Rouben Mamoulian

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Tom Milne

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Open almost any history of the cinema or volume of criticism and the story is the same: high praise of [Mamoulian's] early films, total neglect of the later ones. Almost invariably, Mamoulian is valued chiefly as an innovator…. (p. 9)

Even Mamoulian himself seems to subscribe to the view that his films are important mainly because of their innovations and experiments. In interviews and in his comments made during personal appearances for a retrospective devoted to his work at the National Film Theatre in April 1968, he returns constantly to the same topics: the two separate sound channels mixed on a single track in Applause, the superimposition of Gary Cooper's voice over Sylvia Sidney's face in City Streets, the thunderous explosion accompanying the shattering of a vase in Love Me Tonight, the gradual suffusion of red over the screen during the Waterloo sequence in Becky Sharp. These technical advances, like the dramatic highlights which also recur in Mamoulian's reminiscences—the bedroom-stroking scene in Queen Christina, the transformations in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—are undoubtedly important; but not to the exclusion of the films themselves, considered as a coherent, developing whole.

The purpose of this monograph is therefore dissent. And I take as my basic text a quotation from Mamoulian when he was describing the famous 'symphony of noises' which illustrated the awakening of Catfish Row in his 1927 production of Porgy, and which he later incorporated into Love Me Tonight: 'In direction and staging, I used my favourite principle of integrating all theatrical elements into one stylised rhythmic pattern.' (pp. 9, 12)

[Mamoulian took] to cinema like a duck to water … with Applause, bringing to it an impeccable control of that essential element of moving pictures: movement. No wonder the Mamoulian trade-mark, making its appearance somewhere or other in each of his films, is that most graceful of all creatures, the cat. Movement to Mamoulian is like a brush-stroke to a painter: the delicate, infinitely variable factor which can bring life to a still life, beauty to a human face, emotion to a landscape, transforming dross into gold. A rose is a rose until Renoir paints it. The Mark of Zorro is just another historical romance until Mamoulian films it. (p. 13)

[One] is almost tempted to say that every Mamoulian film is a musical. It isn't true, of course, but with every action and every line of dialogue conceived in terms of stylised rhythm—choreographed rather than directed—it feels as though it were. The Mark of Zorro, for instance, opens with an effortless sequence, no more than a dozen brief shots, in which two rows of cadets going through their paces on horseback at the military academy in Madrid suddenly become, just for a moment, dancers in an elegant quadrille…. Even in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as Jekyll sits absorbed in playing the organ at the beginning of the film and is interrupted by his butler entering to remind him of his lecture, the dreamy repetition of the butler's name ('What is it, Poole?… So it is, Poole, so it is…. You know, Poole, you're a nuisance…. All right, Poole, all right') makes a perfectly ordinary conversation echo like the introduction to a Rodgers and Hart song. (pp. 13-14)

Even as early as 1932, with Love Me Tonight, Mamoulian's camera was so adept at simulating dance and musical rhythms round the characters that when they do break into song and dance, there is virtually no perceptible transition. By 1957 and Silk Stockings , his inimitable method of...

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conjuring action, dialogue, songs and dances out of one magical, all-purpose hat, and expressing plot, emotion and meaning as freely by one as by the other, was one of consummate mastery. (pp. 14-15)

[In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde], Mamoulian again tackled a popular genre, and his first and only venture into the world of horror remains by far the best of all the various adaptations of Stevenson's novella. One might perhaps argue that John Barrymore in 1920, or Jean-Louis Barrault in Renoir's Testament du Docteur Cordelier, had outdone Fredric March; but no one has come within miles of equalling the film's marvellous chiaroscuro vision of Stevenson's London as a fog-laden, gaslit warren of glistening streets, towering stairways and shabby dens, haunted by the shadow of Mr Hyde, alternately bestially small or towering like a giant, as he prowls with black cloak swirling like a matador's cape.

