Rouben Mamoulian Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.)