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The Strange Case of Rouben Mamoulian

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The Strange Case of Rouben Mamoulian

Rouben Mamoulian’s critical reputation as a filmmaker has always seesawed uncertainly. For years, he was lauded for the technical innovations of his first four films at Paramount, but in the sixties, Andrew Sarris downgraded Mamoulian to the dread “Less Than Meets The Eye” chapter in his auteur-labeling book The American Cinema. Around the same time, Tom Milne wrote a small, persuasive monograph in favor of the director, and Mamoulian has had several modern champions among critics: Mark Spergel, who wrote his own more critical book on Mamoulian in 1993, David Thomson, who has praised the sense of movement in his films, and Adrian Danks, who contributed an insightful, ambivalent great director entry on Mamoulian for Senses of Cinema. At Manhattan’s Film Forum, they are running a full festival of Mamoulian’s sixteen films, from September 7-18, as well as a documentary on his career, and such exposure should add to the debates over his work and overall merit.

Mamoulian was born to a cultured Armenian family in Tiflis, Georgia, and began directing for the theater in London and America when he was in his early twenties. He staged operas and operettas, mainly, with a few straight plays mixed in, but he was most noted for his direction of musicals, scoring big successes with the original productions of Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma! and Carousel. In his book, Milne suggested that all of Mamoulian’s films could be seen as musicals, and that’s a penetrating thought: the best sequences in his non-musical work, such as the fabulous sword-fight at the end of The Mark of Zorro (1940), or the transformation scene in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), are so stylized that they do seem like “numbers.” Surely the famous scene where Greta Garbo memorizes her room in Queen Christina (1933) is very much a dance, and the editing of the exciting Waterloo ball sequence in Becky Sharp (1935) has a logic and build that is musical. Danks rightly termed Mamoulian a “hybrid” artist, a synthesizer of forms not his own, and someone whose use of space was always inherently theatrical. The director stayed loyal to a few stylistic, visual and aural devices throughout his film career: slow dissolves, wipes, looming shadows on walls, shots of statues, and the idea of catchy music spreading from one person to another like a shared disease. Whether Mamoulian stayed loyal to any particular theme is another matter.

Most of Mamoulian’s female leads are unabashedly sexual, and Spergel noticed that some of his characters have drastically different private/public personas. However, like many potential threads in Mamoulian’s work, it’s difficult to follow any clear line of thought on these subjects. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to discover just who Rouben Mamoulian was and what he thought about life and people from looking at his films. To some, this might not be a grave fault. But it does leave most of his movies looking like cold fish, especially the first four “dazzling” ones he did at Paramount that made his reputation: Applause (1929), City Streets (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Love Me Tonight (1932). As I watched his films in order, I was surprised by how klunky and dated these first four were, in spite of their lauded spurts of invention. There seems to be a heavy pessimism underlying both Applause and Dr. Jekyll, whereas City Streets is a rather cheerful gangster film, and Love Me Tonight is the frothiest of musicals. Mamoulian has no real, consistent tone as an artist, which leaves us with a flashy, somewhat impenetrable body of work.

“My belief is that the camera should not be treated as a witness of things happening, but that it should be the main actor in a picture,” Mamoulian said. This belief, which he largely abandoned after his first four films, leads to some interesting confusion, especially when Mamoulian experiments with visual points of view. In Dr. Jekyll, Mamoulian manages, with some success, to put us inside his protagonist’s mind by using a subjective camera in the first sequence, and elsewhere; perhaps Mamoulian is seeking to implicate us in the doctor’s struggle between civilized and uncivilized impulses. But there are some later scenes in the film where Mamoulian’s subjective experiments falter, and we can only wonder, who is doing the looking here? Us? Dr. Jekyll? Mamoulian? The camera? It’s enough to make Hitchcock weep. In Dr. Jekyll, there’s a deep feeling of the pull towards self-destruction and violence in sexuality, but this insight is mitigated by ludicrous dialogue in the scenes where Jekyll pines for his fiancée, and the noticeable uncertainty of the constantly moving camera.

