Rouben Mamoulian Essay - Critical Essays

Mamoulian, Rouben


Rouben Mamoulian 1898–

Armenian-born American filmmaker and theatrical director.

Mamoulian's films are successful and artistic; he is a master at employing innovative techniques. His first experience in the theater involved directing plays in London. Drawn to the United States by an offer from George Eastman to join his American opera company in Rochester, Mamoulian accepted but only stayed for two years. The Theatre Guild in New York hired him as a teacher and director and in 1927 he directed Porgy. The play was immediately successful. His style of direction was expressionistic, exemplified by the "Symphony of Noises" which provided the background for one of his scenes. One by one, the sounds of Catfish Row are introduced and eventually joined in perfect rhythm.

This style has not been abandoned in his films. Mamoulian has no taste for naturalism: "My aim was always rhythm and poetic stylization." It was this credo which prompted him to surpass the techniques of his time and become a remarkably innovative filmmaker. His first film, Applause, which he directed at the Astoria Studios in New York, exemplifies his daring. As an early sound film it was expected to follow its predecessors using a stationary camera, one sound track, and straight narrative. Mamoulian envisioned a scene with Helen Morgan singing a lullaby to her daughter while the girl recited a rosary. It was a significant scene, one which would show the disparity between the burlesque queen whose lullaby was one of her show tunes and the daughter whose upbringing had been in a convent. But it necessitated using two sound tracks, which was unheard of. Mamoulian insisted on it despite opposition from his crew and his own inexperience. From that point on, his techniques became more and more novel. He used mobile cameras, images with incongruous sounds to create emotional impact, superimposed images, and silent images with voice-over tracks. Although common practice now, these techniques originated with Mamoulian.

Not surprisingly, Mamoulian also led the way in color production. His Becky Sharp was the first feature film in Technicolor. Throughout, he uses color for artistic ends, especially in the Waterloo sequence. Despite the fact that one would expect soldiers to leave a ball before all the others, in the case of military emergency, Mamoulian directed them to leave last. Though this device defied logic, it left the screen flooded with the red of their uniforms. Later Mamoulian said: "Colour is such a strong emotional medium of such subconscious potency, that if the gradation were wrong here it could destroy the fundamental reality of the scene…. [No one] has ever remarked on [the soldiers leaving last], because it makes such sense dramatically."

Mamoulian's success has been attributed to his innate sense of staging musicals, his direction of actresses, his technical expertise. But he has been able to combine his artistic standards with universal appeal and his films were, and still are, remarkably entertaining. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Alexander Bakshy

There are two reasons why Rouben Mamoulian's "Applause" … is one of the most significant talking pictures that has yet been produced in this country. Its first claim to distinction is that rare thing the artist's touch, a quality which proclaims a cultured and sensitive mind attuned to the medium of its expression. Its second claim rests on its convincing demonstration of the ability of the talking picture to create drama which is not modeled after the stage….

Perhaps the most striking achievement of Mr. Mamoulian is the sustained sense of unity, of an atmosphere, with which he infuses his play as a whole. The sordidness of its realistic detail is not to be gainsaid; yet how mordant and spicy it is, how different in its imaginative treatment from the countless scenes of chorus girls on the stage as found in even the best of Hollywood's films! Particularly striking, also, is the opening sequence showing a desolate street with bits of paper blown by the wind, then a solitary dog running this way and that, then groups of excited children and, finally, as a climax, the street parade of the burlesque troupe, with the volume of sound rising from scene to scene until it swells to a cacophonous blare of the actors' trumpets. Since Mr. Dudley Murphy's "St. Louis Blues," a very remarkable little picture in its own way, this is unquestionably the most satisfying instance of cinematic treatment of sound. Another instance, even more important in its implications because of the far-reaching developments it foreshadows, is to be found in Mr. Mamoulian's use of the "split screen"—that is, two independent scenes shown side by side. Taken as a whole, however, "Applause" is not free from some important defects. The dramatic values of its dialogue are not so well brought out as are those of the visual images, and there is a consequent loss of emotional effect. Nor is Mr. Mamoulian's almost continuous use of the moving camera wholly convincing. It slows up action where...

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Thornton Delahanty

[The] spoken word has placed a hardship on the cause of motion pictures simply because dialogue tends to slow up the action and to atrophy that panoramic fluidity of the camera which was a chief and startling virtue in the silent film days.

In view of which it is interesting to note how one director has succeeded, to an unusual degree, in freeing himself from the fetters of sound recording. The picture is "Applause" … and the director is Rouben Mamoulian. (p. 240)

[There is] constant evidence that a creative intelligence was responsible for the making of "Applause." Having been given a free rein, Mr. Mamoulian went about his business with nothing to rely on other than his own skill in showmanship and, I suspect, fairly good acquaintance with the best of the latter day silent pictures.

