One-Man Studio: The Stanford Stacks a Huge Rouben Mamoulian Retrospective

by Richard von Busack

When sound arrived in motion pictures, the new technology took a universally thrilling medium and paralyzed it. Early talkies were—surprise—talky. They were customarily shot from the POV of an immobile camera nailed down to the front row center seat at the stage.

Rouben Mamoulian. Credit: Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance.

Rouben Mamoulian. Credit: Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance.

Director Rouben Mamoulian, reminiscing to Andew Sarris in the late 1950s: “You have no idea how cumbersome sound and camera equipment was in the beginning. It was like walking around with a bungalow on your back. The camera had to be encased in a booth so that the whirring of the motor didn’t get on the sound track, and the sound technicians kept telling you that ‘mixing’ was impossible.” Mamoulian did his part to fix all of this, intuiting the possibilities of sound editing and reviving fluid camera work.

Mae West gets a kiss from Cary Grant in 1933's I'm No Angel .

Mae West gets a kiss from Cary Grant in 1933’s I’m No Angel .

A three-sided spring retrospective at the Stanford Theater in downtown Palo Alto began last week. One portion honors Cary Grant, charting him from his 1932 debut in This Is the Night to his gradual rise to become the most polished male comic actor of the interwar period … or ever, maybe. In nearly two dozen movies, he teams with co-stars as different as Katherine Hepburn and Mae West.LubitschBluebeardRouben2

The second part collects the films of Ernst Lubitsch, 1929-39. A man, let’s say Gary Cooper, goes into a department store and tries to buy just the bottom half of a set of pajamas. There, he meets a girl—why not Claudette Colbert—who only wants to buy the top half. It’s called a “meet-cute”; the example above is demonstrated in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938; May 20-21). Director/producer Lubitsch, pioneer of this method, excelled later in the holiday masterpiece The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be (the latter is ornamenting Hulu Plus currently). Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932; April 22-23) was unavailable for a long time, and while it was gone it gained a reputation as the perfect romantic comedy. Lubitsch thrived rather than sank under the demands of the Production Code, outwitting its dullness with inference, innuendo and ineffable charm.

But that’s another story. Mamoulian, subject of the third side of this retrospective, needs a larger reputation. He’s needed one since 1969, when his early defender Tom Milne wrote a still-worthwhile book about him (Rouben Mamoulian , published by University of Indiana Press). Mamoulian was considered—by Sarris among others—as an innovator who mastered a few technical triumphs and then lost his bearing after the war. He finished his career by being repeatedly fired. First he was fired off Laura ; Otto Preminger’s biographer Foster Hirsch claims that Mamoulian was letting the actors camp it up. Mamoulian was fired off the Liz and Dick Cleopatra . And he was also fired off of Porgy and Bess , which must have stung; Mamoulian had directed both the 1927 non-musical stage version and the Gershwin Broadway musical adapted from it.


Rouben Mamoulian directing Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in 1933’s Queen Christina .

Mamoulian came to the US at age 25. He was already a celebrated international theater director when he arrived (he was a second generation theater person; his mother was President of the Armenian Theater in Tiflis). At Paramount’s Astoria Studio, a subway ride away from Broadway, Mamoulian made his first movie Applause (1929), where he tried to heighten the camera’s “capacity of conveying truth though stylization and poetic rhythm.” Struck by the use of montage in Murnau’s The Last Laugh , Mamoulian was also conscious of the musical qualities of timing. In Queen Christina (1933; May 13-14) Garbo paces around a room, measuring it for the sake of her memories; in fact, she was acting with the help of a metronome.

The autographed back of Rouben Mamoulian's director's chair from 1929's Applause . Credit: Library of Congress/Rouben Mamoulian Papers.

The autographed back of Rouben Mamoulian’s director’s chair from 1929’s Applause . Credit: Library of Congress/Rouben Mamoulian Papers.

Applause , which began this retrospective, was an early musical about a doomed burlesque singer (Helen Morgan). Aiming for a contrast between the worlds of the tawdry and the sacred, Mamoulian mixed a whispered prayer and a song on the creaky early soundtrack by printing the tracks together. It had never been tried, and it worked, and, as he said later, “From then on, whatever Mamoulian said, went.”

Rouben5The director followed this mostly unseen film up with technical innovations: voice over in the 1931 City Streets , and split screen and subjective camera in his remarkable 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (April 1-2). The story, of course, is of a beast conjured by a good doctor (Frederic March) trying to purge himself of his animal side; it’s a kind of a love triangle with only one man, as the tuxedoed trog alter ego pursues a pre-code floozy (the kittenish Miriam Hopkins). How Mamoulian achieved the Jekyll-into-Hyde scenes was a secret. Milne suggests Mamoulian used a theatrical trick series of colored filters on the lights of this black and white film, so that the transformation from man to beast took place right on camera.

Rouben6Mamoulian was also an early proponent of color for mood; Becky Sharp (1935; April 29-30) was the first full-length Technicolor film, a speedy and pocket-sized adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Its highlight is a famous scene about a ball on the eve of Waterloo, where the whirl of pastel ball gowns is gradually eclipsed by the gathering of red-coated officers. And when shooting 85 feet across a sound stage to end in a closeup of Garbo on Queen Christina , Mamoulian devised a glass slide over the lens that could change the diffusions without physically changing the lenses.

