Rouben Mamoulian interviewed in 1961

The great Hollywood and theatre director sat down with us to discuss his career from early sound cinema to an abortive stint on the infamous production of Cleopatra, as well as his love of colour… and cats.

7 October 2022

By David Robinson

Rouben Mamoulian (centre) with Gary Cooper (left) and Sylvia Sidney (right) on the set of City Lights (1930)
Sight and Sound
This interview first appeared in the Summer 1961 issue of Sight and Sound

Rouben Mamoulian – a big, patrician figure – looks a good ten years younger than 62, which he is. He chainsmokes cigars less with the air of a Hollywood success than of the son of a prosperous late nineteenth century Armenian family, which he is also. He was born in 1898, not in Armenia, but in Tiflis, in Georgia. His barely perceptible accent – deepish r’s and distinctive vowels – sounds Russian though. Both parents are still alive and well in Hollywood. His father was a banker, formerly a Colonel in the Russian army. His mother came from too good a family to indulge her passion for the theatre, except as President of the Tiflis Dramatic Society.

The Mamoulian children were raised in an artistic and theatrical atmosphere. Tillis then as now was the cultural centre of Southern Russia; and the Mamoulian home was a meeting place both for the resident intelligentsia and for the artists who visited the local theatres and whose performances Rouben and his sister generally saw. He recalls the great Kachalov reciting a scene from Julius Caesar at a party in the living room at home. “It was the greatest dramatic scene I ever saw.”

When Rouben was seven the family went to Paris, where he was sent to the Lycee Montaigne. There, too, Madame Mamoulian organised charity performances in aid of the San Francisco Earthquake victims; and the letter of thanks she received from Theodore Roosevelt sparked Rouben’s first curiosity about America. When he was 12½ they moved back to Tiflis, and a few years later he was sent to Moscow University to read criminal law. An announcement on a University notice-board invited young people to join Vakhtangov’s Studio at the Moscow Art Theatre; and young Mamoulian, having passed some sort of entrance test, spent several memorable months there. He remembers seeing Stanislavsky: “A marvellous man with lucid blue eyes.”

Back in Tiflis, about 1918, Mamoulian organised his own studio, which periodically presented short plays, and wrote theatre notices for the local paper for a season. (“It was unbearable.”) Meanwhile his sister had married an Englishman; and on New Year’s Eve, 1920, Rouben arrived in London to spend a holiday with her. He liked it and decided to stay. He needed work, “but was quite unfit for business.” Happily, he ran into a fellow-expatriate who was looking for a producer for a new Russian repertory company. Mamoulian confidently recommended himself, and accepted the salary of thirty shillings a week and ten shillings during rehearsals, which took place in the old Russian Embassy in Belgrave Square.

As a result of the work he did with this company, he was invited by Austin Page and Vladimir Rosing to co-direct a play with a Russian setting, The Beating on the Door. He resigned after three days because he did not agree with the interpretation of his co-director, a man much his senior in years and experience. After five more days the backers saw his point, and he was brought back to replace the older man. This incident, added to Mamoulian’s youth (“I was instructed to tell people I was ‘about thirty’ ”) and poor English (“It was the last of my eight languages”), did not endear him to the cast, which included Arthur Wontner, Doris Lloyd, Mary Jerrold and Franklin Dyall. “The first three days of rehearsal were the worst of my life. They were terribly polite, but their very politeness was like a dagger.” Still, he survived, won them over, and enjoyed a great personal success with the first night at the St. James’s in November 1922. “The style of this production was the realism of the Moscow Art Theatre. Since then I have never done anything realistic. It gave me no satisfaction at all. It seems to me a completely wrong direction to take in the arts.”

Rouben Mamoulian, photographed in 1968

Now he received competing offers from Jacques Hébertot in Paris, who wanted him as producer at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees alongside Komisarjevsky and Jouvet; and from George Eastman, who wanted him for his splendid new theatre in Rochester, where he hoped to organise an American opera company. In the face of “four or five days of socratic dialogue” with Hébertot and a 300-word telegram from Eastman, he settled for America, because “As a boy at school in Paris I’d adored Les Aventures de Buffalo Bill; I remembered my mother’s letter from Teddy Roosevelt; and anyway, I’d never seen such a long telegram.”