Applause is very much the best of this first four, and its experiments with realistic levels of sound are still radical. Mamoulian takes a hoary mother/daughter story and, with some inspired help from the tear-soaked, blowsy Helen Morgan, he fashions one of the few musicals to really capture a sense of chaos and suicidal despair. His camera here is ever on the go, inquisitive, searching things out, and what it finds is a vision of life as show business, a greedy maw that chews you up and spits you out. When Mamoulian pans to a photo of a young, pretty Morgan as her man insults her and throws her over, he has earned a real pathos far removed from the chilliness of his other films. City Streets is flamboyantly inventive with both sound and image, but its ordinary story is just a pretext for cinematic experiments (it’s easy to see that Mamoulian would have been entranced with the special effects of today). Love Me Tonight is widely beloved, a pastiche of Ernst Lubitsch musicals with a sumptuous Rodgers and Hart score. Some writers have judged it as better than Lubitsch, or as the film Lubitsch was always striving to make. These conclusions don’t hold up to even a cursory scrutiny of their respective work. Yes, Love Me Tonight is sexy fun, on the surface, but what is it about? Lubitsch had a distinct, melancholy way of looking at his people and their self-absorption, and this point of view holds all his work together. In Love Me Tonight, Mamoulian employs endless camera gimmicks (zooms, slow motion, etc.), but this is not the same as having a style, or even a touch.

After these four films, Mamoulian crafted star vehicles for three “exotic” women: Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Anna Sten. The Dietrich film, Song of Songs, is dull, a marking of time, and his adaptation of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, called We Live Again, is visually impressive, even a bit feelingful, but hampered by the hopeless playing of the hapless Sten. We should be grateful, though, for Mamoulian’s handling of Garbo in Queen Christina, especially for her epoch-defining last close-up, where he told her to make her face “a blank sheet of paper.” The scenes in between her set pieces, however, are either perfunctory or worse. Too often, Mamoulian presented us with a pretty, blank piece of paper, but when this paper is Greta Garbo, it’s hard to complain too strenuously.

Early commentators on Mamoulian noticed a rapid decline in his work around 1935, yet, seen from today’s perspective, his films of the mid-thirties to early forties represent his best, most confident inventions. The Gay Desperado (1936), a parody operetta, is pointless and dreary, and Rings on Her Fingers (1942) is an anonymous comedy in the Preston Sturges style. But Becky Sharp, the first film in three-strip Technicolor, is a masterly, condensed version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, boldly theatrical, livid with blues and yellows, refreshingly cynical, and with a perfectly cast Miriam Hopkins as the infamous Becky, a zesty social climber with no real feelings. Mamoulian’s Becky is free from Thackeray’s rote moralizing and escapes a Hays Code punishment; the director celebrates and even revels in Becky’s greed and appetite. Something about this vivid, comic material suits Mamoulian’s character perfectly, so that we get an all-too-fleeting glimpse of what seems to be an affinity for Becky’s loner-like wit; it reveals Mamoulian’s talent as a satirist and puppet master better than anything else he did. This remains the best version of the book, an antidote to Mira Nair’s recent travesty of Vanity Fair with a bewildered, sentimental Reese Witherspoon.

If Becky Sharp was a leap forward, the epic High, Wide and Handsome (1937) looks now like Mamoulian’s high-water mark as a film director. Mamoulian’s technique is very smooth in this film; there is continuous movement from shot to shot and no time for tricks or self-conscious tomfoolery. Irene Dunne’s irony matches well with Mamoulian’s formal, playful instincts, and he keeps all the disparate elements of this musical western in perfect balance. The casual handling of a great Jerome Kern score seems light years away from the clever hammering of Rodgers and Hart throughout Love Me Tonight; all the actors move as if they are dancing. If King Vidor had made a thirties musical, it would probably have been a lot like High, Wide and Handsome, with its emphasis on individualism and hard work battling against selfishness and hypocrisy in matters of business and sex. The set piece of Dunne’s wedding party splashed with erupting oil is a potent, dead-on vision of America, and the stirring climactic fight has some of the most impressive uses of crane shots in cinema history. If you only see one film in this Mamoulian series, make it High, Wide and Handsome, which is never shown on TV and isn’t on DVD (the other real rarity here is City Streets).

