By Tavit Minassian
Mention Rouben Mamoulian and most people will respond with a blank stare. But mention what the director did on Broadway and in Hollywood, and those same faces light up in recognition. Mamoulian directed the premieres of such groundbreaking musicals as “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” and “Porgy and Bess,” and classic films including “Mark of Zorro,” “Queen Christina,” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” His importance has finally been acknowledged in David Luhrssen’s new biography, Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen, published by University Press of Kentucky.
Life on Stage and Screen paints a panoramic picture of Mamoulian’s many accomplishments. He was born in Tiflis, Georgia, in 1897, a time when Armenians dominated the city’s political and economic life. His mother, a vigorous patron of Armenian theater, was an important early inspiration. Mamoulian studied theater in Moscow in the studio of the influential director Konstantin Stanislavsky and left Russia during the turmoil of the civil war that followed the Bolshevik coup of 1917. After debuting as a director on the London stage, Mamoulian was offered an appointment at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., which became a steppingstone on the way to Broadway.
After a successful career as a theater director, Mamoulian accepted offers from Hollywood. His first movie, “Applause” (1929), displayed his flair for innovation and helped restore motion to talking pictures, which had been static and slow moving because the early recording devices were cumbersome. Life on Stage and Screen shows that Mamoulian helped pioneer many things taken for granted today, including multi-track recording, voiceovers, and full-color feature films. Unlike many Broadway directors who went to Hollywood, Mamoulian kept one foot in the theater world and returned to New York in between movie assignments to direct a remarkable run of productions.
During his time in Hollywood, Mamoulian directed many of the era’s prominent stars, including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Gene Tierney, Henry Fonda, Mickey Rooney, and Fred Astaire. Always a perfectionist, he was a thorn in the side of studios and producers, and eventually paid for his dedication to the art of filmmaking by being cold-shouldered by the industry. He made no pictures after being fired from the 1963 movie “Cleopatra,” whose star, Elizabeth Taylor, he had recommended for the role. But Mamoulian remained busy through the end of his life in 1987, publishing a children’s Christmas book and a translation of Shakespeare into contemporary English, as well as giving talks at film schools and film festivals.
Life on Stage and Screen is the first book to consider Mamoulian’s ethnic background, including the influence of Armenian theater and the pageantry of the Armenian Church, and explores his failed attempt to film Franz Werfel’s novel The Forty Days at Musa Dagh. The book’s author, David Luhrssen, is film critic for Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express newspaper and has written several books, including Hammer of the Gods: Thule Society and the Origins of Nazism and Elvis Presley: Reluctant Rebel. He has been a contributor to the Armenian press, covering Armenian events in Milwaukee for the national papers.