Rouben Mamoulian

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Alberto Consiglio

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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 another direction, another zone of ideal interests. Has not Mamoulian himself shown this to be the case both in the Song of Songs and Dr. Jekyll? He certainly did not rise to any special heights in revivifying and remoulding the material of this ancient German romance [Song of Songs]; but in his reconstruction of the atmosphere and conditions of Imperial Germany he observed a quantity of minute details and showed a precise knowledge of the bombastic baroque style of the "fin di siècle". (p. 329)

In Dr. Jekyll …, Mamoulian's illustrative and suggestive talent is well revealed in seeking to overcome the repugnance evoked by the grossness of the central idea of the plot as shown by means of an art which is capable of the subtlest tricks and devices. If we recall the atmosphere of Hyde Park, the hall of the University, the prostitute's house and, in general, the early Victorian air of Stevenson's time, one recognizes all the signs of the decorative and documentary temperament in which the Armenian's originality shows itself. Even in Queen Cristina, within these narrow limits, a certain scrupulousness of construction is shown. In this film, Mamoulian is … bound to an actress with a certain "type"…. In addition, he chose or was given in default of a creative inspiration, an historical argument which called for a sense of responsibility, of which there is no trace in any aspect of Queen Cristina.

In Queen Cristina, one is struck by the poverty of the historical reconstruction, the utter lack of concern for truth or the significance of atmosphere. The intelligent wealth of detail manifest in the Song is forgotten if not banished. Did Mamoulian wish to return to the simple lines of the Streets of the City? If so, the comparison between the two pictures is appalling. Whilst the magnificent realism of the latter film results in a complete picture of modern life, the simplicity of Queen Cristina becomes the artificial lifelessness of the cardboard and plaster scenario of the old time historical drama.

This neglect of the structural elements of the film is certainly intentional. The scenario has been adapted and elaborated to throw into high relief the actress's personality and her interpretation of this historical personage…. Thus rather than criticizing a work by Mamoulian we have to analyse the complicity of the producer in a cinematographic hot-potch which is an offence to culture and art. Those who have the necessary experience should notice the first rapidly moving scenes which depict the death on the battlefield of Gustavus Adolphus. The lights, the atmosphere, the contrasting shadows, the gestures are happily reminiscent of the great Flemish painters of the 17th century. In this brief fragment the Mamoulian of the Song of Songs is easily recognised, and it is legitimate to imagine what he might and could have created in a reconstructive and documentary...

(This entire section contains 978 words.)

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way, if he had been given full liberty…. (pp. 330-32)

It would thus be useless to dwell long over a description of a Sweden conceived in a commonplace manner, illustrated by ordinary snow scenes, and with pictures of seventeenth century Swedes whom we recognise as such owing to their enormous jugs of beer, Spaniards who are Spaniards because they have olive complexions and throw about "a few carambas".

Yet even these clumsy effects to which must be added the dull neutral tone of the scenery cannot be dismissed in one word. If we study them from another point of view than that of cinematography, they assume a certain logic. In fact, the importance of the actress and her interpretation of the part, was of such moment that an unhesitating and unregretful return was made to a typical theatrical mentality. (p. 332)

Queen Cristina as an historical drama, has a worth not much different from an improvised commedia dell'arte. It is not enough to say that the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, as a physical being, has been obliged to help the Garbo. The unreasonable and unjustified falsification is carried to incredible extremes. The Garbo did not even give herself the trouble of altering her mannerisms or of showing any more intimate revelation of her art than that to which we have been accustomed for ten years. The life, passion, drama, the opposing forces in the Queen of Sweden are reduced to a miserable and feeble little play about a discontented, misunderstood lunatic of a woman, full of rhetoric and melancholy and the desperation usually attributed to the women of the North who are supposed to seduce the men of the South by their strangeness. (pp. 332, 334)

Leaving out of the case Queen Christina, what remains of Mamoulian's personality? His first famous picture was City Streets. This film belongs to that short list of works so full of clear modern poetry that they can be handled with the strictest technique.

But soon afterwards, in Doctor Jekyll, Love me Tonight and The Song of Songs, Mamoulian's personality is revealed in an ability to translate into cinematographic visions documents relative to a certain epoch. His principal source of inspiration lies in photographs, dagguereotypes, lithographs and the files of old illustrated papers. (p. 336)

Alberto Consiglio, "Rouben Mamoulian," in Intercine, Vol. 7, No. 6, June, 1935, pp. 328-36.


James Shelley Hamilton


Andre Sennwald