Rouben Mamoulian

b. 8 October 1897, Tbilisi, Georgia
d. 4 December 1987, Los Angeles, USA

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“Nostalgia for places one has never seen” (1)

In his canonical, often provocative, still influential if sometimes damaging – at least in terms of its effect on the reputation of specific filmmakers – account of Classical Hollywood cinema, Andrew Sarris relegates Rouben Mamoulian to the category of directors whose artistic contribution to American cinema offers “less than meets the eye”. (2) The section of his book devoted to this category is dominated by what he perceives as inadequate or showy stylists, directors whose work ultimately betrays an insufficient consistency and command of theme and a superficial deployment of film form. Within this category Sarris dismisses the “technical acrobatics” of Mamoulian’s films and relegates him to the historical status of an “innovator who runs out of innovations”. (3)

Although pre-empted by the earlier criticism of Mamoulian’s work by such writers as Dwight MacDonald and Theodore Huff, (4) Sarris’ damningly brief overview has bored down into the bedrock of auteurist film criticism. His pithy dismissal has routinely furnished ammunition for the critics who have followed Sarris’ lead, (5) and provided a point of departure for those attempting to rehabilitate or champion the director’s refreshingly varied and stylish work. For example, both of the book-length studies of Mamoulian’s career so far published in English – Tom Milne’s groundbreaking but overly laudatory critical study Mamoulian, (6) published in 1969, and Mark Spergel’s immensely valuable, if snobbishly opinionated attempt to discuss the nexus between Mamoulian’s personal life, theatre and film career, Reinventing Reality, (7) published in 1993 – reiterate the critical importance and centrality of Sarris’ brief and wearied dismissal. In fact, Spergel’s substantial book vacillates between celebrating the very real contribution Mamoulian made to the theatre and cinema and supporting Sarris’ uncharitable view. This is ultimately not surprising, as although Mamoulian is undoubtedly a greater and more substantial director than Sarris allows there is still a niggling sense that several of his criticisms ring at least partly true. Nevertheless, on a film-by-film basis Mamoulian is definitively one of the most intriguing filmmakers who worked in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s.

The Mark of Zorro

In hindsight, it must be conceded that Mamoulian is a director who both attracts auteurist approaches and frustrates them. His films betray a consistency of approach, some common visual and thematic motifs, and a definite sense of the artistic sensibility behind their creation, but they are also maddeningly inconsistent in quality, varied in their approach to genre, and don’t neatly align themselves with “classical” auteurist criticism’s common preoccupation with hyper-masculinity or “closet” femininity. Despite pretensions to the status of high art – signified by, amongst other things, some of the sources of his adaptations and the appropriation of particular painters’ visual styles – Mamoulian’s work is often decidedly middlebrow and seemingly ideologically conventional… if not conservative. This does not mean that his films are without subtextual interest for contemporary viewers. For example, several critics have provided unsurprisingly queer readings of The Mark of Zorro (1940), (8) or have been attracted to issues of gender and performance in Applause (1929), (9) while others have seen connections to the politics of early 1930s America in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), (10) or been intrigued by the unheralded ideological complexities of Silk Stockings (1957). (11) Nevertheless, these evocative dimensions are mainly subsumed to the conventions of the Hollywood cinema of the time and the “universal humanism” that Mamoulian commonly explored through individual characters rather than broader social and political formations. Mamoulian has also been criticised for de-emphasising the importance and centrality of the often highly charged social, political and sexual contexts in which his plays and films are set. (12) Nevertheless, in the early 1930s Mamoulian stridently produced films that flirted with the boundaries of sexual decorum and morality. This is evidenced by the fact that after the full-scale application of the Hays Code in 1934 his films struggled to be re-released without significant cuts and changes. His initial high reputation, particularly up to 1932, also suffered as a result of the lack of circulation of many of his films. Even today, Mamoulian is seldom the subject of retrospectives or critical surveys. His best films mostly circulate in isolation from one another and are more often categorised in terms of genre and star than director. Mamoulian is hardly as forgotten, neglected or under-celebrated as some other early 1930s Hollywood directors, but the discussion of his career does not match the achievement and volume of his work in the cinema and theatre, and his significance to both. His place in cinema history is thus complex. It is also somewhat more contested than it ought to be.