To anyone inured to Hollywood's long tradition of discreet evasion, the first thing that strikes one about Mamoulian's Jekyll and Hyde is its unequivocal sexual basis. Stevenson, of course, made no bones about the fact that Hyde indulged the unmentionable lusts that Jekyll only dreamed about, and the various adaptations have all seized on the point to explore Hyde's pleasures with varying degrees of gusto and frankness. But this version … is alone in openly tracing the cause of Jekyll's troubles to the frustration by society of his own perfectly natural, unorgiastic desires. (p. 39)

Jekyll reveals a curious moral confusion, illustrating Mamoulian's remark (interview with Jean Douchet and Bertrand Tavernier in Positif) that what interested him in Stevenson's story was not so much the conflict between Good and Evil, but between Nature and Civilisation. This subtle but important distinction is charted at the end of the conversation with Lanyon, when the latter, acknowledging the existence of man's baser instincts, urges the ostrich morality: 'We have to accept certain things.' Angrily, Jekyll retorts, 'I don't want to accept them. I want to be clean, not only in my conduct, but in my innermost thoughts and desires. And there's only one way to do it…. Separate the two natures in us.' (p. 41)

Mamoulian begins Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with the celebrated sequence seen from Jekyll's point of view, opening with a shot of organ pipes as a Bach fugue peals out, panning down to a close-up of hands on the keyboard, and remaining stubbornly subjective—sheet music on the organ, butler entering to remind him of his lecture, his reflection in the hall mirror as he puts on his hat and cloak, climbing into a carriage, arriving at the university—until he enters the lecture room, when the camera pans round in a 360° arc and, on the first word of his lecture, 'Gentlemen …' cuts to the back of the auditorium for the first objective view of Jekyll himself. Many interpretations and justifications have been offered for this sequence, all valid…. Mamoulian himself has said that he wanted to draw the audience into Jekyll's brain, to create an experience in which—as with the transformations—'the audience does not see him—they are him'. But it is also, and perhaps most importantly, a subtle introduction to the Nature-Civilisation theme, with its unmistakable progression from moonstruck joyousness to straitlaced sobriety. At the outset, Jekyll's behaviour, the music, his inconsequential banter with Poole, are the paean of joy of a man in love; but from the moment he is glimpsed in the mirror, the celebrated Dr Jekyll arrayed for the public eye, the mood changes, constables and doormen bow obeisance, and the soundtrack rings with obsequious phrases…. (p. 45)

In any adaptation of Stevenson's story, the transformation scene is inescapable: the audience is sitting waiting for the moment when handsome Jekyll will be metamorphosed into the deformed and diabolical Hyde, and Mamoulian plays the game brilliantly. To this day he has refused to reveal the secret of how the transformations were achieved in front of the camera, but it is not difficult to guess that they were done with coloured filters, changed to reveal different layers of make-up, and given a hallucinatory sense of actually happening before our eyes by the extraordinary soundtrack. Our first glimpse of the completed transformation as Hyde stares at himself in the mirror, panting 'Free! Free at last!' or holds his face exultantly up to the rain on his first venture out, is of a devil incarnate. But the real chill of horror in the film comes at the end, after Jekyll's visit of farewell to Muriel. Unable to bear the thought of never seeing her again, he stands staring at her in the darkness outside the french windows, and a shot of his hands reveals that he is changing into the familiar, dwarfish figure of Hyde. Instead, the dark, cloaked figure at the window swells in stature, proud and erect, not Hyde but a Luciferian Jekyll.

Structurally, thematically and psychologically, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is masterly, and superbly executed in Karl Struss's velvety, glowing camerawork. Here and there the tone falters—in the slightly overwrought transformation scenes (more Stevenson's fault than Mamoulian's) or in the scene where Jekyll reveals his secret to Lanyon, with the latter towering over him like a judge behind his desk in a sudden reversion to the heady expressionism of the earlier films. (p. 49)

For [Love Me Tonight], Rodgers and Hart wrote nine numbers, so brilliantly integrated into the witty script that they are all but inseparable from it; and Mamoulian at last had something which would permit him to 'combine all the elements of movement, dancing, acting, music, singing, décor, lighting' (though not yet colour). The result was one of the most enchanting musicals ever made, the Lubitsch film that Lubitsch was always trying to pull off but never quite did.

