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Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen

David Luhrssen
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    An Armenian national raised in Russia, Rouben Mamoulian (1897--1987) studied in the influential Stanislavski studio, renowned as the source of the "method" acting technique. Shortly after immigrating to New York in 1926, he created a sensation with an all-black production of Porgy (1927). He then went on to direct the debut Broadway productions of three of the most popular shows in the history of American musical theater:Porgy and Bess(1935),Oklahoma!(1943), andCarousel(1945). Mamoulian began working in film just as the sound revolution was dramatically changing the technical capabilities of the medium, and he quickly established himself as an innovator. Not only did many of his unusual camera techniques become standard, but he also invented a device that eliminated the background noises created by cameras and dollies. Seen as a rebel earlier in his career, Mamoulian gradually gained respect in Hollywood, and the Directors Guild of America awarded him the prestigious D. W. Griffith Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1983.

    In this meticulously researched biography, David Luhrssen paints the influential director as a socially conscious artist who sought to successfully combine art and commercial entertainment. Luhrssen not only reveals the fascinating personal story of an important yet neglected figure, but he also offers a tantalizing glimpse into the extraordinarily vibrant American film and theater industries during the twenties, thirties, and forties.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4119-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction: Forgotten Innovator
    (pp. 1-6)

    Rouben Mamoulian is one of the twentieth century’s most important overlooked cultural figures. His bicoastal life as a director in Hollywood and on Broadway was highly unusual and led to a roster of influential accomplishments in film and theater, yet historians in both fields usually mention him only in passing. While several of his films are familiar to fans of classic Hollywood movies from the 1930s through the 1950s, Mamoulian’s name is seldom associated in popular memory withDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Queen Christina,andThe Mark of Zorro. Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!andCarouselare among the most...

  4. Chapter 1 Caucasian Youth
    (pp. 7-16)

    Rouben Mamoulian was born at the edge of the earth, in the heart of Eurasia at the seam where continents meet. His birthplace, Tiflis, was a cosmopolitan outpost on the lawless frontier between East and West. Mamoulian grew up in a city where men and women wearing the latest European fashions mingled in the outdoor markets with mountain folk clad in kaftans, where fruit vendors sang couplets as they made their rounds and musicians with wooden flutes serenaded passersby on the streets. On any given day Tiflis welcomed merchants from Paris and Constantinople, commercial agents from Calcutta and Madras, and...

  5. Chapter 2 From West End to Rochester
    (pp. 17-28)

    With the Russian civil war and the Bolshevik victory, many Russian subjects, including intellectuals and artists of all sorts, found themselves in exile from their homeland. Some were stranded in Manchuria; others established flourishing communities in Prague, Paris, and Berlin. With his sister already living in London, one of the world’s great centers for theater, the British capital was an obvious choice for a young man of his ambitions, yet he claimed no political or professional motives. “I did not flee. I simply went to visit my sister,” he later insisted.¹

    By the time he arrived on New Year’s Eve,...

  6. Chapter 3 Young Lion of Broadway
    (pp. 29-42)

    The Armory Show of 1913 had an incalculable effect on all the arts in the United States, but nowhere more than in New York City. The first significant American exhibition of postimpressionist painters such as Picasso, Duchamp, and Matisse stimulated the imagination of intellectuals and artists who were fascinated by the emergence of modernism in Europe. They were excited by the prospect of spreading the new art in America, a provincial backwater to those who defined culture exclusively in the terms of fine arts. “Little magazines” sprang up to promote modern aesthetics in poetry and prose and “little theaters” mounted...

  7. Chapter 4 The Sound of Applause
    (pp. 43-50)

    By the time Mamoulian immigrated to the West, movies were no longer the flickering, largely stage-bound productions of cinema’s earliest years. The grammar of filmmaking was largely in place by then through the innovations of D. W. Griffith and other directors who had mastered multiple camera positions, parallel editing, continuity cutting, and special effects to create a new medium of entertainment—perhaps even a new art form—that represented the world in ways impossible for literature, theater, and the plastic arts. By 1920 the silent film had achieved a sophistication of expression that would soon be threatened by the advent...