Mamoulian can be regarded as both an aesthetic and stylistic magpie who seldom, with the exception of the musical, made two films in the one genre. He is also a director perhaps overly fixated on the technical or technological possibilities of cinema. For example, Mamoulian’s often repeated and wearisome accounts of his singular contributions to film history focus almost exclusively on the various technical innovations he reputedly brought to the cinema: two-track sound recording and the mobile camera to “early” sound film (Applause); disembodied voiceover (City Streets, 1931); the zoom lens and asynchronous sound (Love Me Tonight, 1932); three-strip Technicolor (Becky Sharp, 1935) and its expressive and fully artistic use (Blood and Sand, 1941); and numerous others. (13) Partly due to the longevity of his life – he was born in Tiflis/Tbilisi, Georgia in 1897 and died in Hollywood in 1987 – Mamoulian was the willing subject of numerous career interviews. In these barely distinguishable discussions, he routinely told the same anecdotes and pontificated upon his rightful place in the history of Classical Hollywood. This distanced and calculated perspective was also reinforced by the relative brevity of his career: his last Broadway play, Arms and the Girl, was staged in 1950 and his final completed film, Silk Stockings, was released in 1957. These “rote” interview performances constructed a version of his career that emphasised his genius and singular artistic contribution to the films he made, as well as the conflicts he endured with less creative producers and technicians. His actual contribution is, of course, much more complex, collaborative, circumscribed and convoluted than he commonly let on.

Contrary to the common view, Mamoulian produced his best work when he was attached for a sustained period to a particular studio. Such a system of indenture and enforced collaboration ran counter to the legend that Mamoulian himself promoted. His early and in many ways best work was made predominantly for Paramount, while his brief tenure at 20th Century-Fox, under the stewardship of Daryl F. Zanuck, in the early 1940s, resulted in two of his most striking and pictorially beautiful works; The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.

Love Me Tonight

But Mamoulian’s productive studio attachments have also provided easy points of negative comparison for critics seeking to undervalue his contribution to film history. Mamoulian made two films at Paramount – Love Me Tonight and Song of Songs (1933) – that are often compared to the contemporaneous work done at the studio by Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg (two of only 14 directors included in Sarris’ ultimate pantheon). In both films, Mamoulian worked expressly within and with the forms most associated with these directors. He inherited specific thematic and narrative preoccupations, and was asked to direct stars – Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier in Love Me Tonight, Marlene Dietrich in Song of Songs – whose careers were intimately entwined with either director. Both projects were also initially associated with Sternberg and Lubitsch. Sternberg himself recommended that Mamoulian direct Dietrich for her first Hollywood film without her great mentor.

Mamoulian’s work is ultimately marked by a pretension and tastefulness that is comparative to but, in fact, miles away from the more baroque excesses of Sternberg’s appropriation of “high” art. Mamoulian often displays a tendency to isolate and “present” his influences, remarking upon his cleverness afterwards. Sternberg mixes these elements up, rendering them in a more innately cinematic, and explicitly critical, fashion (see, for example, the use of classical music and religious art in The Scarlet Empress, 1934). Song of Songs has rarely been discussed in much detail, and in spite of its interesting analysis of Dietrich’s image, it really is significantly inferior to the bulk of the Sternberg–Dietrich collaborations. But Love Me Tonight is a considerably different proposition, and is the film most often cited as evidence of either Mamoulian’s cinematic genius or the inflated, superficial qualities of his work. Not surprisingly, critics such as Sarris regard it as similar but inferior to such Lubitsch’s works as The Love Parade (1929) and The Merry Widow (1934). But others see it as a joyous, cinematically visionary work that is “Gay, charming, witty… everything that the Lubitsch musicals should have been but never were”. (14) I don’t think that such a comparative approach is ultimately very useful. As James Harvey has pointed out, Mamoulian and Lubitsch are actually very different filmmakers, a fact that is actually highlighted by their varied adaptation of similar material:

The Lubitsch films preceding it, even The Love Parade, are chamber films, essentially small-scale and intimate. Love Me Tonight is a kind of bravura effusion. That bravura element ran through all of Mamoulian’s films… Mamoulian is a spectacularist; Lubitsch, the erstwhile “Griffith of Europe”, is not. (15)

The “spectacular” quality of Mamoulian’s films is evidenced by such elements as: their constant shift of point of view; reliance upon the contrast of medium close-ups and long shots; use of a wide variety of filmic devices; ability to move between genres and tones; concern with characters’/actors’ identities and performances; and their more generally “presentational” aesthetic.

Thus, Mamoulian is often characterised as the “third” director at Paramount behind Sternberg and Lubitsch in the first half of the 1930s (is this such a terrible place to be?). Mamoulian’s work is much more uneven and varied than the work of these two other great auteurs. But his significant contribution to American cinema also extends well beyond his initial tenure at the studio. He is thus, in some ways, a paradigm for the jobbing Hollywood director with some pretensions to art and personalised authorship, but who was also pragmatic enough to take on projects for varied – sometimes mostly technical or technological – reasons.