Mamoulian's critics have always tended to dismiss Love Me Tonight as a pallid imitation of Lubitsch and Clair. It is possible that there was an influence, though in the case of Clair it seems to be limited to a shot or two of Paris streets and rooftops, and of Lubitsch, to the general air of sophistication and the presence of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, his ineffable stars from The Love Parade. If so, Mamoulian in any case left his masters far behind. Dialogue exchanges like Charlie Ruggles's 'Can you go for a doctor?' and Myrna Loy's lightning 'Certainly, bring him right in!'; stylistic tricks like the sudden cut into slow motion as the castle settles down for yet another exciting evening of bridge; sounds like the extraordinary whimper, neither human nor yet quite canine, made by the three old aunts at moments of stress; all are handled by Mamoulian with a deft, airy legerdemain which makes the famed Lubitsch touch fall like a dull thud. (pp. 51, 53)

[High, Wide and Handsome] is the most persistently underrated of all Mamoulian's films: a sort of musical Western which anticipates the serene and summery blend of fairytale, fact and fantasy of such post-war Renoir films as French Cancan and Eléna et les hommes.

The story, an original by Oscar Hammerstein II, concerns the true history of the discovery of the Pennsylvania oilfields in 1859, and the epic struggle waged by the poor farmer-prospectors against the railroad freight tycoons who resorted to every means in their power, financial and physical, to prevent the completion of the pipelines which would bring oil to every home in America. Hammerstein, it seems, wrote a gay and fluffy musical comedy; Mamoulian rewrote it with him, putting its feet back on the ground with a good deal of accurate background detail. The result, as Richard Roud has said (National Film Theatre programme note), is 'an extraordinary fusion of Brecht and Broadway'.

Not that High, Wide and Handsome is particularly didactic in intent, but it does very effectively follow Brecht's principle outlined in the Little Organum for the Theatre: 'As we cannot invite the public to fling itself into the story as if it were a river, and let itself be swept vaguely to and fro, the individual events have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily seen. The events must not succeed one another indistinguishably but must give us a chance to interpose our judgment.' On the one hand, there is the basically realistic treatment of the historical facts: the prospectors toiling to build the pipelines clear across the state through snow and forest and over mountains to the refineries; the chicanery of rising freight prices countered by farmers contributing their life savings; the gangs of mercenaries sent out to terrorise the builders and destroy their work. On the other, the rustic never-never village of Titusville, with its rose-covered cottages and dainty farmyards where hero and heroine conduct their idyllic romance. Knotting the two together, such splendid alienation effects as the pastoral wedding in which the guests parading in their gingham and frockcoat finery are showered by sprays of gushing oil, or the magnificent ride to the rescue of an entire circus troupe just as the heroes, within sight of success as they hoist the last pipes up a sheer mountain rock-face, are attacked by the villains brandishing whips and pickaxes. (pp. 106, 108)

To analyse the film in these terms, of course, is to be hopelessly ponderous about it—Mamoulian was not trying to make a Brechtian analysis of the human condition along the lines of The Caucasian Chalk Circle or The Good Woman of Setzuan—and I have done so simply because the attitude is so widespread that in High, Wide and Handsome he wrecked a good historical Western by getting frivolous about it, or alternatively, wrecked a good musical by getting too serious about it. The truth is that he has simply instilled a little reality and a little human feeling into the artificial world of the musical. (p. 110)

Mamoulian's second encounter with colour was almost as fruitful as his first. With its elegantly swirling capes and statuesque groupings, its rich romantic aura of love in the moonlight and death in the afternoon, and its superb colour effects setting the dusty ochres of the arena scenes against the glowing blues and crimsons of the costumes and interiors, Blood and Sand all but brings off the tricky task of dominating the melodrama inherent in Ibanez's story of a matador's progress from rags to riches and retribution. Only at the end does the plot begin to pile up and get out of hand. (p. 128)

