Rouben Mamoulian

Directorial Visionary Rouben Mamoulian Highlighted on Eve of 125th Anniversary


BELMONT, Mass. — It is interesting to note that some of the most influential American artistic figures of Armenian descent have been controversial in the eyes of the critics. Writer William Saroyan won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1940s before being critically panned in the 1950s and consigned to the dustbin of history by all but Armenians. Modernist orchestral composer Alan Hovhaness was criticized by the much more renowned fellow modernists Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein but recognized as a genius by other listeners. And Rouben Mamoulian, despite being the director of some of most influential motion pictures in Hollywood’s 1930s-1940s Golden Age, and some of the most influential American stage musicals of Broadway’s simultaneous Golden Age, was best known in later years by one critic’s summary as “an innovator who ran out of innovations.”

Dr. Milena Oganesyan, a researcher who hails from Mamoulian’s hometown, Tbilisi (Tiflis), Georgia, aims to change that assessment. She says that Mamoulian has not been appreciated as much as he should be for his film and stage artistry, and that his Armenian cultural background has not been understood by the critics either.

The 125th anniversary of Mamoulian’s birth is coming up next year, and in honor of that fact, various cultural organizations have been planning a look back at his career. One of the first was a lecture by Oganesyan, sponsored by NAASR on October 8, which took place via Zoom on October 8. Cosponsoring organizations were the Ararat-Eskijian Museum and the Armenian Film Foundation, both of Los Angeles.

Rouben Mamoulian

Aside from the fact that Mamoulian made his career in Hollywood, both of the LA organizations have further connections to the man. This was highlighted by Maggie Goschin of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum, which is on the grounds of the Ararat Home, an Armenian assisted living facility. Goschin related that Mamoulian’s mother spent her last days at the facility, which also was home to Mamoulian family artifacts. As for the Armenian Film Foundation, Mamoulian is listed as a Founding Honorary Member and was a friend of founder J. Michael Hagopian.

Tiflis Roots

As Oganesyan related in her lecture, Mamoulian was an Armenian-American artist whose connection to his roots was no stretch. After all, he was an immigrant born in Tsarist-era Tiflis, the capital of the Caucasus Viceroyalty of the Russian Empire, which had jurisdiction over present-day Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, as well as the North Caucasus. At the time, 36 percent of the population of the city of Tiflis was Armenian. The city was dominated by Armenian bourgeois business interests, and even the mayor from 1910-1917 — Alexander Khatisian — was Armenian; he later served as a prime ministers during the First Republic of Armenia.

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Tiflis was also home to a strong Armenian cultural scene, especially known for the theater, which became even stronger with an influx of Armenian actors and theater artists from Constantinople after the Turkish government shut down Armenian theatrical performances in the late 1800s. Mamoulian’s parents, especially his mother, were very active in the Armenian theatre scene and the young Rouben was raised in this tradition as well, while also being sent to school in France and Russia. It was from the Armenian stages of Tiflis, as well as the Russian theatrical world where he was partially educated, that Rouben learned the craft which he would apply in the United States.

Dr. Milena Oganesyan

The Mamoulian family fled to the West, first to London and then to New York, in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. This writer would add that not only the Mamoulians but many other artistes fled Tiflis at the time, such as Armenian-American Hollywood actor Akim Tamiroff, or Setrak and Masha Sourabian, who were active in the Armenian-American immigrant theatre scene and music recording industry.

While Armenian themes did not really appear in Mamoulian’s Hollywood and Broadway productions, he was a staunch Armenian outside his professional life, as Oganesyan relates. He wrote a great deal, including about his upbringing in Tiflis and the Armenian culture of that city. Oganesyan was pleasantly surprised and enthralled to discover Mamoulian’s description of the Armenian linguistic dialects of multi-cultural Tiflis, which have remained the same in her own time.

Mamoulian’s religious side was perhaps also surprising for a member of the artistic-intellectual elite of that time. Oganesyan described his promotion of Armenian churches in the Los Angeles area, and presented his little-known poem “Armenia,” which appeared in Ararat magazine in 1962. It reads like an English-language answer to Vahan Tekeyan’s renowned “Yegeghetsi Haigagan” (the Armenian Church); Armenia is described as the land of Paradise where God place Adam and Eve, and later Noah. The author’s commitment to racial equality is stressed in the poem as Adam and Eve, made in God’s image, are described as parents of “all of us — white, black, or tan.”

We would be remiss not to briefly mention that Mamoulian was known for his love of cats. He and his wife, who had no children, had 40 felines. Mamoulian even combined these fascinations, writing and publishing a children’s story about a cat who witness the Nativity of Jesus.