The fact that he had dialogue to deal with didn't disturb him at all. Instead of allowing the dialogue to intrude itself in the story or even to take a respectable place alongside of it, Mamoulian used his camera for all it was worth and made it tell the story.

The result is that "Applause" exists—to me, at any rate—as a cohesive, well integrated series of pictures. Its intensity, its sharp projections of tragedy, emerge from the eye of the camera; an omniscient, omnipresent eye that slides easily over the links of the story and emphasizes only the true and the relevant. (pp. 240-41)...

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Alexander Bakshy

[Dulness] and flatness, I regret to say, are to be found in particularly irritating doses in "Love Me Tonight." Maurice Chevalier, who used to charm us with the roguishness of a young boy and the knowledgeable understanding of a man of the world that made him such a delightful screen lover, is revealed in this latest picture of his as a tired man who is trying his hardest to appear sprightly and irresistible….

Even more disappointing to me, because of the expectations aroused by his earlier work, is Rouben Mamoulian's performance as the director of the picture. In his first picture, "Applause," made when the talkies were still in their infancy, Mr. Mamoulian was daring and original. Above all, he showed a quality of imagination that knew how to bring the unfamiliar and the significant out of the welter of photographic impressions. In "Love Me Tonight," a musical comedy romance with a touch of wilful extravaganza, he either failed to find a subject after his own heart, or failed to discover in himself the power of imagination that would have made its hackneyed story pointed and interesting. Only once, and then merely by repeating himself, does he succeed in striking a note of convincing inventiveness. This is in the opening scene, showing the sleepy Paris awakening to its daily labors in a swelling symphony of miscellaneous noises. In the rest of the picture he either attempts comedy in the style of Lubitsch, without the latter's flair for the bizarre, or follows the treatment of music in "Sous les Toits de Paris" by laborious repetition of the same song by various characters quite regardless of its dramatic relevance to the story. After hearing about a dozen versions of The Son of a Gun Is Nothing But a Tailor, at least one of the spectators was on the point of using a less printable language.

Alexander Bakshy, "Three Premature Births," in The Nation (copyright 1932 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 135, No. 3506, September 14, 1932, p. 240.

Francis Birrell

The film industry has produced many men of talent, but few artists. Mamoulian has always seemed to me one of those rare men. The picture of first love in Applause, of crime in City Streets, of the macabre in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all had about them a distinction that transcended their Hollywood setting. His latest film Love Me To-night … shows what he can make of an old story in new dress, and more sensationally, perhaps, what he can make of Chevalier. Love Me To-night is a latter-day version of The Sleeping Beauty, with Chevalier as a tailor's apprentice, who bursts into a ducal château to get a bill paid, and carries off a princess dying of ennui and inbreeding.

Such a treatment of an old tale lends itself to facetiousness, the facetiousness of Mark Twain or of Will Rogers. But Mamoulian can keep this side of farce. He has the smile of comedy—a tender comedy—for the old fairy tale he is dressing up. Provided with the slop of the Hollywood studios, he has turned it into something almost sad. For Mamoulian is genuinely romantic without being sentimental…. A sequence in which the aristocratic guests play bridge so slowly that the cards can hardly fall on to the table recaptures the idiom of Grimm. The hunting scenes are as pretty as possible. The three duennas, bent over their tapestry, and sighing over the lover who never came to them, have a mediaeval charm. Though Love Me To-night is a hymn to democracy, Mamoulian does not too much "guy" the life of the château. So much for the distinction...

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Otis C. Ferguson

Taking the subject of Christina, enlightened despot, Lesbian, free-lance adventuress, ["Queen Christina"] substitutes for all the strange facts bearing upon her reign and exile the considerably mildewed fictions of the Graustark cycle. To be sure, it borrows enough facts to make a setting; it indicates the Swedish court, and makes itself pleasant with glamor while it may. But then come the big scenes, the Od's-wounds-milady-'tis-but-a-scratch. In the end, it reduces the complex circumstances surrounding the abdication of a homosexual queen to a quick and wholesome elopement with the Gentleman from Spain…. So the whole play falls down, echoing falsely. Its essential crumbling, of course, has come about not because it...

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James Shelley Hamilton

Queen Christina follows quite closely the career of Sweden's notorious seventeenth century queen as it was known to most of her contemporaries, without benefit of modern pathological psychology. The one serious concession it makes to presumed movie demands is in giving Christina an abiding passionate love for the Spanish ambassador, whereas the rumors of the time credited her with no more than a passing affair of scandal…. Where the film falls down as an historical picture is chiefly in its failure to suggest the cold and rugged Sweden of those rough days when the warrior sons of the Vikings took up the Protestant banner and made such a stir in Europe. Mamoulian's silken direction has a strangely softening...