Mamoulian has described how many sequences in the film were deliberately styled after certain painters. For instance, Murillo bronzes, browns and blacks for Juan's poverty-stricken childhood; Goya, of course, for the bullring; Velazquez for Doña Sol's mansion (in essential flavour rather than detail: Velazquez as the master of light and shadow, of the richness of court life); El Greco for the matador's chapel; fourteenth-century primitives for the death of Nacional (because he is a primitive); sixteenth-century Venetians for Juan's dressing-room, with the luxurious colour and bustling movement of Titian and Veronese in the ceremonial robing of Juan; Sorolla for the street and market scenes; and so on.

To anyone not particularly well versed in the history of art, most of these derivations will probably pass unnoticed; but not the reasons, emotional and visual, for their adoption. After the long childhood sequence, dominated by the drab browns and blacks of poverty, the first splash of colour comes with the shock of a window opening on a new world. Juan and his boyhood friends, having run away to Madrid to learn the art of the ring, are returning ten years later as fully fledged bullfighters. On the train taking them home they talk, and someone addresses a question to Juan, lying stretched out on the seat. He lowers his newspaper, and behind his head is a folded cape making a nimbus of brilliant, dazzling crimson. A symbol of his glory as a matador, the colour is soon to be appropriated by Doña Sol …, the free-loving society lady first seen striking a discordant note amid the soft blues and greens of the El Greco chapel as she sets her sights on Juan … while he prays before entering the ring. (pp. 128, 130)

Counterpointing these illusory splendours, a motif of soft, romantic purity centering on Carmen, the patient Grizelda who is lent a touch of Juliet by being the object of two balcony serenades: the first as a child, when young Juan arrives by moonlight to announce his departure to Madrid, and makes an undignified exit by falling off the creeper which has carried him to her window; and the second when he arrives with a full orchestra to announce his return. Heralded twice by the moonlight, generally dressed in downy white with gentle mantillas softening the contours of her face, Carmen is as much an illusion as the glittering Doña Sol. Briefly, in her shortlived happiness with Juan, in her visit (dressed in unrelenting black) to plead her cause with Doña Sol, she becomes a woman. For the rest she is a wraith, haunting Juan's imagination as a dream of love, and haunting the ethereally tormented El Greco chapel where he faces his fears and finally meets his death.

If these twin motifs had been allowed to have the field to themselves, Blood and Sand might have been a masterpiece to match Becky Sharp. Unfortunately they are backed—or, rather, undermined—by several others, some good, some bad. The worst is the note of heavy foreboding introduced by Juan's mother,… a mater dolorosa, usually seen on her knees gloomily scrubbing floors and for ever embarking on prophecies of doom as she recalls how she has seen it all before when Juan's father fell from fame to fear, and finally death. There is also the rather too pat circular construction, which has a matador named Garabato … riding the crest of the wave during Juan's boyhood; when Juan returns from Madrid, he is accosted by a beggar who turns out to be the same Garabato, and gives him a job as his dresser; and the circle is completed when Curro and Doña Sol, after Juan's fatal goring, grow ecstatic over the new and rising star of his rival, Manolo de Palma…. (p. 132)

With all of these dooms piling up—not to mention the sister and brother-in-law who batten on his earnings like vultures, and the numerous creditors who are more heard of than seen or felt—it is scarcely surprising that the film begins to founder. Nevertheless, for more than half its length, Blood and Sand is Mamoulian at his best, flowing easily along from the characteristic opening: a close-up of a poster, pan down, past a bull's head on the wall to a palliasse where young Juan lies sleepless, a sword on a cushion by his side. (pp. 132-33)

