New Biography Remembers the Life of Rouben Mamoulian

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.

The cover of Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen

The cover of Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen

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.

8 Comments on New Biography Remembers the Life of Rouben Mamoulian

  1. Mamoulian was a genius and way ahead of his time in many ways. Unfortunately, his ethnic affiliation was not really in favor among the Hollywood elite, who would have lauded him and his achievements much more if he had been one of their own.

  2. Mamoulian was one of the greatest in his time,but sadly the Hollywood elite did not want him to go to the top,as he was not one of them.

    They were racist.

  3. It is my interpretation of events,as he was cold shouldered by the Hollywood elite,what else could there be,as he was not one of them.

  4. Hope a movie will follow this book…

    • avatar Gerry Dooley // August 13, 2016 at 10:18 am //

      What you’re saying is that because Mamoulian wasn’t Jewish he was eventually blacklisted. I think that’s utter bull—- and your own anti-semitism coming to the fore. There is only one thing that matters in Hollywood, as in most businesses and that’s MONEY. Mamoulian was an artistic and uncompromising director who was somewhat difficult to get along with and he ended getting fired from two movies. Hollywood only cares about art if it makes money. Look at the career of Orson Welles.

  5. avatar Random Armenian // February 26, 2013 at 11:23 pm // Reply

    I found another biographical work on Mamoulian on amazon:

  6. avatar Sally Senior // January 13, 2015 at 7:50 pm // Reply

    His wife, Azadia, was my father’s cousin. I never met him, but met her at her father’s funeral. She was absolutely gorgeous, dressed in Dior and diamonds. He was not the least interested in his wife’s relatives, but (probably through her) we got tickets to Oklahoma, Carousel, Porgy and Bess, etc. We lived only 60 miles from NYC.
    Azadia’s sister was named Artemesia (sp?) , an artist. Of sorts. Another sister had an ordinary name which I’ve forgotten. Both Azadia and Artemesis were beautiful, but Azadia was absolutely stunning. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

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