Queen Christina

One of the richest and most fascinating of these assignments was Mamoulian’s first film for MGM, Queen Christina (1933). This film is often singled out for its languid bedroom scene between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Its most remarkable moment features Garbo wandering nostalgically around the room, memorialising it for some future moment of recollection. This almost wordless pantomime underlines many of they key qualities of Mamoulian’s cinema. It relies upon the mechanics and technical resources of the studio system, as well as the mystique of stardom and celebrity. It is also almost impossible to not recognise a melancholy that moves between the actors and the characters they play, emanating from the roles they inhabit both within and outside of the film. Christina’s immediate memorialisation of their brief but sweet affair, points towards the film’s own nostalgia for the real-life relationship of Garbo and Gilbert, as well as the actor’s once-vibrant career. It is a sequence that moves between silent and sound cinema, creating the kind of hybridised, isolated, abstracted world that is the mark of Mamoulian’s work. But this sequence is also a product of the studio, its focus on elements of décor, gesture and the glamorous posturing of its impossibly attractive stars part-and-parcel of an overriding MGM style. Its seeming miniaturist detail is rendered “spectacular” by the glistening and veiled shimmer of its presentation.

Thus, although Mamoulian’s work was often striking it was seldom as innovative, groundbreaking or iconoclastic as he led his interviewers to believe. Thus, Sarris’ predominantly negative account of Mamoulian’s cinema is also something of a welcome corrective to the director’s self-promotion. The difficulties and fallowness of his later career are also perhaps the ultimate outcome of his often-hostile relationship with his collaborators. For example, Mamoulian was the director of the original Broadway productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). Both of these productions allowed Mamoulian to further his attempts to create and synthesise a truly organic and integrative theatrical presentation, and were extraordinary critical and box office successes. But Mamoulian’s endless self-aggrandisement and disagreement with the writers over authorial accreditation resulted in him never working with the team again or being offered to direct the large-scale film versions of either musical in the mid-1950s. Mamoulian’s piecemeal film career – he completed only 16 features over 30 years – across a variety of genres and studios, as well as his famously aborted directorial contributions to Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), Porgy and Bess (Otto Preminger, 1959), and Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), also give evidence to both the uncompromising strength of his artistic vision and how he chaffed against the necessarily collaborative and commercial fields he worked within. Nevertheless, despite his much cited affinity for the more solitary art of painting – and how, for example, this influenced and directed the choice of colour and composition in the Goya-Velasquez-El Greco-inflected Blood and Sand, or the many Americana drenched frames of Summer Holiday (1948) that directly cited Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Curry – Mamoulian was also a showman, perfectly suited to the popularisation and adaptation of “high art” forms and sources. Despite his claims to the contrary, these forms and elements were the outcome of the collaborative potential he found at such studios as Paramount, MGM and 20th Century Fox. Thus, his value to Hollywood and Broadway as a synthesiser and channeller of forms and multifarious creative contributions should not be underestimated.

For a director who was brought to Hollywood – or initially to the East Coast studios of Paramount as a dialogue coach and then to direct Applause – to deal with the aesthetic crisis of the introduction of sound, Mamoulian proved himself to be a peculiarly “cinematic” director, exploiting many of his scenarios for the pure visual and sound ideas/situations they suggested. Nevertheless, as I will illustrate, the distinctions between theatre and cinema in Mamoulian’s work are not as clear as they might at first appear or as definitive as he often let on: “It’s curious really. Here I had been recruited as a stage expert on dialogue, and all I could think of was the marvellous things one could do with the camera and the exciting new potentials of sound recording. The camera fascinated me.” (16) The seeds of this attentiveness to the aesthetic possibilities of the cinema can actually be traced to several of Mamoulian’s formative experiences in the theatre, his attempts at expressive stylisation in the original stage adaptation of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s Porgy, in particular. Thus, for example, the initial, rhythmic “symphony of street sounds” that opened this 1927 play was appropriated and expanded for the percussively dynamic opening of Love Me Tonight. Mamoulian combines this coup de théâtre with a sense, construction and transformation of space that is intrinsically cinematic. The single perspective of the stage transformed into a dizzying montage of sounds and points of view.

