Rouben Mamoulian

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Lewis Jacobs

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1420

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 cases, unconsciously, Applause spoke in favor of camera mobility first, talk second. Audiences sat up and took notice; critics could not ignore the film's cinematic implications. Mamoulian's use of mobile sound was then novel: for instance, a chorus starting a song is left by the camera for a second scene, and the music continues through this second scene, being modulated so that a conversation can be heard above it. The camera moved freely, daringly, and even enthusiastically—sometimes, in fact, too much for the spectator's comfort.

One of the most effective moments in Applause comes when the lover of the fading burlesque queen tells her she is old, ugly, finished. The camera hovers for an instant over Miss Morgan's face, moves slowly to the framed picture of her in her lovely youth, and then comes back to her. The movement of the camera and the continuing bitter voice over it combine to intensify the effect enormously. (pp. 469-70)

In Applause Mamoulian endeavored to blend light, shadow, and sound imaginatively and dramatically, and whenever possible he introduced nature to heighten the mood. His love scenes were exquisitely lyrical, presaging those in all his later works. His young lovers on top of a skyscraper were played against the sky and the wind; later, in City Streets, his lovers were placed in a setting against the sea; many of his later films show them in the rain. Such scenes, stemming from his thorough knowledge of the stage, are indicative of Mamoulian's forethought and awareness of the dramatic elements at the disposal of a director.

Mamoulian's daring and perspicacity in moving the camera, while other directors' cameras were literally hand-tied, contributed much at the psychological moment to the mutual adaptation of sound and camera. Although Applause was a sensitive venture in the right direction, however, the lack of restraint in Mamoulian's use of the camera suggested immaturity, defective discrimination, a lack of understanding of filmic continuity. (p. 470)

Mamoulian's second undertaking, a melodramatic gangster film, City Streets …, displayed a firmer control of the medium. The film demonstrated Mamoulian's awareness of sound's possibilities and his intelligent application of the contributions of other directors (traits he has manifested ever since). In the episode where Sylvia Sidney is in jail, the audience hears in a sound flash-back a garbled repetition of her earlier conversation with her lover. The influence of Russian and German films is strongly evidenced in the symbolic use of inanimate objects to suggest or accent a character. Birds flying through the prison windows make the cell seem more confining than ever; the snuffing out of a match by a character just before he murders his rival portends the killing; the statues of cats in scenes of the jealous girl sharply point her characterization. Since City Streets such symbolism has become pronounced in Mamoulian's work. The cutting of this film on the whole showed a more balanced conception of the film medium.

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was a melodrama offering unusual opportunities:Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the silent films this story had already shown itself to be powerfully adaptable to the screen. Mamoulian brought to it his flair for the moving camera, eerie compositions, and unusual sound effects. His superior taste, feeling for mood, sense of the theatrical, and use of symbolism in this film were very pronounced, lifting the story well above the Frankenstein class if not into the class of the distinguished.

After these tries at melodramatic material, Mamoulian turned his hand to a musical film. He had directed opera and was well versed in sound accompaniments. Perhaps his outstanding merit as a film director, thus far, had been his intelligent and often original use of sound…. By [Love Me Tonight] a true appraisal of Mamoulian can be made, for it brings to light at its best his outstanding talent. In Applause that talent was suggested; in City Streets and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde it was approved; in Love Me Tonight it was acclaimed.

Love Me Tonight was in every way a delightful musical fantasy in real movie terms. So directly was it derived from René Clair and Lubitsch that had either of those names been affixed to the film no one would have been surprised: it was charming, fanciful, witty, sophisticated. The opening sequence, a symphonic montage of a city awakening; and the deer-hunt episode, a Disneyesque tour de force, were high-lights of a brilliant movie. Mamoulian has never equaled it; neither Lubitsch nor Clair ever surpassed it.

Having directed four pictures, of which at least three—City Streets, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Love Me Tonight—were accomplished works, Mamoulian subsequently made a series of films which, if they were the only ones to his credit, would hardly earn him a reputation. Song of Songs (1933) glorified Marlene Dietrich; Queen Christina, made the same year, starred Greta Garbo; and We Live Again (1934) attempted to put Anna Sten in their class. None of these pictures compared with his previous efforts.

In 1935 Mamoulian made his first color film, Becky Sharp, the first full-length dramatic photoplay done by the Technicolor process. That Mamoulian was selected to direct this initial Technicolor feature was a signal recognition of his position. As a film it followed close upon the static style of his previous two pictures; as a color experiment, it had many exciting moments that presaged a brilliant future for color in films. The most outstanding instance was the device of using color dramatically for an emotional overtone. In the scenes of the ball, the color is at first somber; then, as the roar of the cannons is heard, the color intensifies with the excitement of the dancers, until at last, as the officers rush off to battle, it is vivid scarlet. Although it was considered by André Sennwald as, "coloristically speaking, the most successful [film] that ever has reached the screen," its endless talk and tableaux weakened it.

In 1936 Mamoulian once again showed himself to be a distinctive director with another musical film, The Gay Desperado. Under no obligation to be serious, he had gone seriously to work to produce a clever, satirical, flowing film that would be exceptional and more original than Love Me Tonight. A gay and colorful comedy about Mexican outlaws who ape the slang and tactics of American gangsters, it was exactly the type of satirical fantasy at which he excels. (pp. 470-72)

Mamoulian's most recent film, High, Wide, and Handsome (1937), was a spectacular and lavishly produced show which, while it had many qualities typical of his best work, was as a whole a second-rate concoction…. [It] had conflicting aims in trying to present, at the same time, a social and industrial development [of the oil industry] and a spectacular operetta of "atmosphere and songs." The best parts of the picture were those showing the early Titusville oil drillings; the worst were those of the ensuing battle between the railroad crowd and the circus, which arrives like the marines at the last minute and, with the aid of elephants, gets the pipe line through. The lively subject matter of the film was never co-ordinated: it was operatic one moment, serious the next, and confused the third.

Mamoulian has resolved his technique into musical rhythm, just as von Sternberg has resolved his into pictorialism. He believes that anything can be put to music, and apparently he is intent upon proving it in his movies. When his philosophy coincides with his material, as in Love Me Tonight and The Gay Desperado, we get a good musical film; when it is forced upon dramatic material with undue and unnatural emphasis, as in High, Wide, and Handsome, the result is not so successful. (pp. 472-73)

Lewis Jacobs, "Contemporary Directors," in his The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History (copyright 1939 by Lewis Jacobs; reprinted by permission of the author), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1939, pp. 453-95.∗


Charles Davy


Theodore Strauss