Despite the mounting melodrama of the second half, leading to the inevitable goring of Juan and his death, Blood and Sand remains so intelligently designed that the basic motifs still work to a climax…. Mamoulian holds back the full emblazonment of Doña Sol till the moment of her betrayal in the café where she abandons Juan for Manolo's rising star. While Juan glowers, Manolo asks her to dance: 'I'd love to,' she answers, and throws off her shawl to reveal for the first time the full glory of her crimson evening gown. Returning to the chapel before his last corrida, Juan is haunted once more by the vision incarnate of Carmen, who hovers faithfully in the shadows to pray for him. And the last shot, as Manolo stands in the ring to acknowledge the roar of the crowd, is a slow pan across the arena, past a bouquet of trampled roses, to rest on a dull stain spreading in the sand. (p. 134)

[Nineteen forty-seven] was the annus mirabilis which brought both The Pirate and Summer Holiday, each perfect in its own way, and sharing a common denominator in that neither used song and dance as decoration, but rather as part of the basic narrative structure.

Summer Holiday, indeed, uses both even more radically, with the irresistible gaiety of its songs, polkas and hayride dances forming a bedrock for the basic concept of Ah, Wilderness!, the Eugene O'Neill play on which it is based. Ah, Wilderness! is the exception to the rule of towering tragedy in O'Neill's work, a tender, nostalgic comedy in which he recalled (semi-autobiographically) and gently satirised the growing pains of adolescence. 'My purpose,' he wrote, 'was to write a play true to the spirit of the American large small-town at the turn of the century. Its quality depended upon atmosphere, sentiment, an exact evocation of the mood of a dead past.' He did so, of course, through dialogue and characterisation. Yet he was also strongly aware of the evocative power of popular music…. Nothing, in fact, could be more quintessentially O'Neill—who always had to labour so hard for his atmosphere amid a plethora of adjectives and exclamation-marks—than the 'Weary Blues' sung in the film by Marilyn Maxwell as the saloon girl who gives young Richard Miller his first taste of sin: with its age-old, yearning lament for hope and disillusionment, it almost sums up the whole of Anna Christie. (pp. 139-40)

The advantage Mamoulian has over O'Neill is that he can show the world of nostalgia instead of merely suggesting it: the radiantly green lawns which are inseparable from summer and young love not as they were but as they are remembered; the rows of ideally clean, bright and hopeful faces at the Graduation Day ceremony; the little street tidy and expectant with its rows of flags awaiting Independence Day. Oddly enough the film is least successful in one brief sequence where it attempts to re-create too faithfully in a series of tableaux vivants based on famous paintings by Grant Wood ('Daughters of the American Revolution'), Thomas Benton and John Curry; most successful when creating a pure Utopia of endless summer days, green grass, flowing meadows and simple pleasures in an untroubled land of peace and plenty. (pp. 142-43)

One of the complaints frequently laid against Summer Holiday is that it robs O'Neill's play of much of its warmth and genuine feeling by allowing Mickey Rooney to play the part of Richard Miller, the rebellious and impossibly arty adolescent, chiefly for farce. Actually, his cheerfully strident interpretation of the role as a minimal variant on Andy Hardy works remarkably well, despite the anachronism of his enthusiasms for Swinburne, Omar Khayyám and Carlyle's French Revolution, and despite the fact that he seems hardly likely to develop into the writer-poet envisaged by O'Neill. The yearning arrogance of adolescence, after all, doesn't change all that much from generation to generation; and with so much built-in sentiment present in the settings, songs and dances, his stridency is probably useful as a door-stop to prevent the film from succumbing to the ever-present danger attendant upon nostalgia: sentimentality.