Rouben7The 11 films at the Stanford series suggest Mamoulian was almost a studio in himself. There may not be any other director/producer of the studio age—barring maybe Michael Curtiz—who had such a varied record of costume pictures. This spring’s Mamoulian retrospective includes settings as different as Victorian London, medieval Sweden, an imaginary duchy, Wilhemine Berlin, Tolstoy’s Russia, early 20th century Mexico, and western Pennsylvania in the early days of oil prospecting—the last is the rarity High, Wide and Handsome (1937; May 20-21) with songs by Hammerstein and Kern.


Maurice Chevalier takes Myrna Loy’s measurements in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 Love Me Tonight .

Rouben9Maurice Chevalier and a satin-wrapped Jeanette Macdonald were an appealing, even chemical pair. She’s a different creature than she was in later team-ups with Nelson Eddy at MGM, a duo their former scriptwriter S. J. Perelman characterized as “The Iron Butterfly and the Singing Capon.” Mamoulian’s Chevalier film Love  Me Tonight (1932; April 8-9) is the richest slice of cake on this menu—more fun than even the Parisian arch-rogue’s films with Lubitsch, The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour With You Love  Me Tonights sublime qualities include Mamoulian’s use of music as a connection between varied classes of people, with Rogers and Hart numbers such as “Mimi” and “Isn’t It Romantic?” passing between figures like a summer breeze. It’s a mistaken identity comedy, with Chevalier as a tailor with a bill to collect; the tailor is believed to be a baron…and in what’s like a proto-Preston Sturges version of Sleeping Beauty , the imposter brings life to the stodgy palace of the Duke. The young Myrna Loy adds spice to incidents that wouldn’t be out of place in a Marx Brothers movie. (“Could you go for a doctor?” she’s asked. “Certainly! Bring him right in!”)

So Mamoulian mastered the mode that made Lubitsch famous. He’d also done a gangster film, City Streets (1931; Mar 25-26) a Dashiell Hammett-derived story of double crosses in a criminal gang. A shooting gallery attendant (Gary Cooper) meets a girl (Sylvia Sidney) at work and gets drawn into a gang of bootleggers. The visual symbolism is weighty, with pounding surf and soaring eagles of freedom, but it’s not hardboiled. Milne compares it to Von Sternberg’s Underworld , since the sacrificial romance is up front. “They should have paid me by the tear,” Sylvia Sidney said later about her days as a movie star, but the power of this pistol-like actress as a tragedian can be seen here as elsewhere. Oriental makeup, understandably a deal breaker for many of today’s viewers, can’t leech the power of Sidney when she co-stars with Cary Grant in a non-singing Madame Butterfly (1932, April 17-19) directed by Marion Gering.

Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone cross swords in 1940's The Mark of Zorro .

Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone cross swords in 1940’s The Mark of Zorro .

The fest wraps with The Mark of Zorro (1940, May 22-24), in which Mamoulian’s rhythm and graphic fist is supreme. The setting is California, plagued, then as now, by misrule and bloodsucking landlords.The black-clad hero is silhouetted against white-hot daylight, waking a village from its siesta with his horse’s hoofbeats; catlike, Tyrone Power’s Zorro illuminates a dim room with his glowing eyes. The movie was hard on fans of the Douglas Fairbanks Sr. original, who wondered why this new version was so measured and deliberate. In fact, the film is coiled like a rattler, leading to the vicious sword fight with Basil Rathbone in an authentically small colonial California dining room. “If you don’t have slow, you don’t have a show,” as Barry White said. Masquerading as a listless blueblood, Don Diego prefers to take it easy in the sub-tropical climate— inhaling snuff, sashaying around, sweetening up the delightfully perverse Gale Sondregaard with reminiscences of the fabric bazaars of Spain.

Rouben11 The version is romance first (with Linda Darnell) and fighting second, but the heat, dust and sudden lethality are tangible in Mamoulian’s montages, as is a dark-blooded vein of revenge underneath. In some versions of the origin story, The Mark of Zorro was the last picture Dr. Thomas and Martha Wayne and their son saw before that unfortunate incident. As per the old joke about Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theater: except for that part, young Bruce Wayne liked the movie.

Mamoulian worked for another 20 years after this adventure. His last credited film is the 1957 Silk Stockings , which gave Mamoulian the technical challenge of working with widescreen; the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse musical includes a song titled “Stereophonic Sound” mocking the problem of wall-to-wall aspect ratios. Silk Stockings is a Cole Porter musical remake of Lubitsch’s own Ninotchka , which is double-billed on the May 22-24 screening of The Mark of Zorro , a movie that proves Mamoulian was as adroit with leather as he was with lingerie.


Through May 31. Stanford Theatre, 221 University Ave, Palo Alto. (650) 324-3700.

Horizontal RuleRichardvonBusackRichard von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose’s Metro Newspapers. He’s the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and  He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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