Mamoulian found little Mr. Eastman eccentric but fascinating. Outside his Kodak empire his only interests were music and dentistry. He employed an organist to play to him at breakfast; and a quartet for his Thursday and Sunday soirees, which could get very boring after years of regular attendance. Under Eastman’s ice-grey and perceptive eyes, Mamoulian produced Carmen, Faust, Boris Godunov, as well as Gilbert and Sullivan and Viennese operettas.

“Eastman, of course, was only interested in the musical aspects. I was already seeking a truly dramatic theatre, a theatre that would combine all the elements of movement, dancing, acting, music, singing, decor, lighting, colour and so on. Sister Beatrice, which I produced at Rochester, was the most interesting thing I have ever done, I think – the climax of this kind of theatre. It was based on Maeterlinck’s play; the music – all for organ – was written by Otto Luning, and Martha Graham came to Rochester to arrange the dances.”

After two and a half years Mamoulian felt it time to leave Rochester, and went to New York, where the Theatre Guild engaged him as a teacher and director. It was for the Guild that he directed Porgy.

“Porgy made me overnight. In it I tried all my ideas of a dramatic integration of many elements… At this time I felt it should be possible, in a stage production, to take a snapshot of the stage picture at any moment, and record an artistic composition. So each movement and grouping was minutely rehearsed. The actors were often required to adopt poses which were neither comfortable nor natural, but which looked right on the stage. That’s stage truth.

“Then there was a scene I put in which was not written in Hayward’s play – the famous Symphony of Noises. The curtain rose on Catfish Row in the early morning. All silent. Then you hear the Boom! of a street gang repairing the road. That is the first beat; then beat two is silent; beat three is a snore – zzz! – from a man who’s asleep; beat four silent again. Then a woman starts sweeping the steps – whish! – and she takes up beats two and four, so you have ‘Boom! – Whish! – zzz! — Whish!’ and so on. A knife-sharpener, a shoemaker, a woman beating rugs and so on, all join in. Then the rhythm changes: 4:4 to 2:4; then to 6:8; and syncopated and Charleston rhythms. It all had to be conducted like an orchestra.”

Porgy ran for 2½ years on Broadway and was eventually transferred to London. In the meantime Mamoulian did a number of other productions for the Theatre Guild and for independent impresarios, including O’Neill’s Marco Millions (1928), Nichol and Browne’s Wings Over Europe, Capek’s RUR (1929), Rolland’s The Game of Love and Death and his own adaptation of A Month in the Country (1930), with Alla Nazimova. In 1931 he directed Schoenberg’s opera The Hand of Fate at the Met – “a tough assignment, but an interesting problem to integrate the acting of people with this music which at first seemed so formless.”

Applause (1929)

Applause (1929) and City Streets (1930)

“For five weeks I went around the Astoria Studios in New York, where I made Applause for Paramount, watching everything and asking questions. At the end of that time I went to them and said, ‘I’m ready.’ If you have an eye it doesn’t take you long…

“Now in those early days of sound, people just thought of films as being all dialogue – talk, talk, talk. I wanted to do things you couldn’t do on the stage. I wanted to use a mobile camera; but that was impossible because the camera and the cameraman and the director and the assistant cameraman and probably the assistant directors were all squashed together in a sort of house on wheels. And all the sound was recorded on a single track – the mike picked up everything you didn’t want it to. If you had a letter in a scene, it had to be soaked in water. Like that it didn’t make a thunderous crackle, of course, but it looked like a Dali watch.

“The blow-up came on the third day. I wanted to shoot a scene entirely in one shot. It’s where the girl – who’s come to New York from a convent as a strip-teaser – is lying in bed in a cheap little hotel room. Her mother, played by Helen Morgan, sits beside her and sings to her the only kind of song she knows: a burlesque number, but she sings it as if it were a lullaby. As she sings the girl fingers a rosary and whispers a prayer. But, they said, we couldn’t record the two things – the song and the prayer – on one mike and one channel. So I said to the sound man, ‘Why not use two mikes and two channels and combine the two tracks in printing?’ Of course it’s general practice now; but the sound man and George Folsey, the cameraman, said it was impossible. So I was mad. I threw down my megaphone (all directors still used megaphones in those days) and ran up to Mr. [Adolph] Zukor’s office. He was with Mr. [Jesse L.] Lasky and Monta Bell when I barged in: ‘Look,’ I said, ‘Nobody does what I ask…’

City Streets (1930)

