Rouben Mamoulian isn’t much of a case for the auteur theory. He was a great director and a major stylist, but his oeuvre is hardly characterized by distinctive thematic concerns, and he had precious little to do with writing the films he worked on. He was merely the most innovative director in American movies during the early sound period, and throughout his entire career proved himself equally brilliant with horror, musicals, swashbucklers, historical romance, and crime dramas. (Oh, and he kept active in the theater concurrent with his film work; particularly noteworthy credits include staging the original productions of Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma!) No wonder Film Forum sees him fit for retrospective.
Mamoulian was born in Soviet Georgia of Armenian parents, studied at the Moscow Art Theater, and was brought to America in 1923 by Kodak mogul George Eastman to direct an opera company in Rochester. His work on Broadway in the late 1920s led to an offer from Paramount to direct a film at its Astoria studios. It seems no accident that his longest stay and most successful period was at Paramount—at that time, the company had artistic pretensions and a mystique of European sophistication absent from other studios. His debut picture, Applause (1929), a weepy about the self-sacrifice of a fading burlesque dancer for her daughter, is one of the most invigorating early talkies, unburdened by the era’s cumbersome equipment and cameras kept captive in soundproof booths. Bucking opposition, Mamoulian had the technicians come up with a more portable sound blimp for his camera, and Applause is remarkable for the mobility of its lensing and the versatility of the soundtrack at a time when most pictures were verbose and stage-bound.
Paramount brought Mamoulian to Hollywood for his next movie. Like Applause, City Streets (1931)—starring Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sydney as young lovers who get involved with the rackets—owes a good deal to the techniques of silent filmmaking and depends on imagery and montage rather than dialogue for impact. This was Sidney’s first big role; her sad-eyed emotionalism immediately raised her to stardom. The picture is based on the only original story that Dashiell Hammett wrote for the screen. Al Capone thought it was the best gangster movie ever.
The year 1932 was a big one for Mamoulian, with the release of his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one of the all-time great horror films, and Love Me Tonight, the most enchanting musical of the decade. His ferocious fright flick is the definitive screen version of Stevenson’s story. Fredric March stars, handsome enough to be Jekyll and actor enough to be Hyde—the roles earned him an Oscar. The film makes it clear that Hyde is the embodiment of the good doctor’s id, tracing Jekyll’s attractive face to Hyde’s Neanderthal creature, all done without cuts or dissolves in one continuous shot.
For Love Me Tonight, the witty Rodgers and Hart songs preceded the script and set the elegant tone that Mamoulian maintains throughout the film. This modern fairy tale stars Maurice Chevalier as a Parisian tailor who falls in love with haughty princess Jeannette MacDonald. In the extraordinary “Isn’t It Romantic?” scene at the outset, Chevalier sings a song to a customer, and the catchy refrain passes along through a universe of characters until it reaches MacDonald hundreds of miles away. The couple of eventual lovers are linked by the tune before they even meet.
Film Forum’s generous retro includes all 16 of the director’s films—including his encounters with color, such as the landmark Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature to use the three-color Technicolor process—and is rounded out by French documentarian Patrick Cazals’s Rouben Mamoulian: The Golden Age of Broadway and Hollywood, which sadly sheds little light on a big talent.