Rouben Mamoulian: Film History Series

Rouben Mamoulian, “Applause”, 1929, Pre-Code Early Sound Film, Screenplay Garrett Fort and Beth Brown, Cinematography George J. Folsey, Running Time 80 Minutes, Paramount Pictures. 

Born in October of 1897 at the Georgian city of Tiflis in the Russian Empire, Rouben Mamoulian was a theatrical and film director noted for his contributions to cinematic art at the beginning of the sound era. Escaping the Soviet regime, he fled to England and later immigrated to the United States where he established his film career. 

Born to an ethnic Armenian family, Rouben Mamoulian studied criminal law at the University of Moscow. Interested in theater, he trained at the Moscow Art Theatre under theatrical director Yevgeny Bagrationovich Vakhtangov who produced some of the most original and bold productions of Russian theater after the Revolution. In 1918, Mamoulian founded a drama studio in his hometown of Tiflis, now Tbilisi. In 1920, he toured with the Russian Repertory Company to England, where he stayed to study drama at the University of London. 

Mamoulian began directing English stage productions in 1922. In the following year, he immigrated to the United States and became, at George Eastman’s request, the director of the American Opera Company in Rochester, New York. From 1925 to 1926, Mamoulian was head of Eastman’s School of Dance and Dramatic Action. During the late 1920s, he taught drama and directed productions at New York City’s Theater Guild. Mamoulian established himself in theatrical circles with his all-black cast production of Dorothy and Dubose Heyward’s 1927 “Porgy”. He would later direct George Gershwin’s 1935 Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess”. 

Rouben Mamoulian, in addition to his theater work, directed Paramount Pictures’s 1929 early sound film “Applause” at their Astoria Studio in Queens, New York. For his film debut, he decided that stylization would be better than realism if done with flourish and skill. For the opening scene of this story, Mamoulian employed a roving camera in a soundproof booth that tracked along a desolate street before turning to follow the sound of a marching brass band. A cutaway in the film then transports the audience to a band practicing in a seedy theater.

In addition to defying the wisdom of a stationary camera, Mamoulian recorded the dialogue on separate microphones and combined them in post-production. He also employed sounds at the end of scenes that anticipated the action about to happen. In order to impose spatial depth, rhythm and momentum to the film, Mamooulian overlaid scenes with sounds of train doors opening, car horns blaring and people singing in the background. This innovation, seemingly simple by today’s standards, made a bold cinematic statement in 1929 when the sound era was just developing.

In 1931, Rouben Mamoulian  directed “City Streets” for Paramount. This pre-code gangster film was written by famed detective-mystery author Dashiell Hammett; it featured Sylvia Sidney and the rising star Gary Cooper as the carnival worker who falls in love with the racketeer’s daughter. In the same year, Mamoulian directed the first sound version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Considered by many critics as Mamoulian’s masterpiece, the film is known for Fredric March’s transformation between characters, made possible by Mamoulian’s innovative makeup and lighting effects. March was a winner, along with Wallace Beery in Vidor’s “The Champ”, for the Best Actor at the 1932 Academy Awards.

Mamoulian directed two more films for Paramount; the 1932 “Love Me Tonight”, one of the most accomplished of the early musicals due to his seamless blending of action and songs; and the 1933 “The Song of Songs”, a melodrama with Marlene Dietrich that was not well received by critics. Working now for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Mamoulian directed Greta Garbo in the 1933 biography “Queen Christina” and had great success with the 1935 “Becky Sharp”, an adaption of the novel “Vanity Fair”, which was the first feature released in Technicolor. After three more films with MGM that were not well received by the critics, Mamoulian took his talents to Twentieth-Century Fox. 

Rouben Mamoulian directed two distinguished films for his new studio: the 1940 swashbuckler “The Mark of Zorro” with great performances by Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone; and the 1941 “Blood and Sand”, a pageant of the rise and fall of a bullfighter which reunited Power and Darnell and also starred Rita Hayworth. After Otto Preminger secured the rights to Vera Caspary’s novel “Laura”, Darryl F. Zanuck approved Mamoulian to direct the film with Preminger as the producer. When problems developed between the cast and director, Mamoulian was fired and Preminger reshot all the footage. 

Through his career, Mamoulian felt strongly that a director should be given creative freedom; he was never tolerant of creative interference. Disillusioned with Hollywood, he returned to Broadway where he directed two major musical hits, the 1943 “Oklahoma!” and the 1945 “Carousel”. Mamoulian directed just two more films for MGM: “Summer Holiday” in 1948 and the 1957 musical “Silk Stockings”, which starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, featured music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Although he was scheduled to direct the 1958 film version of “Porgy and Bess”, the position of director was given to Preminger. In 1963, Mamoulian began shooting the 1963 epic “Cleopatra”; however, after six days of shooting, he was replaced with Joseph L. Mankiewicz. This was Mamoulian’s last involvement with a Hollywood film production.

Rouben Mamoulian was personally recruited in 1936 by the Directors Guild of America’s co-founder King Vidor to help organize fellow movie directors.  His strong allegiance to the Guild and unwillingness to compromise led to his being targeted in the 1950s Hollywood blacklisting. Mamoulian died of natural causes in December of 1987 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.

Note: Senses of Cinema, an online film site with interviews and extensive biographies of both actors and directors, has an interesting article on the 1929 “Applause”. Senses of Cinema can be found at:

Top Insert Image: Rouben Mamoulian, Self Portrait, circa 1939, Vintage Black and White Print, 20.3 x 25.4 cm, Private Collection

Second Insert Image: Rouben Mamoulian, “Myrna Loy”, 1932, “Love Me Tonight”, Cinematography Victor Milner, 104 Minutes, Paramount Pictures

Third Insert Image: Rouben Mamoulian, “Fredric March”, 1931, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Cinematography Karl Struss, 98 Minutes, Paramount Pictures

Fourth Insert Image: Rouben Mamoulian, “Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney”, 1931, “City Streets”, Cinematography Lee Garmes, 83 Minutes, Paramount Pictures

Bottom Insert Image: Rouben Mamoulian, “Tyrone Power”, 1940, “The Mask of Zorro”, Cinematography Arthur C. Miller, 94 Minutes, Twentieth-Century Fox

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