Rouben Mamoulian

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Dwight Macdonald

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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 tragedy, he put Helen Morgan through her extremely limited paces with all the solemnity due a Sarah Bernhardt. The trashy emotionalism of the story, which a more honest director would have restrained, Mamoulian plays up for all it is worth. His Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a cheaply sensational affair compared to the silent Barrymore version. The brutal exaggeration of Hyde's makeup, physically so much more revolting than Barrymore's, spiritually so much less so, is a typical Mamoulian touch.

To Mamoulian's other cinematic crimes must be added that of plagiarism. City Streets is almost pure Von Sternberg. And his latest film, Love Me Tonight, is a René Clair film plus some Lubitschisms and minus Clair's freshness, wit, and charm. To make up for Clair's wit, Mamoulian has gone in for bigness. His country house is an enormous castle in the most opulent Hollywood tradition, with swarms of aristocratic inmates, long lines of servants, acres of sparkling polished floors. There is not one comic old spinster—there are three, which of course makes it three times as amusing. (Mamoulian, by the way, has more of Cecil B. De Mille in him than his admirers suspect.) For Clair's freshness, Mamoulian substitutes a hectic experimentation with trick effects. Sometimes this is pleasing enough, as the use of slow motion in the hunting scene. But Mamoulian uses his tricks unintelligently, without taste. The shot of the horn-blowing huntsman, for example, taken from an Eisenstein angle, strikes a heroic note that is absurdly out of key in a musical comedy featuring Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. For Clair's casual charm Mamoulian can make no substitution. To be light and casual is simply not in him. (pp. 81-2)

Dwight Macdonald, "Notes on Hollywood Directors (as of 1933)," in his Dwight Macdonald on Movies (copyright © 1969 by Dwight Macdonald; reprinted by permission of the author), Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, pp. 75-106.∗

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