Rouben Mamoulian Francis Birrell

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Francis Birrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 of Mamoulian's mind. As a technician he seems to me equally admirable. Chaplin has an unequalled eye for comic likenesses in physical objects, such as an ice-pudding and a bald head in City Lights, as the bear and the man in the bearskin in The Gold Rush. Mamoulian has a similar skill for the unsuspected resemblance of objects in motion, above all for the noise they make. Sound is the terminus a quo of his art. He can really construct a "noisy." Notice the resemblance between the yapping of dogs and the yapping of old women, and the ocular correlation, based on sound, between the legs of horses and the wheels of trains. The opening of this film, which shows Paris waking up in the morning, is a pure study in noises. This film is the opposite of a talkie. For the noise dictates the speech, not the speech the noise. The noise also dictates the movement, of which the speed is never for long the same. He uses the sound as the basis of everything…. The characters on occasion address each other in verse, as if to emphasise the liberty that is allowed the camera-man. Even in the hunting scenes the stag cannot run with a natural motion. Its stylised jumps remind us that we are after all listening to a fairy tale, which might have been woven on the tapestries of the "Gothick North." For Mamoulian is a civilised man, who can smile, inhabiting a world, of which most of the denizens can only laugh.

If would be pleasant to see Mamoulian less tied to Hollywood, not always making bricks out of other people's bad straw…. With complete freedom he might do anything; for he is a man of genuine invention…. Take, for instance, that one moment in Dr. Jekyll, when Mr. Hyde after his first translation sniffs the storm as he comes out of his house. I do not believe that there is another man in the film industry who would have thought of this or of the too-languid bridge in Love Me To-night. (pp. 657-58)

Francis Birrell, "The Art of Mamoulian," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1932 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. IV, No. 92, November 26, 1932, pp. 657-58.