A complete retrospective of Hollywood director Rouben Mamoulian (1897–1987), one of cinema’s greatest stylists and innovators, will run at New York City’s Film Forum from Friday, Sept. 7, through Tuesday, Sept. 18.
As per the Film Forum’s press release, Mamoulian was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, to an Armenian family. He worked at the Moscow Art Theater while attending university, and, following a chance meeting with industrialist/philanthropist George Eastman (founder of the Kodak film company) he moved to Rochester, New York, to direct plays.
Shortly thereafter he was on Broadway, directing Dorothy and Dubose Heyward’s Porgy, which became the basis for George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a musical that Mamoulian would also direct. [See Porgy and Bess musical screening in New York City.]
That initial success bought him a ticket to Hollywood, where movies were rapidly being converted to sound. Mamoulian was one of the many talents from the stage who headed West at the time; he was also one of the relatively few who actually had a long and successful career in motion pictures.
One good reason for Mamoulian’s Hollywood success was his eye for detail, whether visual or dramatic. And certainly, the fact that he turned out to be a remarkably inventive filmmaker was no hindrance. Mamoulian may have come from the stage, but almost invariably his movies were anything but stagy.
In those days when cameras (and cameramen) were stuck in soundproof booths – so the camera noise wouldn’t be picked up by the all-powerful microphone – Mamoulian had his camera moving about the set, e.g., following a newspaper floating in the wind in his first film, Applause, released in 1929. (Additionally, Mamoulian recorded sound on multiple tracks, a novelty at the time.) He and Ernst Lubitsch (with his The Love Parade, released that same year) proved that talking pictures didn’t have to be static.
The Film Forum press release lists other Mamoulian experiments, including “his use of dramatic ellipses, make-up changes effected within the shot, artificially generated sound tracks, city sounds orchestrated into melody, songs spread across multiple soloists and time and space; and even in his later, underrated musicals, expressionistic use of lens changes and color distortion.”
Among the highlights of one of the most remarkable – and most underappreciated – film careers of the 20th century are:
Love Me Tonight (1932), a Pre-Code musical – read: risqué, saucy, outrageous, witty, delightful – starring a surprisingly tolerable Maurice Chevalier, and the infinitely more appealing Jeanette MacDonald. Someone – can’t remember who it was – said that Love Me Tonight (where city sounds become city songs and melodious ditties travel through time and space) was the “Lubitsch film that Lubitsch was always trying to pull off but never quite did.”
I beg to differ, as I find Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow a superb risqué musical, but Love Me Tonight is an epoch-making one, partly because of its songs (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart), partly because of its dialogue (screenplay adaptation by Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young, and George Marion, Jr., from Leopold Marchand and Paul Armont’s play Tailor in the Château).
Despite the all-around talent, Myrna Loy nearly steals the show as a nymphomaniac who will gladly go for schoolboys if there aren’t any adult men available. Shocking? For some, perhaps – then and now. (Though I’m sure that most of the schoolboys would have been thrilled.) In fact, Love Me Tonight is the sort of deliciously subversive film that puritanitrified Hollywood would stop making not long thereafter.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is another Mamoulian classic: an edgy, sensual, atmospheric, and incredibly modern adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story. As a plus, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an impressive effort in terms of cinematic technique. (Mamoulian’s eye for detail, however, was a little blurry one day; there’s a moment in which one can spot the crew reflected on a glass door.) And the film boasts what may well be Miriam Hopkinss’ best performance of the 1930s. Fredric March won the Oscar that year (the film’s special effects and make-up departments surely helped March’s win), but Hopkins was the cast member who actually deserved the statuette. (I should add that March shared his Oscar with Wallace Beery for The Champ; the first and only time that has happened in the best actor category.) Rose Hobart, later a victim of the anti-Red hysteria of the 1950s, plays the sweet young thing in the film. Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath were credited for the literate screenplay adaptation.
City Streets (1931) is one of the best – and, like much of Mamoulian’s work, least appreciated – gangster films of the 1930s. Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney deliver two of the best performances of that period, and so does the invariably smooth Paul Lukas in a supporting role. Like many of Mamoulian’s old films, City Streets displays a surprising modern sensibility – in fact, this 76-year-old movie is more impressive both technically and thematically than recent Oscar-winning fluff like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Dashiell Hammett penned the original story. (According to the Film Forum release, City Streets is Hammett’s only work written directly for the screen.)