1940: American actors Tyrone Power (1914 – 1958) and Linda Darnell (1923 – 1965) pose together in costume in a promotional portrait for director Rouben Mamoulian’s film, ‘The Mark of Zorro’. Power holds a sword and wears a ruffled shirt. Darnell wears a long black veil. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Innovative on Broadway and in Hollywood

One of Mamoulian’s first major successes was also one of his most consequential. His Broadway directorial debut was the 1927 play “Porgy,” which later became the basis of the jazz-inflected Gershwin opera, “Porgy and Bess.” Based on the novel by DuBose Heyward, “Porgy” was one of the first Broadway productions with an all-Black cast, something that was demanded by the producers, Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, and embraced by Mamoulian. The theatrical world took note of how Mamoulian was able to connect with the actors, encouraging them to display their authentic culture and personality in their acting, so as to bring the African-American experience to the public stage and reveal the realities of life in the American South at that time (the play was set in Charleston, SC).

In 1935, George Gershwin made “Porgy and Bess,” and Mamoulian was again entrusted with the directorial responsibility, to great acclaim. Featuring a cast of classically-trained African-American singers, the opera has gone down as a monument of the American stage as well as African-American culture; its songs, like Summertime remain standards in the vocal repertoire of classical and jazz singers. In 1943, Mamoulian directed the first Broadway production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!,” widely considered the landmark show that gave birth to the Golden Age of American Musical Comedy. Its run of 2,212 performances was unprecedented and it won Rogers and Hammerstein the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Mamoulian continued to direct musicals on Broadway, at the same time (often within the same year) that he was directing hit Hollywood movies.

Mamoulian had begun his career as a film director with “Applause” in 1929. It was one of the early sound films, and displayed his innovative use of camera technique. As even his critics recognized, Mamoulian’s strength was in his innovations rather than his storytelling in one genre or another. Rather than being known as a great director of Westerns or a great director of comedies, he tried his hand at everything, even stating that he would be bored if he had to stay in one style all the time. “City Streets” in 1931, starring Gary Cooper, was a gangster film; in the same year came the classic horror film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” considered the definitive version of the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, and for which leading actor Frederic March received an Oscar. (Though grouped in with “horror” today, Mamoulian disagreed with that categorization, Oganesyan states.) The year 1932 saw “Love Me Tonight,” a musical romantic comedy starring French crooner Maurice Chevalier and in 1933 Mamoulian directed Greta Garbo in one of her most legendary roles, the historical epic “Queen Christina.”

Becky Sharp (1935)
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Shown from left: Miriam Hopkins (as Becky Sharp), Cedric Hardwicke (as Marquis of Steyne)

In 1935 Mamoulian became the first director to film a full-length feature in color; the period society drama “Becky Sharp,” based on Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair. Comedies, dramas, and adventure films followed: 1940’s “The Mark of Zorro,” starring Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell was a landmark; it was the first Zorro film and in many ways foreshadowed the superhero genre as it featured a crimefighting masked man (comics authors later wrote the film into Batman’s backstory). The following year, Mamoulian again directed Power and Darnell in a story about a Spanish matador, “Blood and Sand.”

After the 1940s, Mamoulian’s career in film began to wane (he was famously fired from three separate films by industry head Darryl F. Zanuck), but he had a made an indelible mark. Throughout all his films, Mamoulian was noted for his innovative ideas, especially using dance techniques, sound and color. He used music and sound effects to express the emotions of the characters, notably in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in ways that were groundbreaking at the dawn of sound films. He was known as an autocratic, controlling director, but also one who cared about the actors and bringing out their talents. He was also considered a go-to director for productions showcasing various cultures and “folk” traditions, which is how his work with shows like “Porgy and Bess” were characterized at the time, but which also included his films that took place in Spain, Russia, and Mexico/Spanish California.

Frederic March in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931)

Oganesyan said that as a stage and film director Mamoulian was dedicated to art, but rather than describing it as “art for art’s sake,” he preferred the phrase, “art for life’s sake.” Mamoulian was an idealist who believed that great art, including film and theatre in his case, could lift people up, and make our lives better. Oganesyan leaves us with two excellent quotes by Mamoulian: “The true vocation of the theater is to uplift, elevate the soul, enrich the heart, and ennoble the man,” and “A film must have two elements — it must deal with the real world, and show how it could be made better.”

A lively question-and-answer period followed the talk, which was moderated by Marc Mamigonian of NAASR. Jerry Papazian of the Armenian Film Foundation also mentioned that events and programs are being planned to celebrate Mamoulian’s 125th anniversary in 2022.



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