“So Zukor came down and told them to do it my way; and by 5.30 we had two takes in the can. Next day I went to the studio very nervous. But as I went in, the big Irish doorman, who’d always ignored me before, raised his hat and bowed. It seemed they’d had a secret 7.30 viewing of the rushes in the studio, and were so pleased with the result that they’d sent it straight off to a Paramount Sales Conference. After this, what Mamoulian said, went. ‘Well,’ said [cinematographer] George Folsey, very cheerful, when I went in, ‘Where would you like your cameras today?’ ‘Today,’ I said, ‘I’ll have four cameras, and I want one shooting up from the floor.’ This meant they had to send out for men with pneumatic drills because the studio floor was concrete, two feet thick. I waited till they brought the men in: then said ‘O.K. That’s enough. I’ve had my revenge.’ “

His first film in Hollywood was City Streets, also for Paramount.

“Shakespeare used the soliloquy to give oral expression to thoughts. Since then the soliloquy had become obsolete. But it was a wonderful device: so I wanted to use a close-up of Sylvia Sidney, alone, in prison, and superimpose over it all her impressions and recollections. Again, everybody insisted it was impossible and that the audience would never understand what was going on. I argued that in the silent cinema they had used – and the audience had accepted – stylisation: simile, visual poetry. So why not in sound? That’s what I wanted to do with sound and, later, with colour. Now, of course, this use of audible thoughts over a silent close-up has become a convention…

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

“I wanted to make the transformations a real vicarious experience, more than just a trick. So I used the camera in the first person. The entire opening reel is shot as if through the eyes of Jekyll, played by Fredric March. The audience does not see him –  they are him – until he looks into a mirror.

“To accompany the transformations I wanted a completely unrealistic sound. First I tried rhythmic beats, like a heartbeat. We tried every sort of drum, but they all sounded like drums. Then I recorded my own heart beating, and it was perfect, marvellous. Then we recorded a gong, took off the actual impact noise, and reversed the reverberations. Finally we painted on the sound track; and I think that was the first time anyone had used synthetic sound like that, working from light to sound. We’ve never divulged – and I’m not going to tell you now – how we managed the transformations without any cuts or dissolves.”

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Love Me Tonight starred Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, and had music by Rodgers and lyrics by Hart. It has been compared to Clair and Lubitsch, regarded as a model musical by such practitioners as Kelly, Minnelli and Weill, and is clearly one of Mamoulian’s favourites.

“By now I could use visual and aural images as I pleased. For instance when MacDonald’s awful aunts open their mouths, you hear the yapping of little dogs instead of their voices. Then there’s a moment where MacDonald is fearfully embarrassed and drops a vase; and there I have the sound of dynamite exploding, because that, emotionally, is the size of it. But they were very shocked in the studio!”

Queen Christina (1933)

Garbo and Queen Christina (1933)

“Garbo is a wonderful instrument, which must be treated right. She is an intuitive artist with very good and correct instincts… I’d heard that she was very difficult, and would insist that everyone except the cameraman – including the director – must leave the set when she was playing an intimate scene. I couldn’t have that, of course; and she said ‘No, I won’t do that to you. ‘

“We started the first day’s work, and I said, ‘Well, let’s rehearse.’ ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘I never rehearse. I can’t. You tell me what I do and where I go. Then take it. The first take is always the best.’ Eventually I persuaded her to try one shot both ways: ‘And you must promise to do it my way if yours doesn’t work.’ So we did one take her way, then began to rehearse. As we rehearsed, she said, ‘You know, you’re getting less and less. ’ ‘If only you knew,’ I said, ‘I’m getting more and more.’ When we’d done both takes, she came up to me and whispered, ‘Please do not print the first one.’ So after that we always rehearsed.

Queen Christina (1933)

“The scene in the inn bedroom, where she walks all round the room, touching everything, caressing everything, storing the whole place in her memory – to my mind it’s a sonnet. It was done to a metronome. I explained to her: ‘This has to be sheer poetry and feeling. The movement must be like a dance. Treat it the way you would do it to music’… I always divide people into those who are crazy about this scene and those who ask what the heck’s it all about anyway?

“There’s an example of how logic is not always artistic truth. In the last scene, she is standing on the prow of a sailing ship moving forward; yet her hair is blowing backwards. People often point out – quite correctly – that the wind must be behind, so that her hair should, logically, blow forwards. But if I’d shown it like that, even though it would be correct according to natural laws, it would not give the same sense of motion forward.