The Mark of Zorro (1940) is by far the best of all Zorro films I’ve seen. With the assistance of adaptors Garrett Fort and Bess Meredyth, and of cinematographer Arthur Miller’s lenses, Mamoulian flawlessly balances action, romance, and social commentary. Tyrone Power was never as handsome, as charming, or as natural as he is in this film; Basil Rathbone is a great villain (and so are Gale Sondergaard and J. Edward Bromberg), while a stunning-looking Linda Darnell, all veils and pious señorita looks, is at her demure best. (Though, admittedly, I much prefer the spicier Darnell of My Darling Clementine.)
Blood and Sand (1941) is hardly one of Mamoulian’s best dramatic efforts, but it remains one of the director’s most visually striking films. Mamoulian had directed in color before – after all, his Becky Sharp (1935) was the first three-strip Technicolor feature film ever released – but the Blood and Sand palette looks particularly impressive. (Mamoulian reportedly had cinematographers Ernest Palmer and color specialist Ray Rennahan – who had collaborated with the director on Becky Sharp – try to replicate the works of Goya and El Greco.) Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell (demure once again), and a marvelously seductive Rita Hayworth star.
Queen Christina (1933) is Mamoulian’s and Greta Garbo’s best film. The fictitious tale of the somewhat androgynous Swedish queen who decides to abdicate after falling in love with a Spanish envoy (silent screen superstar John Gilbert), Queen Christina offers some of the most beautiful and most dramatic moments ever captured on screen. Garbo, hardly the most subtle of actresses, delivers a heartfelt – and sexually ambiguous – performance that is as heartbreaking as it is understated. The film’s final sequence, as the camera slowly approaches Garbo/Christina for a final close-up, remains one of the most haunting ever committed to film. Mamoulian supposedly told the actress, “Think nothing.” In that “nothing” is everything.
Rouben Mamoulian: The Golden Age of Broadway and Hollywood (screening Sept. 11, 17 and 18), a new documentary by French filmmaker Patrick Cazals, explores the director’s Broadway and Hollywood careers, with archival footage including a “fascinating interview with the then-octogenarian Mamoulian.”
The Rouben Mamoulian film series has been programmed by Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s director of repertory programming.
Full schedule from the Film Forum website:
SEPTEMBER 7/8 FRI/SAT (2 FILMS FOR 1 ADMISSION)
LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932) Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Myrna Loy. 1:00, 4:40, 8:20
DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (1932) Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins. 2:50, 6:30, 10:10
SEPTEMBER 9/10 SUN/MON (2 FILMS FOR 1 ADMISSION)
BLOOD AND SAND (left, 1941) New 35mm Restoration! Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, Laird Cregar. Sun 3:20, 7:30 Mon 3:20
THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone, Linda Darnell. Sun 1:30, 5:40, 9:50 Mon 1:30, 5:40
SEPTEMBER 11 TUE (3 FILMS FOR 1 ADMISSION)
APPLAUSE (1929) Helen Morgan, Joan Peers. 2:35, 7:00
CITY STREETS (1931) Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas. 1:00, 5:25, 9:50
ROUBEN MAMOULIAN: The Golden Age of Broadway and Hollywood (2006, Patrick Cazals) 4:10, 8:35
SEPTEMBER 12 WED (2 FILMS FOR 1 ADMISSION)
GOLDEN BOY (above, 1939) William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee J. Cobb, Adolphe Menjou. 1:00, 4:35, 8:10
RINGS ON HER FINGERS (1942) Gene Tierney, Henry Fonda, Spring Byington, Laird Cregar. 2:55, 6:30, 10:05
SEPTEMBER 13 THU (2 FILMS FOR 1 ADMISSION)
SEPTEMBER 14/15 FRI/SAT (2 FILMS FOR 1 ADMISSION)
QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) Greta Garbo, John Gilbert. 2:45, 6:25, 10:05
THE SONG OF SONGS (right, 1933) Marlene Dietrich, Brian Aherne, Lionel Atwill. 1:00, 4:40, 8:20
SEPTEMBER 16 SUN (2 FILMS FOR 1 ADMISSION)
SILK STOCKINGS (1957) Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Janis Paige, Peter Lorre. 3:30, 7:35
SUMMER HOLIDAY (1948) Mickey Rooney, Walter Huston, Frank Morgan, Agnes Moorehead, Gloria DeHaven. 1:40, 5:45, 9:50
SEPTEMBER 17/18 MON/TUE (3 FILMS FOR 1 ADMISSION)
BECKY SHARP (1935) Miriam Hopkins, Cedric Hardwicke, Frances Dee. Mon 3:50, 8:15 Tue 3:50
WE LIVE AGAIN (1934) Fredric March, Anna Sten. Mon 1:00, 5:25, 9:50 Tue 1:00, 5:25
ROUBEN MAMOULIAN: The Golden Age of Broadway and Hollywood Mon 2:35, 7:00 Tue 2:35