Love Me Tonight

Mamoulian also furthered his theatrical experiments with fluid staging, scene changes and general transitions in the cinema. This quality is discussed by Milne in terms of how the distinction between dance and non-dance, musical number and bridging dialogue sequence are often blurred in Mamoulian’s films: “one is almost tempted to say that every Mamoulian film is a musical. It isn’t true, of course, but with every action and line of dialogue conceived in terms of stylised rhythm, choreographed rather than directed – it feels as though it were.” (17) Milne argues that this gestalt sense of “stylised rhythm”, as well as a feeling for true movement, are Mamoulian’s great contributions to the cinema. At times his description and analysis of the director’s work aligns it more closely with the European avant garde of the 1920s. Thus, for example, the still somewhat “grounded” staging of musical performances in the theatre is transformed, in the mercurial Love Me Tonight, into a series of montage-driven musical numbers that move across vast, opened out and interiorised spaces. The greatest instance of this is the opening performance of “Isn’t it Romantic”. The song is casually introduced by Maurice Chevalier’s tailor and then taken up by a range of quickly moving characters until it arrives at the chateau of Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), drifting dreamily from a gypsy encampment. This sequence highlights the patent anti-realism of Mamoulian’s approach – the use of rhyming dialogue, almost theatrical musical performance, extra-diegetic sound – but also comes close to achieving the director’s aim of “conveying truth through stylization and poetic rhythm”. (18)

Despite his truly significant triumphs in the American theatre, where his status as one of directorial greats is more assured, it is only in the cinema that Mamoulian was able to fully explore his quest for a truly synthetic art form seamlessly combining music, performance, painterly design and dynamic movement. It is common to celebrate much of Mamoulian’s early work in the cinema, but to also insist upon the ultimate decline of his films after the last, “proper” innovations of the first three-strip Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp. This is not terribly surprising when one straightforwardly compares such early, cinematically dynamic and somewhat risqué works as Applause and Love Me Tonight with the seemingly more staid, conventional and often nostalgic films of the second half of his career: High, Wide and Handsome (1937), Summer Holiday and Silk Stockings. But Milne proffers a different approach to Mamoulian’s oeuvre. Whereas Spergel takes a conventional tack in relation to pinpointing the brief flowering of Mamoulian’s genius and the long decline that followed, Milne provides a more holistic account, highlighting the ongoing refinement of his work. The patent artificiality of Mamoulian’s final films – Blood and Sand, Rings on Her Fingers (1942), Summer Holiday and Silk Stockings – and their true abandonment to the rhythms of movement, colour, composition and the body, allows full expression to the overarching abstraction and anti-realism that generally marks his work. It is thus hardly surprising that Mamoulian was considerably less productive in the grittier, more cutthroat post-war era. His only cinematic haven in this period was within the production unit of Arthur Freed at MGM. But even there Mamoulian’s famously fastidious, slow and unworldly working methods created considerable animosity. The ten-year gap between his two final films is a clear pointer towards these problems.

Mamoulian’s approach to genre examines each – the western, musical, swashbuckler, romance, horror, historical drama – for their capacity to allow particular and appropriate technical innovations, flourishes and preoccupations. Important examples include, the subjective point of view shots that mark the horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the crane shots in the outdoor musical western High, Wide and Handsome. Nevertheless, if any genre seems closest to Mamoulian’s heart it is the musical – perhaps, the most cinematic and theatrical of classical American genres. Like Mamoulian, it was also the genre ushered into American cinema with the coming of sound. Music and dance are integral to the rhythm and meaning of Mamoulian’s work and provide an emphasis on movement that marks his great contribution to the cinema. For instance, even a film like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde contains several “musical” moments, which have pertinent things to say about both class and the role of music as an index of culture and as a container of raw emotion. This is probably the reason why Milne promotes Mamoulian’s final film, Silk Stockings, as the crowning achievement of his career. The film opens with a series of shots showing the walking-dancing feet of Fred Astaire. Such a metonymic focus is characteristic of Mamoulian’s cinema. This focus on feet appears numerous times in his work and the isolation of body parts and their relation to the objects around them also marks the most resonant scenes of many of his films (think of the final track into a close-up of Garbo’s tabula-rasa like face in Queen Christina).

But this abstraction and isolation of body parts also provides a pointer towards the key innovations of the film. Milne champions Silk Stockings primarily for the way in which it prioritises the body and movement as vehicles for developing the film’s story and expressing its emotional content. This characteristic only becomes fully observable in the scenes featuring the ever graceful Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Thus, although the film is truly “innovative” in the ways in which it communicates many of its narrative developments through bodily movement and expression, it is also marred by an excessive and often frontal presentation of its performances, as well as an uncomfortable use of the Cinemascope frame (parodied and utilised in the number “Stereophonic Sound”). But the explicit and prioritised dance movements of Silk Stockings can also be likened to many other of the most remarkable moments in Mamoulian’s cinema: the brutal, enclosed, but physically spirited fencing sequence in The Mark of Zorro; the wonderful springing rhythm of the opening of Love Me Tonight; the gradually unfolding ball on the eve of the battle of Waterloo in Becky Sharp; the timeless metronomic motions and gestures of Garbo around the room that represents her brief idyll in Queen Christina. All of these sequences have a dance-like quality. But it can be argued that the frustratingly piecemeal qualities of Silk Stockings are also characteristic of much of Mamoulian’s work. Mamoulian himself, by discussing his never fully-realised aim of creating a truly organic, moving cinema while isolating particular innovations and artistic choices, reinforces this view.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

