A noted director of several famous Broadway productions, Rouben Mamoulian translated his sense for the theatrical to film and quickly became known for his innovative use of the camera, sound and color even in an age when black-and-white film was the standard. Guided by a strong creative instinct, informed intelligence, and a staunch independence that often clashed with the staid Hollywood studio system, Mamoulian emphasized stylization over naturalism in such early works as "City Streets" (1931) and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931), perhaps his greatest film. Though many of his titles were not always the most widely remembered, Mamoulian directed some of the biggest stars of the day - Marlene Dietrich in "Song of Songs" (1933), Garbo in "Queen Christina" (1933), William Holden in "Golden Boy" (1939) and Tyrone Power in "The Mark of Zorro" (1940) - the last widely considered to be the best of the Zorro films. But once his contract with 20th Century Fox ended with the completion of "Blood and Sand" (1941) and "Rings on Her Fingers" (1942), Mamoulian ran afoul of the studios and his producers, being fired from more films - "Laura" (1944), "Porgy and Bess" (1959) and "Cleopatra" (1963) - than he would make for the rest of his career. A victim of his strong independent nature, Mamoulian faded into retirement, but did leave behind a mark as a fierce innovator who brought a sense of theatricality to every film.
Rouben Mamoulian was born on Oct. 8, 1897 in Tbilisi, Georgia - which was then ruled by imperial Russia - and raised by his cultured Armenian parents, Zachary, a bank president, and Virginia, a theater director. He would go on to obtain a degree in criminal law from Moscow University, but at night he studied at the Moscow Art Theatre under Eugene Vakhtangov, a disciple of famed theater director Constantin Stanislavski. He founded a drama studio in Tiflis in 1918 and later toured England with the Russian Repertory Theatre. In 1920, Mamoulian moved to London, where he attended both King's College at the University of Cambridge and the University of London. Two years later, he began directing plays and had a hit with a West End production of "The Beating on the Door," which led Russian-born stage director Vladimir Rosing to bring him to Rochester, NY in 1923, where he worked at the Eastman School of Music while directing opera and theater. At the time, as he was continuing to direct for the stage, Mamoulian began experimenting with film and directed his first short in 1925, though it would be a few more years until his first feature.
In 1926, Mamoulian began teaching and directing at the Theatre Guild and soon started his Broadway career with the highly successful "Porgy" (1927), a vivid production with an all-black cast. Two years later, Paramount Pictures invited him to direct his first feature, "Applause," at its studio in Astoria, NY. In the very early, awkward days of sound films, Mamoulian managed to liberate the camera from its sound-proof booth and also introduce the use of dual mikes and soundtracks, techniques which elevated this rather clichéd story of a fading burlesque queen (Helen Morgan) and her innocent daughter (Joan Peers). He went on to direct his first gangster film, "City Streets" (1931), which starred Gary Cooper as a racketeer who chose a life of crime over the love of his life (Sylvia Sidney), leading, of course, to his eventual downfall. An enthusiastic experimenter with technique, Mamoulian used the camera to great effect with "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931), arguably his greatest film. Starring Fredric March as the dualistic scientist whose thirst for knowledge leads to self destruction, the classic movie was striking in its use of subjective camera - the mystifying transformation of March was shown in one continuous shot - and marked an early triumph for Mamoulian.
After directing the witty and inventive musical "Love Me Tonight" (1932), featuring the music of Rodgers and Hart, Mamoulian guided Marlene Dietrich through the romantic drama "Song of Songs" (1933) and Greta Garbo in "Queen Christina" (1933), an historical drama about the 17th century Swedish queen that was noted for its final, sustained close-up of an expressionless Garbo designed for audiences to project their own feelings onto her face. Mamoulian's inventiveness took a new turn with his direction of the spirited Miriam Hopkins in the first three-color Technicolor feature, "Becky Sharp" (1935), in which he used color for dramatic rather than decorative effect. Back to the stage, he staged the premiere of George Gershwin's famed opera "Porgy and Bess" (1935), which depicted African-American life in 1920s North Carolina. Following the musical lampoon of gangster films, "The Gay Desperado" (1936), starring Ida Lupino, he directed the musical Western, "High, Wide and Handsome" (1937), which featured Irene Dunne as a traveling circus performer who winds up marrying an oil baron (Randolph Scott). He went on to helm "Golden Boy" (1939), which starred a young William Holden as an up-and-coming boxer, and "The Mark of Zorro" (1940) with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, widely considered to the best of the Zorro films and one of Power's greatest films.
Paired yet again with 20th Century Fox's biggest male star, Tyrone Power, Mamoulian again used color in an original way, with images styled after paintings by the Spanish masters, for "Blood and Sand" (1941), a sizzling romantic melodrama about a rising bullfighter (Power) who finds himself torn between his pious, faithful wife (Linda Darnell) and the tempestuous Doña Sol (Rita Hayworth). Following the lighthearted romantic comedy, "Rings on Her Fingers" (1942), a failed attempt to capitalize on the success of Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" (1941), Mamoulian ended a three-picture contract with Fox and went on to struggle to find another home. He was the original director on "Laura" (1944), a film that was taken over by Otto Preminger and has since become a classic film noir. Initially Preminger was only supposed to produce because he had routinely clashed with Fox studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck. Mamoulian was hired and went about ignoring much of Preminger's input, rewriting the script and pushing his desire to hire Laird Cregar as the villain. Preminger wanted Clifton Webb instead and won, leading Mamoulian to express his resentment by effectively ignoring the actor. After seeing early footage, both Preminger and Zanuck agreed to fire Mamoulian and cast him adrift.
Mamoulian continued to make interesting films, but his independent nature did not always mix well with the restrictive Hollywood studio system. He did, however, continue his distinguished career on Broadway, directing the original productions of "Oklahoma!" (1943), "Carousel" (1945) and "Lost in the Stars" (1949). But Mamoulian would only make two more completed films, "Summer Holiday" (1948), a musical version of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" starring Mickey Rooney, and "Silk Stockings" (1957), a lesser but fairly stylish musical remake of "Ninotchka" featuring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. He helmed a few scenes for "The Wild Heart" (1952) - a British film mostly directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as "Gone to Earth" - and was the original director of "Porgy and Bess" (1959), starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, only to once again be replaced early into filming by Otto Preminger. In hindsight an act of mercy, he was also fired from "Cleopatra" (1963), one of the greatest box office disasters in cinema history. In effect, that marked the true end of Mamoulian's film career. During his later years, he adapted several plays, wrote a children's book, Abigayil (1964), and a drama textbook, Hamlet Revised and Interpreted (1965). Mamoulian settled into retirement, emerging only to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America in 1982. Five years later, on Dec. 4, 1987, Mamoulian died of natural causes. He was 90 years old.
By Shawn Dwyer