Ernest Booth, starring Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney and Paul Lukas
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1932
    - screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath, novel by R.L. Stevenson, starring Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and Rose Hobart
  • Love Me Tonight, 1932
    - written by Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young, George Marion Jnr, play 'Taylor in the Château' by Leopold Marchand and Paul Armont, starring Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald and Charles Ruggles
  • The Song of Songs, 1933
    - screenplay by Leo Birinsky, Samuel Hoffenstein, play Edward Sheldon, based on the novel 'Das hohe Lied' by Herman Sudermann, starring Marlene Dietrich, Brian Aherne and Lionel Atwill
  • Queen Christina, 1933
    - screenplay by H.M. Harwood, Salka Viertel and S. N. Behrman, based on the story by Viertel and Margaret Levin, starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and Ian Keith. "I have been memorising this room. In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room." (Greta Garbo)
  • We Live Again, 1934
    - screenplay by Preston Sturges, Maxwell Anderson, Leonard Praskins, based on the novel Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, starring Anna Sten, Fredric March and Jane Baxter
  • Becky Sharp, 1935
    - screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh, play by Landon Mitchell, based on Vanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray, starring Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee and Cedric Hardwicke
  • The Gay Desperado, 1936
    - screenplay by Wallace Smith, story by Leo Birinski, starring Nino Martini, Ida Lupino and Leo Carrillo
  • High, Wide, and Handsome, 1937
    - written by Oscar Hammerstein II, starring Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott and Dorothy Lamour
  • Golden Boy, 1939
    - written by Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, play by Clifford Odets, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou and William Holden
  • The Mark of Zorro, 1940
    - written by John Tainton Foote, Garrett Fort, Bess Meredyth, starring Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, J. Edward Bromberg
  • Blood and Sand, 1941
    - screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez, starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth. (Remake of the Rudolph Valentino film from 1922.)
  • Rings on Her Fingers, 1942
    - written by Ken Englund, starring Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney and Laird Cregar
  • Summer Holiday, 1948
    - written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Ralph Blane, play 'Ah Wilderness' by Eugene O'Neill, starring Mickey Rooney, Gloria DeHaven and Walter Huston
  • Silk Stockings, 1957
    - written by Leonard Gersche, Leonard Spiegelgass, play by George S. Kaufman, Leueen McGrath, Abe Burrows, original play by Melchior Bronner, starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Janis Paige

Works as a writer:

  • Sadie Thompson, 1944 (with Howard Dietz; based on the short story Rain by W. Somerset Maugham)
  • Carousel, 1946 (theater program)
  • Arms and the Girl, 1950 (with Herbert and Dorothy Fields; lyrics by Dorothy Fields; music by Morton Gould)
  • Abigayil: The Story of the Cat at the Manger, 1964 (a children's story; illustrated by Marshall Goodman)
  • Hamlet: A New Version, 1965 (a drama textbook)
  • Chevalier: The Films and Career of Maurice Chevalier / Gene Ringgold and Dewitt Bodeen, 1973 (foreword by Rouben Mamoulian)

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