In retrospect, the two most completely satisfying films of Mamoulian’s career – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Love Me Tonight – were made back to back at Paramount. Both showily exploit the dynamic possibilities of sound, camera movement, various editing devices (particularly wipes and dissolves), and montage. Looking back on all of his films of the early 1930s, it is still possible to be surprised by the sheer audacity of specific techniques, individual images, the pace of many sequences, and the often idiosyncratic uses to which Mamoulian puts such common devices as dissolves, wipes (particularly of the diagonal variety) and subjective point of view shots. Nevertheless, Mamoulian’s well-documented experiments in early sound (Applause and City Streets), location filming (High, Wide and Handsome) and colour (Becky Sharp) still tend to obscure a more holistic approach to technical innovations and their possible meanings which does characterise his cinema. Thus, the playful sound experiments of films like Love Me Tonight and Silk Stockings are totally in keeping with the key ideas and sense of life explored in the films.

Mamoulian’s films also constantly provide interesting variations on and insights into specific themes and familiar genres. For example, it is integral to the impact and meaning of Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde in Mamoulian’s adaptation that the effect is mostly achieved without the aid of cuts or dissolves. This startling effect is not just an exhibition of technical virtuosity. One literally has to emerge from within the other. Also, the high number of subjective point of view shots in this film is justified by the film’s exploration of themes of shifting identity (a common Mamoulian preoccupation), subjectivity and the relation of the individual to society. The movement from optical points of view to much more distanced perspectives and compositions is also a constant of Mamoulian’s cinema. I think it is possible to link this restlessly shifting perspective to Mamoulian’s mixed career in theatre and cinema. Thus, the alternation and movement between close-ups and extreme long shots is only possible in the cinema – either through cutting or mobile framing – but the sense of distance in many of Mamoulian’s compositions seems a legacy of his theatrical background and the tyranny of the proscenium. Nevertheless, this movement between expressly intimate and coolly detached perspectives contributes significantly to how Mamoulian renders subjectivity and the bifurcated identities of many of his protagonists. This hybrid technique has the effect of pulling us into the cinematic space while placing us at a distance, combining the oneiric qualities of the cinematic experience with the clearly detached perspective of the theatrical spectator.

As should now be clear, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is both a technically and conceptually ambitious film. It attempts to find techniques to help communicate specific ideas and complicate easy moral positions. The use of subjective point of view shots is perhaps the most effective of these devices, but others compete for prominence elsewhere in the film. The use of long dissolves is often remarkable, linking such techniques in Mamoulian’s film to similar ones explored by Josef von Sternberg in The Scarlet Empress, another Paramount film of the era which investigates the disturbing power of abundant and unchecked sexuality (though Sternberg’s film is much more ambivalent, ambiguous and playful than Mamoulian’s).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Time and the vacillation between various states of physical and psychological being are also themes that run through the film. Both are given numerous pictorial “illustrations”. For example, the figure of the pendulum or the hands of a clock are foregrounded in the shot where Ivy’s bare leg moves backwards and forwards as it is superimposed on the image of Jekyll departing from her apartment. This motif, or motion, returns several times in the film, most clumsily as a wipe that moves in a vacillating clockwise and anti-clockwise motion across the frame (producing some very interesting split-screen images in the process). Despite the laboured quality of this device it still manages to communicate a core idea of the relativity of various states, characters, spaces, situations and class positions. In particular, the sexual frustration experienced by Jekyll in relation to his fiancée, Muriel (Rose Hobart), and its connection to the freer sexuality of working-class Ivy, is visually communicated through this technique. This focus on sexuality and class is a key, often troubling and unresolved theme of many of Mamoulian’s films.

Spergel has suggested that much of Mamoulian’s work returns to the theme of the divided public and private self. (19) This thematic motif is most clearly schematised in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but is playfully and seriously surveyed in many of his films. Sometimes, as in Song of Songs and Queen Christina, this theme plays along the fault lines of the divisions between actor, character, the public and the private self. In both these films the central female characters, inhabited by Dietrich and Garbo respectively, are required to make a division or distinction between their public and private personas. Thus it doesn’t take too much of a leap to read Garbo’s Queen Christina as a treatise on the attractions and hardships of modern celebrity, as well as more specifically about the star herself. Such a reading is supported by the initial publicity for the film, which actively sought to blur this distinction between character and actor, to link the royalty of the past with the celebrity of the present. In attempting to relaunch Garbo’s film career – she had been absent from the screen for over a year and legend abounded about her activities – and highlight the coolly European salaciousness of her star persona, the film’s original trailer made the following appeals to: “A Queen whose love affairs were as modern as tomorrow’s tabloids”; “A 17th Century maiden who lived with 20th Century madness”.

