Rouben Mamoulian: From Tbilisi to Tinseltown

There is much to savor about the work of stage and screen director Rouben Mamoulian (1897-1987). Though Mamoulian directed fewer than a dozen and a half Hollywood films, several are classics or important for other reasons. Several of his stage productions are equally notable or otherwise historic. I am a special fan of the degree to which most of his movies maintain a connection to the theatre and/or the early days of silents. If he had not been fired from his last couple of pictures that would have continued to have been true even longer.

Mamoulian was an ethnic Armenian from Tbilisi, Georgia. He went to Moscow to study law, and there became involved with the Moscow Art Theatre. Mamoulian was 20 at the time of the Russian Revolution. His father was a banker; his mother a stage director. Obviously, the U.S.S.R. was not hospitable to either free enterprise or free expression, so Mamoulian made his way west. By 1923, he was teaching drama at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where he soon became head of the department. In 1926, he collaborated with Martha Graham (who taught dance there) on a film called The Flute of Krishna.

In 1927, a crucial turning point. Mamoulian directed the original Broadway production of Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy. It was a project he was to be associated with for over two decades. He also directed a 1929 Broadway revival, as well as the original production of George Gerhswin’s 1935 jazz-operatic versiopn Porgy and Bess. In 1959 Mamoulian was hired to direct a screen version of the show, but fired over differences with the producers (not for the first or last time).

His next Broadway project was the original production of Eugene O’Neil’s Marco Millions (1928). He also directed a 1930 revival.

In 1929, while continuing to direct for Broadway, Mamoulian also helmed his first film, the backstage musical Applause, starring Helen Morgan as a burlesque star. It was shot at Warner Brothers Astoria Studios in Queens, allowing him to remain based in New York.

In 1930 he directed the original stage adaptations of two novels: Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Mamoulian’s second Hollywood film was the gangster story City Streets (1931), written by Dashiell Hammett, featuring Gary Cooper as a carnival shooting gallery attendant who gets involved with a dame (Sylvia Sidney) who ends up getting involved with a racket run by her father (Guy Kibbee). This was followed that same year with what is probably his best remembered film, the Fredric March version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, prized for March’s incredible performance, the incredible first-person opening tracking shot, and the influential special effects innovation of showing his transformation from Jeckyll to Hyde ON CAMERA, accomplished with colored make-ups and tinted lenses. This was followed by Love Me Tonight (1932) a musical comedy in the Lubitsch mold (with songs by Rodgers and Hart) starring Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charles Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, Myrna Loy, C. Aubrey Smith, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Greig, and Bert Roach. Then came the Marlene Dietrich vehicle Song of Songs (1933) with Brian Aherne, Lionel Atwill, and Alison Skipworth. Then another of his well-remembered classics, the bio-pic Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Lewis Stone, and Reginald Owen. We Live Again (1933), with March, was based on a Tolstoy novel.

Mamoulian’s next notable film was Becky Sharp (1935), the first movie shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor. (Lowell Sherman was the original director on the project, but he died a couple of weeks into shooting). It was based on Langdon Mitchell’s 1899 stage adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which had originally starred Minnie Maddern Fisk. Mamoulian’s briskly moving and brief adaptation stars Miriam Hopkins and also features Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke, Billie Burke, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, and Alison Skipworth. The Gay Desperado (1936) was an original comedy produced by Mary Pickford and Jesse Lasky, starring Ida Lupino and Leo Carrillo. Then came the musical High, Wide and Handsome (written by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern) starring Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Dorothy Lamour, Raymond Walburn, Charles Bickford, Akim Tamiroff, Ben Blue, William Frawley, Alan Hale Sr, Irving Pichel, Roger Imhof, and Lucien Littlefield.

In 1939, another landmark, the screen version of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, with William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck — a realistic outing more in line with Mamoulian’s Stanislavskian origins than the stylized musical mileiu he later became known for. This was followed by two swashbucking epics starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, both nods to the silent movie days of Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino: The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941). The screwball comedy Rings on Her Fingers (1942) with Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney followed. Directly afterward Mamoulian was hired to direct the noir classic Laura, but clashed with producer Otto Preminger who fired him and directed the picture himself. It was Preminger who would also later fire Mamoulian from Porgy and Bess. This episode ended Mamoulian’s first Hollywood period.

Be that as it may, Hollywood’s loss ended up being Broadway’s gain. Mamoulian then went on to direct the original productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1946); as well as Sadie Thompson (1945), a musical version of Somerset Maugham’s Rain which had been adapted for the screen many times under both titles; and St. Louis Woman (1946) with turnes by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and featuring the Nicholas Brothers, Pearl Bailey, and Rex Ingram.

MGM enticed him back to Hollywood to direct Summer Holiday (1948), a musical version of O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! starring Mickey Rooney, Gloria deHaven, Walter Huston, Frank Morgan, Agnes Moorehead, Marilyn Maxwell, and Anne Francis. Mamoulian’s innovative approach in shooting the picture kept audiences away at the time, but ironically have ensured its timeliness and it has many fans today. He then returned to Broadway to direct several more plays, the most important of which was the original production of Lost in the Stars (1949). In 1952 he directed additional scenes ordered by David O. Selsnick for The Wild Heart, the American version of Powell-Pressburger’s Gone to Earth, starring Jennifer Jones. He returned to MGM to direct the 1957 screen version of Silk Stockings, the musical adaptation of Ninotchka, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. This was Mamoulian’s last completed Hollywood film.

In 1963, Mamoulian was hired to direct the legendary monster of a film Cleopatra but was fired early on when he started to wildly over budget and was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who famously did the same. This or the previously mentioned Porgy and Bess would have been a perfect not for mamoulian to ring out his career on. Mamoulian was 66 at this stage, the end of his career. He was 90 at the time of his death.

Think of the range! Stage plays, musicals, horror, crime stories, comedies, action films, historical epics. Also, it is very fun to say his name.