Mamoulian couldn’t muster much interest for his version of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (1939), but showed spasmodic attention to two Tyrone Power movies, The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand (1941). Zorro is bright and campy, with amusingly sexual jousting between Power and Basil Rathbone, while Blood and Sand features intriguing manipulations of color and almost looks like animation at times: Mamoulian chose a different painter to emulate for various scenes. But the director’s obvious thoughtfulness runs in the wrong direction. As we watch Blood and Sand, it’s clear that carefully recreated paintings do not a movie make; too many of Mamoulian’s flourishes feel unmotivated. There’s a shot in Golden Boy where Barbara Stanwyck’s head is framed in the crook of William Holden’s arm as he plays the violin, and there are a few shots of Power and Rita Hayworth in Blood and Sand where they are visually divided by a fountain. I suppose you could come up with some symbolic reason for these careful framings, but it really just boils down to a Homer Simpson-style, “Look…pretty.” And “Look…pretty,” just isn’t good enough, finally.

Mamoulian ended his career in movies with two musicals, Summer Holiday (1948), a musicalization of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, and Silk Stockings (1957), a musicalization of Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939). The earlier High, Wide and Handsome is quite straightforward in its left-wing ideas, so that it was right of Richard Roud to call it a “fusion of Brecht and Broadway.” Leftism was fashionable in the thirties; in 1948, when the country had shifted to the right, Mamoulian has no compunction about portraying Mickey Rooney’s schoolboy leftism in Summer Holiday as ridiculous. His view of the material is as impersonal as his politics: Mamoulian lets some of O’Neill’s darkness seep through in certain family scenes without ever making that darkness feel like his own. Summer Holiday suffers from its wholesome MGM look, but it remains worth seeing for Mamoulian’s lyrical staging of dance sequences in the outdoors, with couples whirling away on what looks like limitless expanses of grass. The music is handled in an original way, too; songs are treated as part of conversation, part of life. This method looks back to Love Me Tonight and High, Wide and Handsome and anticipates the cinema of Jacques Demy. The most improbable people sing in Mamoulian’s films, from C. Aubrey Smith to William Frawley to Agnes Moorehead. For Mamoulian, music is available to everyone.

Tom Milne argued that Silk Stockings was Mamoulian’s best film in his book on the director, and it has attracted some serious attention because of the extraordinary dance sequences with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. But whatever merit Silk Stockings has comes directly from these two great dancers. Mamoulian is stuck with a de-clawed script that blurs and ruins every one of the sure-fire jokes from Ninotchka, and he allows Janis Paige to overplay her highly expendable film star character. Frustratingly, we hear instrumental versions of classic Cole Porter songs, then go back to listening to the sub-par tunes he wrote for this show (the one good song is “All of You”). Most seriously, Mamoulian has absolutely no idea what to do with the Cinemascope frame. Amid big, sterile soundstages and oppressively ugly furniture, Mamoulian seems to have completely lost his eye for composition; the actors line up in a row, or cluster awkwardly around a chair or table, and the camera looks at lots of empty, unused space. The dances, though, are wonderful.

Rouben Mamoulian cannot be ignored. He gave us a way of dealing with music on film, various moments of joy and despair, infectiously flowing movements and lots of experiments with the cinematic medium. Too often, his experiments lead into dead ends or mistaken notions of what a film could, or should, be. At his worst, Mamoulian is like a singer with a big voice just showing off and not paying much attention to lyrics, the Sarah Vaughn of auteurs. His habitual dull scenes are like threadbare book scenes in musicals, but they can often be forgiven once the “number” starts, whether it’s a song, groups moving forward in landscape, Garbo’s “blank” face or Cyd Charisse communing with expensive Parisian lingerie. Mamoulian cannot be placed with the greatest directors, nor can he be relegated to the also-rans or the hacks. He occupies his own frustrating, small kingdom in film history, and there’s no question that his reputation will continue to fluctuate as more people grapple with his movies and with the enigma of the man himself.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.