Queen Christina

Such a blurring of character and star persona, the past and the present, is hardly unusual in the films of Dietrich and Garbo. But Mamoulian’s films also constantly and more prosaically narrativise this complex division between the public and private self. It is thus hardly surprising that many of his films feature characters who are either not quite what they seem or who are required to take on contrastive identities; mistaken identity is also important to the plots of Love Me Tonight, Queen Christina, Songs of Songs, amongst others. The obliteration of one of these selves, or the closer alignment of the two, is often the key drama of the narrative. This takes on its most obvious form in a film like The Mark of Zorro, where the hero deliberately takes on two opposing personalities in order to hide his true identity. It is also explored through the complex androgyny of Garbo in Queen Christina, where she is, somewhat implausibly, mistaken for a young man (highlighting, perhaps, the performative nature of all sexuality). The journeys of the central female characters of Applause, High, Wide and Handsome, Silk Stockings, and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, take this form as well.

Mamoulian’s cinema can also be considered as primarily presentational in its form and style. Thus despite seeming to be explicitly cinematic – particularly in the use of various devices that are impossible and often have no correlative in the theatre such as wipes, expressive montage, varied film speeds, etc. – there is still something that is explicitly theatrical in the nature of his films. His films share an overriding interiority and stage-like quality. Even such a seemingly action orientated film as Blood and Sand is more accurately described as a mood piece lacking significant exterior scenes and containing only glimpses of its strikingly staged bullfights. We are thus mainly positioned away from the action, witnessing other characters’ responses to the balletic but bloody scenes. Mamoulian’s films are full of moments where characters seem less than involved in the here-and-now of a particular time, place and situation, and more concerned with how they are presented to the audience. In fact, such a shift in emphasis often marks his adaptations of more socially grounded source material by Tolstoy, Thackeray and O’Neill. Such relative “romps” as The Gay Desperado (1936) and High, Wide and Handsome initially proceed at a breakneck speed, introducing us to characters within the framework of a performance. In High, Wide and Handsome this is relatively straightforward, as the central character is introduced singing the title song at a medicine show. Nevertheless, Irene Dunne’s excessive performance of the song foregrounds the very act of annunciation. As a result, her performance seems almost outside of the film’s world, on a pedestal, less keyed to the spectators who appear in the frame than those who exist beyond it.

The opening of The Gay Desperado is even more revealing. This film illustrates how self-aware Mamoulian could be of the forms he was working within and of his own career narrative. The opening shots of the film, coming after the iconic, cartoonish image of a sombrero under the credits, are initially disorientating as they show what appears to be a rather brutal and stylish gangster film caught in media res. The shots are, of course, reminiscent of Mamoulian’s earlier City Streets. Our initial impressions are subsequently undercut by the realisation that we are watching a film-within-the-film. We then see and hear a group of Mexican bandits responding to what is on the screen, discussing the ways they might appropriate the modern methods of American gangsters. In short succession, the film incorporates a fight within the cinema, several comic moments, and a musical performance by a tenor who quietens the unruly mob. As in many of Mamoulian’s films this impure and hybridised opening tells us much about the film that is to follow. In its foregrounding of appropriation, adaptation and its ambivalence towards modernity it also tells us much about Mamoulian’s sensibility. For a director who was often extraordinarily lucid and knowledgeable about new cinematic technologies in the first years of his film career, Mamoulian quickly developed a taste for nostalgic Americana and a suspicion of the benefits of the modern world. In fact, even such contemporaneously set films as City Streets, Silk Stockings, Golden Boy (1939) and Applause do not really have a genuine feeling for the present day. For example, the vaudeville stages of Applause seem to belong to at least the previous decade, while Silk Stockings‘ portraits of Soviet and Parisian life appear to evoke a quaint version of the 1930s rather than the 1950s.