The criticism, in any case, seems to miss the point of the film. Unlike Meet Me in St Louis, Summer Holiday is not simply a tender evocation of family life from a gentler, more leisurely age. It is an attempt to pin down that moment which comes in everyone's life when one sees things from a new perspective: you realise that your schooldays probably were the happiest days of your life even though you hated every moment of them; or that you loved your family even though you couldn't wait to leave home; or that the world is a marvellous place even if it seems to have no use for you. (pp. 143, 145)

Beautifully shot by Charles Schoenbaum in warm, soft colours, Summer Holiday equals Love Me Tonight in the mastery with which rhymed dialogue, songs and leisurely action are swept up by Mamoulian's cutting into one dynamic overall rhythm. It is with some surprise that one realises in examining the film in detail that, despite some admirable steps created by Charles Walters, there are really no formal dance numbers in the film at all. Mamoulian needs neither dances nor dancers to create choreography; but when he did finally use them, ten years later in Silk Stockings, the result was arguably his greatest film. (p. 146)

To draw comparisons between Silk Stockings and Ninotchka is as fruitless an occupation as complaining that Kiss Me Kate isn't The Taming of the Shrew, or, for that matter, that Summer Holiday isn't Ah! Wilderness. Much more to the point is the way in which Mamoulian has improved on the stage version by giving it an emotional depth in line with the original.

Broadly speaking, the stage musical follows the plot of the Lubitsch film fairly closely. Ninotchka still comes to Paris to discipline three defecting envoys, and she still falls in love with her decadent Western charmer. (pp. 147-48)

Mamoulian, while remaining very faithful to the stage version, made several important changes because, as he put it (interview with Douchet and Tavernier in Positif), 'I had two of the best dancers in the world, and what interested me was to give greater importance to the dancing than to the action proper, which was merely a repeat of Ninotchka. The psychological and dramatic development existed only in the dances. It was by dancing that the characters became aware of something or other….' (p. 149)

In the stage version, when Ninotchka subsequently appears in her new, secretly acquired finery and Canfield sings his appreciation in 'Silk Stockings', it is little more than a neat capping of the earlier joke when Ninotchka, gazing at a window display of lingerie and adapting Garbo's line about the hat, exclaimed in prim disgust, 'How can such a civilisation survive which permits women to wear things like these?' In the film, it is much more. We watch Ninotchka dressing for her date with Canfield, and her slow, dreamy dance as she casts away her old clothes and lovingly draws out her silk stockings, ear-rings, filmy underwear and high heels one by one from their secret hiding-places all over the apartment, is as much an affirmation of love as the bedroom-stroking sequence in Queen Christina on which it is obviously patterned. And the finality of the gesture with which, once dressed and radiant in her silks and satins, she tosses her old black stockings away on to a chair, is curiously reminiscent in its self-abandonment of the moment when Christina slips off her doublet and waits for Antonio to acknowledge her femininity. (p. 151)

Quite apart from its use of dance to narrate the progress of the love story, Silk Stockings is so rich in invention that it gives the lie even more forcefully than The Mark of Zorro, Blood and Sand or Summer Holiday to the myth of Mamoulian's decline. Right from the opening his inimitable touch is evident in the series of foot-level shots which tracks Canfield from his room across a corridor, into a lift, pause to stare at a pair of pretty female feet, out of the hotel, into a taxi, and up the stage-door steps to the theatre where Boroff, just finishing a concert and having received a telegram summoning him back to Moscow, divides his time between threatening to commit suicide and dashing back on stage to keep the applause up to scratch. From there on, with some of Cole Porter's best numbers impeccably staged and looking as though they had been poured into the story, we are unquestionably watching a Mamoulian film. The ease with which he slips in and out of dialogue sequences and into musical numbers without any perceptible faltering in rhythm is incredible, as is the constant invention he brings to the action. (p. 158)

Above all, with its generous allowance of thirteen musical numbers, ranging from the enchanting 'Paris Loves Lovers' to the brassy 'Satin and Silk', Silk Stockings is enormously cheerful and cheering. And as Ninotchka gloomily puts it, 'Nobody can be so happy without being punished.' This, to date, is Mamoulian's last film. Perhaps, one day, critics, historians and those who write about the cinema will at last realise that it is one of the great musicals. (pp. 159-60)

Tom Milne, in his Rouben Mamoulian (copyright © Tom Milne 1969; reprinted by permission of Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd), Thames and Hudson, 1969, 176 p.


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