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Alberto Consiglio

Mamoulian's latest film [Queen Cristina] is the result of a defect both of sentimental intuition and of culture. We should not need to speak of culture if sentimental intuition and the breath of art had inspired the producer or the actress [Greta Garbo] on behalf of the producer. Who cares whether Shaw's Joan of Arc is really the Joan burnt at the stake by the English or if Shakespeare's Coriolanus is really the tragic Roman patrician? Their strong artistic vitality excludes all possibility of criticism. The humanity of the characters gives them a superior reality of their own.

When, however, the producer is not inspired with a creative capacity, culture may save his work in...

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Andre Sennwald

Science and art, the handmaidens of the cinema, have joined hands to endow the screen with a miraculous new element in "Becky Sharp," the first full-length photoplay produced in the three-component color process of Technicolor….

Rouben Mamoulian and [color designer] Robert Edmond Jones have employed the new process in a deliberately stylized form, so that "Becky Sharp" becomes an animate procession of cunningly designed canvases. Some of the color combinations make excessive demands upon the eye. Many of them are as soothing as black and white. The most glaring technical fault, and it is a comparatively minor one, is the poor definition in the long shots, which convert faces into blurred...

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Charles Davy

Nobody knows yet whether Becky Sharp will inaugurate a decisive new vogue for colour films. Nor does anybody know whether a general use of colour would enrich or impoverish the artistic resources of the cinema. I think it might do both.

Becky Sharp, loosely adapted from Thackeray's Vanity Fair, is the first full-length picture to use the new Technicolor process, and it establishes certain facts….

One thing that colours can do on the screen is to intensify emotional moods. A powerful red can send an immediate emotional stimulus surging out over an audience, and all the audience need do is to submit to its intoxicating influence. Rouben Mamoulian, in directing...

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Lewis Jacobs

Intelligence, an experimental willingness and aptitude, and an understanding of pictorial and sound effects (which springs both from his operatic experience and from his studies of other craftsmen) have raised Mamoulian into the first rank of directors. His awareness of pace, rhythm, movement, and music has made his musical films his best; in these more than in his dramatic pictures he has blended the cinematic elements into an excellent whole.

Mamoulian's first movie, Applause (1930), revealed a director who recognized the difference between stage and screen. In a day of readjustments, when the proper relation between the film and the microphone was being groped for consciously or, in many...

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Theodore Strauss

"Blood and Sand" [is] opulently Technicolored, resplendently caparisoned in the gold and pink brocades of Spain, and languid as midafternoon. Such a succession of sumptuously colored stills has not dazzled Broadway in quite a while. With infinite care Rouben Mamoulian, the director, has arranged his cast in striking tableaux; lovingly the camera eye lingers on burnished candelabra, El Greco altarpieces and rococo interiors of Spanish haciendas. In themselves they are good calendar art; as film drama they are … hopelessly static….

[There] is too little drama, too little blood and sand, in it. Instead the story constantly bogs down in the most atrocious romantic cliches, in an endless recital of...

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Dwight Macdonald

Mamoulian is a bright young Armenian. [His] productions are glib, imitative, chic, with a fake elegance, a pseudo-wit and a suggestion of Oriental greasiness. They are marked with that vulgarity which is continually straining for effect, which cannot express a simple thing simply. A Mamoulian production can be depended on to overstress the note, whether pitched to lyricism, melodrama, fantasy. Thus his City Streets, a gangster melodrama, is directed as heavily and pretentiously as if it were Greed or Sunrise. There are brooding shadows, shots of pigeons flying beyond prison bars (freedom—get it?), weird angle shots of sculpture. Thus, too, in Applause, a sentimental little backstage...

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Tom Milne

Open almost any history of the cinema or volume of criticism and the story is the same: high praise of [Mamoulian's] early films, total neglect of the later ones. Almost invariably, Mamoulian is valued chiefly as an innovator…. (p. 9)

Even Mamoulian himself seems to subscribe to the view that his films are important mainly because of their innovations and experiments. In interviews and in his comments made during personal appearances for a retrospective devoted to his work at the National Film Theatre in April 1968, he returns constantly to the same topics: the two separate sound channels mixed on a single track in Applause, the superimposition of Gary Cooper's voice over Sylvia Sidney's...

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Robin Wood

One of the most stimulating and valuable developments in recent film criticism has been the concern with ideology—particularly with the ideological content of Hollywood films, with the notion that the films are "determined" (or, at the very least, affected) at all levels by an ideology (definable roughly as "bourgeois Capitalist," but with specific inflections and emphases peculiar to America) so deeply entrenched as to be largely taken for granted, hence unnoticed and unchallenged, by filmmakers and audiences alike….

Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian's musical version of Ninotchka) offers itself as a convenient example precisely because its ideological project appears so clear,...

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