  8. Chapter 5 Hollywood: The Breakthrough Years
    (pp. 51-66)

    Mamoulian could have continued working without interruption on Broadway for many years if he had so chosen. No less an authority than theNew York Timesdubbed him “part of the Theatre Guild’s collection of Very Bright Young Men.” However, his fascination with filmmaking had been kindled and Paramount was willing to give him another chance. As early as August, theTimesannounced that Mamoulian “will supervise another production for Paramount in the fall. Claudette Colbert will probably have the leading role.”¹ As it happened, the director did not depart New York for Los Angeles until late that year, however,...

  9. Chapter 6 Queen Garbo
    (pp. 67-80)

    Mamoulian’s work with Marlene Dietrich inSong of Songsled to his next assignment, directing Greta Garbo inQueen Christina.Dietrich and Garbo were probably among the most whispered-about stars in Hollywood’s European expatriate colony. Both were thought to enjoy sophisticated vices unsuspected by the American public. Both tended toward trousers and masculine garb at a time when clothing was strictly segregated by gender. Suspected of enjoying the intimate company of both men and women, Dietrich and Garbo forced the studio publicists to work overtime to deflect rumors in an era when homosexuality was considered criminal and career ending.


  10. Chapter 7 I Loves You, Porgy
    (pp. 81-90)

    Rouben Mamoulian was not everyone’s first choice to direct the Theatre Guild’s premiere of George Gershwin’s operaPorgy and Bess.Despite the success ofPorgyand his relatively smooth working relationship with Mamoulian, DuBose Heyward decided that the original play was “not my idea of good art.”¹ He preferred a relatively new face in theater fresh from directing the Virgil Thompson–Gertrude Stein operaFour Saints in Three Acts,John Houseman, years away from his career as a Hollywood producer. Gershwin “had heard that I worked well with Negroes in the theatre,” Houseman recalled and invited the director to his...

  11. Chapter 8 Golden Boy
    (pp. 91-104)

    On the night of December 23, 1935, director King Vidor summoned a handful of prominent colleagues to his Beverly Hills home to discuss their concerns. Probably the rumor of a pay cut for all studio employees was as worrisome as the recent edict at Paramount ordering its directors to accept any picture offered them or lose their contracts.

    By January 16, Mamoulian had joined some forty other directors at the Hollywood Athletic Club to form the Screen Directors Guild. Vidor was elected president and Mamoulian was named to the board of directors. The founders followed the steps of the Screen...

  12. Chapter 9 Lost in the Stars
    (pp. 105-122)

    Mamoulian refused all requests to work for the Theatre Guild during his busy Hollywood years of the late 1930s and early 1940s.¹ Lacking an interesting movie project afterRings on Her Fingers,however, he returned to New York in the early months of 1943 to direct the Guild’s premiere of one of the most important, enduring shows to emerge from Broadway, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’sOklahoma!

    WithOklahoma!Rodgers and Hammerstein transmuted the raw material of American musical comedy into a musical theater whose song-driven stories played with larger themes and were inhabited by characters that cast a psychological...

  13. Chapter 10 Summer Holiday
    (pp. 123-154)

    In betweenOklahoma!andCarousel,in the midst of his greatest commercial successes on Broadway, Mamoulian returned to 20th Century Fox in the spring of 1944 to direct a movie based on a popular contemporary novel. The film,Laura,would become a classic of Hollywood’s golden age, an exemplary work among the nascent and still-unnamed genre French critics would later callfilm noir.Mamoulian was fired during the early weeks of production, and while his standing in Hollywood seemed unaffected at first, with hindsight he had reached a watershed. AfterLaura,Mamoulian completed only two movies during what would become...

  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 155-156)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 157-180)
  16. Index
    (pp. 181-192)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-200)