Educated at the universities of Moscow and London, Mamoulian also studied at the Moscow Arts Theatre.
He first directed for the stage in London in 1922 and the next year joined the American Opera Company. That began a career as a stage director that ran concurrently with his work in the cinema. His first five films were made at Paramount and are notable for their exploration of sound and for their ranging between emotional intensity and satire on forced feelings. Applause is one of the best early sound films, with fascinating location work in New York. In Applause and City Streets, based on a story by Dashiell Hammett, Mamoulian evolved a highly wrought imagery, with shadow effects and camera movements, that comes to a climax in the magnificent Jekyll and Hyde. Just as Mamoulian had brought out the tragedy in a musical (Applause) and comedy in a gangster film (City Streets), so his Jekyll and Hi/de is a horror film that barely seems frightening because of its emotional basis and because of the conviction Mamoulian brings to his Paramount London and to the idea of transformation. Given the swashbuckling Mark of Zorro, he managed to convey the impression of Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone dancing to an unheard score.
Love Me Tonight is an hour of originality, a little too unrelenting to be appealing: a weirdly clever opening montage of street sound effects; rhyming dialogue; immense tracking shots; a parody of Congress Dances; suspended dissolves; and Chevalier doing the Apache song with his own shadow huge on the wall behind him. Each detail is fetching, but it is Mamoulian s failing that they do not add up and that the invention is glitteringly ostentatious. This stylistic precociousness did not improve Mamoulian s relations with the studios and few of his films were commercial successes. He is known, too, for the first Technicolor movie, Becky Slimy, even though the color is bitter and its use far too schematic, despite the miracle of pique flushing Miriam Hopkins’s avid face.
M amoulian’s best films are often the least known or admired. Queen Christina is not as good as its famous set pieces, the bedroom scene, and the last close-up for which Mamoulian instructed Garbo: “I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper. I want the writing to be done by every member of the audience.” Much better are High, Wide and Handsome, Summer Holiday, and Silk Stockings, three musicals outside the general pattern ol the form and all critically neglected. The first is a period musical, with Jerome Kern songs and extraordinary set pieces; the second is an adaptation of Eugene O Neill's Ah, Wilderness! with enchanting small-town atmosphere and open-air routines (Mamoulian later did Oklahoma! on stage); the last, a remake of Ninotchka, with Astaire and Cyd Charisse, has some of the best intimate dances in the history of the musical, subduing the expanses of CinemaScope screen and, in its amused but insistent preference for American glamour to Soviet rationality, reminding us that Mamoulian was an exile.
There is an interesting sidelight to Mamoulians career of credits narrowly won and lost. He directed Becky Sharp only when the original director, Lowell Sherman, died. Against that, he worked on the script and rehearsed Laura before being replaced by Otto Preminger. As if that was not loss enough, he was intended to direct Porgy and Bess—he had directed the original stage production—but once again Preminger intervened. Last. Mamoulian began Cleopatra before the journeymen hacks, Mankiewicz and Darryl F. Zanuck, squandered its potential.
Mamoulian had a fascinating career—like one of his own movies, a garland of pretty blooms held together without obvious support. Few other directors of his facility worked so spasmodically in movies, or made such disparate material unmistakably their own. What seems at first sight a disordered involvement in cinema is based on the most profound and fruitful integrity: Mamoulian, despite a distinguished career in the theatre, recognized that films were a matter of light and sound gracefully rendered on celluloid. At times, his ingenuity led him into preciousness, but much more often he succeeded on his own terms—the wish to blend movement, dancing, action, music, singing, decor, and lighting into one seething entity. His films rustle with sound and shimmer with the movement of light on faces, color, and decoration. More than any other director—more than Lubitsch, even—he should be known for his touch.
Married Azadia Newman, 1945.