“That last scene presented a lot of difficulties. L. B. Mayer called me and said we must change the end of the script: it was too unhappy and depressing. We must keep John Gilbert alive. Well, we couldn’t do that, of course; but it was true that we had in some way to make the ending uplifting, exhilarating. I had the idea of moving in to a big close-up of Garbo standing on the prow; but at the time that presented difficulties. Bill Daniels, the cameraman, said it was impossible because as you changed the lens the diffusion changed. Then I remembered the magic lantern I’d had as a child in Tiflis, with four pictures on a single slide. So I suggested that they had four graded diffusers in one slide, mounted in a carriage in front of the lens. They went straight off and made it and brought it back the same afternoon. It worked perfectly. Now, of course, it’s standard practice.

“Garbo asked me: ‘What do I play in this scene?’ Remember she is standing there for 150 feet of film – 90 feet of them in close-up. I said: ‘Have you heard of tabula rasa? I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper. I want the writing to be done by every member of the audience. I’d like it if you could avoid even blinking your eyes, so that you’re nothing but a beautiful mask.’ So in fact there is nothing on her face: but everyone who has seen the film will tell you what she is thinking and feeling. And always it’s something different. Each one writes his own ending to the film; and it’s interesting that this is the scene everyone remembers most clearly… “

We Live Again (1934)

We Live Again (1934) and Becky Sharp (1935)

For We Live Again (1934), an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, with Fredric March and Anna Sten, Mamoulian brought the stage designer Serge Sudekin to Hollywood, while on Becky Sharp he had Robert Edmond Jones. This was the first film in the new Technicolor three-colour process. It was to have been directed by Lowell Sherman, but he died after two weeks’ shooting and Mamoulian took over. An extraordinarily appreciative adaptation of Thackeray, and one of the most beautiful colour films ever made, it probably contains Mamoulian’s best work in the cinema.

“As soon as you use an element on the screen it becomes subject to dramatic laws. This is as true of colour as of everything else. So I wanted to shoot everything from the start. I took four or five weeks to prepare my plans. My idea was to build up the colour dramatically. I wanted to start with black, white, grey; then ooze into colour. And I wanted the dramatic climax of the film to coincide with the colour climax, which would be predominantly red, because that is the nature of red. (It’s strange, you know, that this should be so – that red should be the most exciting colour to the eye – because scientifically and physically speaking it is the most sluggish colour of all – 36,000 vibrations as against 76,000 with yellow. It has almost no light value – the nearest approach to black… Scientifically it is the least aggressive; psychologically it is the most aggressive. It’s an odd phenomenon; the brightest colour is really yellow. But colour’s my hobby-horse…)

“In planning Becky Sharp I faced an interesting dilemma. The climax is the ball before Waterloo. A messenger arrives and quietly informs Wellington that the French army is forming. The news is passed around the room and the guests gradually begin to leave. Now, logically, the first to leave should be the military; but that would mean that all the red would be drained out before the other colours – the colours of the civilians’ costumes. Colour is such a strong emotional medium, of such subconscious potency, that if the gradation were wrong here it could destroy the fundamental reality of the scene. It sounds practically insane; but what I did was to sort the extras into colour groups. Then, one by one, each colour group left the ballroom, till only the red were left. Hence the officers were the last to go instead of the first. On the set it looked absurd, but that’s the way I shot and cut it. And no one has ever remarked on it; because it makes such sense dramatically.”

Blood and Sand (1941)

Blood and Sand (1941)

Following Becky Sharp he made The Gay Desperado (1936), a musical satire about Mexican banditti; High Wide and Handsome (1937), a pioneering drama, and a screen version of Odets’ Golden Boy (1938). In 1940 and 1941 followed two pictures with Tyrone Power. The Mark of Zarro was an undistinguished swashbuckler, but in Blood and Sand Mamoulian continued his experiments with colour:

“Colour cinematography tends to brighten and cheapen natural colour. The problem was to counteract that. I realised that colour in films is nearer to painting than to the stage. Now if you look, for instance, at a crimson cloak painted by El Greco, you’ll find that what first appears as a mass of colour is in fact a subtle blending of all sorts of shades, with patches of pink and blue and purple and green. So I treated the colour the way a painter would. I devised what came to be known as the Mamoulian Palette. Beside me on the set I had a huge box of scraps of material – scarves and handkerchiefs and so on, in all colours – so that if a costume or a set needed a bit more of a particular colour – a colour accent, as it were – I could put it in myself. And I had a collection of spray guns beside me, so that I could spray colour on a costume or set or even an actor. The art director had made me a beautiful chapel; and he was very upset when I sprayed everything with green and grey paint. Then again, there’s a banquet, which was done entirely in black and white. There were flowers on the table and (naturally) the leaves were green. I think when they saw me painting them black, they went and told Mr. Zanuck I’d gone out of my mind…

After Rings on her Fingers (1942), a conventional comedy which he made to work out his contract with Fox, Mamoulian’s activity in the cinema was limited for some years. This was his great period in the theatre. Oklahoma (1943) was the culmination of his ideal of the stage musical. Sadie Thompson, which he adapted with Howard Dietz, was a comparative flop; but was followed in 1945 by Carousel, which repeated the success of Oklahoma. Many connoisseurs regard St. Louis Woman (1946) as the greatest all-coloured musical.

Silk Stockings (1957)

Summer Holiday (1948) and Silk Stockings (1957)

Mamoulian returned to the cinema in 1948 with Summer Holiday, based on O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! and praised by Sequence as “an enjoyable film… The designs are light and elegant and the colour attractive,’ although “its two styles, experimental and nostalgic… don’t always mix.” It marked the transition to the cinema of Mamoulian’s ideas of a musical theatre; and – appearing in the same year as The Pirate – it was a significant forerunner of the On the Town school.

O’Neill – who was then already very sick with Parkinson’s disease – was very excited by my ideas for adapting his play. The sort of thing I did: there’s a scene between Mickey Rooney and the local bad girl (Marilyn Maxwell, who played it beautifully) in which she grows redder and larger with every close-up. Then there’s a series of scenes in the styles of famous American painters – Grant Wood, Thomas Benton, John Curry. From them I learned what marvellous things you can do just by using different shades of the same colour… One of the pictures was Grant Wood’s ‘Daughters of the American Revolution.’ We saw lots of elderly ladies for this, and finally I picked out three who might well have been the original sitters – quintessentially American. I spoke to one of them, but she said, ‘Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur Mamoulian, mais je ne parle point américain.”

Nine years, and more productions in the theatre separated this film from Silk Stockings, a Cole Porter musical adaptation of Ninotchka .

“In this film I was most interested in dance as a dramatic expression. I had two marvellous dancers – Astaire and Charisse – and I wanted to use dancing to show the progress of their love story. I’d begun to use dancing like this, as a means of interpreting character, as early as Love Me Tonight, of course, which is really the same recipe as Oklahoma and way ahead of its time.

“I have a sort of trade mark: somewhere in every one of my films there is a cat. When we’d finished Silk Stockings I suddenly realised there was no cat. So (at great expense) we had an extra day’s shooting, just for the cat. Did you notice it?”

Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra

Mamoulian is still full of energy, enthusiasm, ideas – for an opera film in Italy, a ballet film in Russia, co-productions and so on. His most recent project, Cleopatra, was one of his rare abortive ventures:

“I was engaged on Cleopatra in all for one year and three months… I resigned, shall I say, because I felt in the then circumstances I could not entirely realise the film I had conceived… There were many changes of plan: first we were to shoot in Egypt; then in Spain; then in England. I would have liked to shoot it all in Egypt, of course. In the end I did shoot a few night scenes in England. It was a real English winter; and the great white columns of that beautiful set were wreathed in light mists; while every time anyone spoke, there were clouds of steam from his mouth. It had a marvellous quality, quite beautiful, but not exactly Alexandria!

“I didn’t see it at all as spectacle – which has no interest for me for its own sake: way back I was offered Quo Vadis. What interested me in this was the character of Cleopatra. I’d only have used spectacle where it was a necessary background. Visually, of course, it would have been fascinating. Egyptian design of that period had a wonderful simplicity and elegance, and such interesting colour: black, yellow, green, purpl – every little red or orange. Alexandria was a white city, because it was a Greek city . Imagine the contrast, and the mutual impact, of the highly civilised Egypt and the rude democracy of Rome … I think Cleopatra could have been fine art and fine entertainment. It’s possible, you know – not a contradiction. Indeed, I think it’s an ideal…”

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