Mamoulian’s films create somewhat solipsistic and explicitly imagined or performed worlds. Thus, even the beautiful Ansel Adams-like night landscapes of The Gay Desperado – one of Mamoulian’s most underrated films – are striking because of their similarity to a series of other compositions. This is probably a key reason why Mamoulian was actually so well-suited to the studio system of the 1930s and early ’40s, as despite his often striking use of locations, including actual New York stations and subways in Applause, it is the artificiality of his expressly audio-visual compositions that most defines his work. It is therefore not surprising that several commentators have emphasised a patently abstract quality in Mamoulian’s films, a tilt towards an experimental cinema that Sarris also expressed an ambivalent attitude towards: “[Mamoulian is] one of the most eloquent spokesmen the more experimental mainstream film has ever had”. (20)

Nevertheless, Mamoulian’s legacy is still substantial and should not be relegated to predominantly technical considerations. He was the main catalyst in at least five outstanding Hollywood films, and his initial run of six features is as strong, and important, as any other director of the era. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Mamoulian was at his best when working within the system, exploiting the extraordinary conflation of artists, actors, writers, technicians and craftspeople that made the Classical Hollywood cinema possible. For a few short years, Mamoulian was one of a small number of directors who used Hollywood as a true studio environment.

This article has been refereed


  1. Part of a line spoken by Greta Garbo in Queen Christina.
  2. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1968, p. 155.
  3. Sarris, p. 160.
  4. Dwight MacDonald, “Notes on Hollywood Directors”, Introduction to the Art of the Movies, ed. Lewis Jacobs, The Noonday Press, New York, pp. 182-84 (originally published in 1933). See also, Huff’s response to MacDonald’s essay: Jacobs, p. 207.
  5. See, for example, Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made it: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, Ballantine Books, New York, 1997, pp. 33, 618; Gilbert Adair, Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, pp. 82–3.
  6. Tom Milne, Mamoulian, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969.
  7. Mark Spergel, Reinventing Reality: The Art and Life of Rouben Mamoulian, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N.J. and London, 1993.
  8. Catherine Williamson, “’Draped Crusaders’: Disrobing Gender in The Mark of Zorro”, Cinema Journal vol. 36, no. 2, Winter 1997, p. 16.
  9. Jeffrey P. Smith, “’It Does Something to a Girl. I Don’t Know What’: The Problem of Female Sexuality in Applause”, Cinema Journal vol. 30, no. 2, Winter 1991, pp. 47–60.
  10. Annalee Newitz, “A Lower-Class, Sexy Monster: American Liberalism in Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Bright Lights Film Journal no. 15, 1995, pp.12–8, 50.
  11. Robin Wood, “Art and Ideology: Notes on Silk Stockings”, Film Comment vol. 11, no. 3, May–June 1975, pp. 28–31.
  12. This practice is consistently criticised by Spergel, particularly in relation to such plays as Porgy and Bess and Lost in the Stars, and the bulk of Mamoulian’s work in Hollywood.
  13. See almost any of the multiple interviews that Mamoulian gave in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s, or the articles he wrote to discuss and promote the contribution his films made to the “technical” art of the cinema. The best and most informative of the Mamoulian interviews are: David Robinson, “Painting the Leaves Black: Rouben Mamoulian”, Sight and Sound vol. 30, no. 3, Summer 1961, pp. 123–27; James R. Silke and Michael Shamamian (eds.), Rouben Mamoulian: “Style is the Man”, American Film Institute, 1971.
  14. John Baxter, Hollywood in the Thirties, Tantivy Press, London, 1968, p. 45.
  15. James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges, Da Capo Press, New York, 1998, p. 33.
  16. Interview with Mamoulian in Andrew Sarris (ed.), Hollywood Voices, Secker and Warburg, London, 1971, p. 63. Mamoulian also claimed that, “I didn’t bring any ideas from the theater because I don’t think that theater can give any ideas to the films. They are different mediums. There is nothing really in the theater than can contribute to films.” See Harry A. Hargrave, “Interview with Rouben Mamoulian”, Literature/Film Quarterly vol. 10, no. 4, October 1982, p. 264.
  17. Milne, pp. 13–4.
  18. Sarris, Hollywood Voices, p. 63.
  19. See Spergel, pp. 1, 149–50.
  20. Ken Hanke, “Rouben Mamoulian”, Films in Review vol. 39, no. 8–9, August-September 1988, p. 403.

Rouben Mamoulian


Applause (1929)

City Streets (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Song of Songs (1933)

Queen Christina (1933)

We Live Again (1934)

Becky Sharp (1935)

The Gay Desperado (1936)

High, Wide and Handsome (1937)

Golden Boy (1939)

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Blood and Sand (1941)

Rings on Her Fingers (1942)

Summer Holiday (1948)

Silk Stockings (1957)

Select Bibliography

Thomas R. Atkins, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: An Interview with Rouben Mamoulian”, Film Journal vol. 2, no. 2, January–March 1973, pp. 36–43.

John Baxter, Hollywood in the Thirties, Tantivy Press, London, 1968, pp. 43–9.

Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage, American Directors Vol. 1, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1983, pp. 234–7.

Lucy Fischer, “Applause: The Visual and Acoustic Landscape”, Film Sound: Theory and Practice, ed. Elizabeth Weis and John Belton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985, pp. 232–46.

John A. Gallagher and Marino A. Amoruco, “An Interview with Rouben Mamoulian”, The Velvet Light Trap no. 19, 1982, pp. 16–22.

Ken Hanke, “Rouben Mamoulian”, Films in Review vol. 39, no. 8–9, August-September 1988, pp. 403–13.

Harry A. Hargrave, “Interview with Rouben Mamoulian”, Literature/Film Quarterly vol. 10, no. 4, October 1982, p. 255–65.

James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges, Da Capo Press, New York, 1998, pp. 31–4.

Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, “Rouben Mamoulian”, The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, Henry Regnery, Chicago, 1971, pp. 128–43.

Richard Koszarski, “The Greatest Film Paramount Ever Made”, Film History vol. 15, 2003, pp. 436–43.

Peter Lehman, “Looking at Ivy Looking as Us Looking at Her: The Camera and The Garter”, Wide Angle vol. 5, no. 3, 1983, pp. 59–63.

Dwight MacDonald, “Notes on Hollywood Directors”, Introduction to the Art of the Movies, ed. Lewis Jacobs, The Noonday Press, New York, 1960 [article originally published in 1933], pp. 182–84.

Rouben Mamoulian, “Colour and Light in Films”, Film Culture no. 21, Summer 1960, pp. 68–79.

Rouben Mamoulian, “Some Problems in the Direction of Color Pictures”, Hollywood Directors 1914–1940 Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976 [article originally published in 1935], pp. 288–93.

Rouben Mamoulian, “Controlling Color for Dramatic Effect”, Hollywood Directors 1914–1940 Vol. 2, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977 [article originally published in 1941], pp. 15–24.

Rouben Mamoulian, “Dialogue on Film”, American Film vol. 8, no. 4, January–February 1983, pp. 26–7, 67–9.

Tom Milne, Mamoulian, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969.

Annalee Newitz, “A Lower-Class, Sexy Monster: American Liberalism in Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Bright Lights Film Journal no. 15, 1995, pp.12–8, 50.

David Robinson, “Painting the Leaves Black: Rouben Mamoulian”, Sight and Sound vol. 30, no. 3, Summer 1961, pp. 123–27.

Andrew Sarris (ed.), “Rouben Mamoulian Talking to Andrew Sarris, 1966”, Hollywood Voices, Secker and Warburg, London, 1971, pp. 60–8.

Andrew Sarris, “Rouben Mamoulian”, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1968, pp. 160–1.

Michael Sevastakis, Songs of Love and Death: The Classical American Horror Film of the 1930s, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut and London, 1993, pp. 131–48.

James R. Silke and Michael Shamamian (eds.), Rouben Mamoulian: “Style is the Man”, American Film Institute, 1971.

Jeffrey P. Smith, “’It Does Something to a Girl. I Don’t Know What’: The Problem of Female Sexuality in Applause”, Cinema Journal vol. 30, no. 2, Winter 1991, pp. 47–60.

Mark Spergel, Reinventing Reality: The Art and Life of Rouben Mamoulian, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N.J. and London, 1993.

David Thomson, “Rouben Mamoulian”, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Little, Brown, Great Britain, 2002, p. 556.

George Turner, “Two-Faced Treachery”, American Cinematographer vol. 80, no. 3, March 1999, pp. 188–96.

John Wakeman (ed.), “Rouben Mamoulian”, World Film Directors vol. 1, 1890–1945, The H. W. Wilson Co., New York, 1987, pp. 710–14.

Wayne Warga, “Rouben Mamoulian”, Action no. 9, vol. 5, September–October 1974, pp. 24–7.

Catherine Williamson, “’Draped Crusaders’: Disrobing Gender in The Mark of Zorro”, Cinema Journal vol. 36, no. 2, Winter 1997, pp. 3–16.

Robin Wood, “Art and Ideology: Notes on Silk Stockings”, Film Comment vol. 11, no. 3, May–June 1975, pp. 28–31.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Adrian Danks

Love Me Tonight by Peter Kemp

What’s Behind the Mark?: Subterfuge and Deception in The Mark of Zorro by Julian Savage

Web Resources

Pegosus: Rouben Mamoulian
Short overview.

Rouben Mamoulian: A History of Horror
Short entry by Leonard Maltin.

Click here to buy Rouben Mamoulian DVDs and videos at Facets

Click here to search for Rouben Mamoulian DVDs, videos and books at

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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