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August 12 – September 2, 2016

Rouben Mamoulian, Reconsidered

Much of the history of studio-era Hollywood has remained locked into calcified and uncurious categories, chapters in a larger, technologically driven narrative that leaves little room to consider the subtle, often sublime, art and artistry uniquely possible withinthe studio system. Such is the case of Rouben Mamoulian (1897-1987), an immeasurably talented director who glided high, at a remarkable pinnacle of artistic and commercial success, throughout the Thirties and Forties yet has been granted only a minor footnote in dominant histories of the studio era, often reduced to an Icarus-inspired cautionary tale. For his courageous and pathbreaking embrace of new techniques and technologies, Mamoulian has been amply recognized, although most famously by Andrew Sarris who acidly named Mamoulian as “an innovator who ran out of innovations.” And yet an immediate challenge to any quick dismissal can be found by simply looking closer at Mamoulian’s key works—from the pioneering early sound films Applause and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to his Surrealist-inflected crime drama City Streets, or his inventive and wonderfully unclassifiable musicals The Gay Desperado and High, Wide and Handsome, or even Silk Stockings, his rarely considered yet politically cutting Cold War remake of Ninotchka. Easily equal to great studio directors such as King Vidor, Tay Garnett or early Mervyn LeRoy, Mamoulian at times reached that ineffable level of his greatest fellow émigré artists—Murnau, Lang, Hitchcock.

Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, Mamoulian made his way to Hollywood via Moscow and London, and his way to cinema via theater, with early fame staging plays at the Moscow Art Theater, in London’s West End and soon after on Broadway where he launched a new career with his celebrated direction of the all-black Porgy: A Play in Four Acts (1927). Paramount soon came calling, trusting Mamoulian with an important and, for the studio, very risky early talkie that resulted in the brilliant Applause, an astute meditation on the possible death knell of theater as popular culture. Throughout Mamoulian’s career theatricality and theatrical artifice anchored—or rather buoyed—his expansive vision, eventually leading him back to Broadway in the 1940s where he directed such classics as Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma!. Also central to Mamoulian’s success in Hollywood was his willful upturning and expanding of new technologies—embodied right away in Applause by his radical use of voice and music to liberate sound and image beyond what was considered possible. An important later example is his expressive yet sensitive use of color in the still-unsung classic Blood and Sand. Sadly consistent throughout Mamoulian’s career, on the other hand, was his reputation as a “difficult” and uncompromising director, which would eventually lead to his now-famous dismissal from both Porgy and Bess and Cleopatra (and, less famously, from Laura) and his effective blacklisting from the major studios.

By bringing together beautiful prints and recent preservations of his complete feature film oeuvre, this retrospective is offered as a rebuke and challenge to those who have sighed and glanced past Mamoulian’s films and career. Together, Mamoulian’s sixteen features, we argue, make clear his status as undoubtedly one of the most talented and versatile filmmakers working within the studio system, an artist not accidently trusted with some of the greatest performers and stars of his era. Ultimately, Mamoulian offers an important challenge to Manicheistic ideas of auterism as a battle of director against “the system” by suggesting another and subtler mode of auteur—a changeling voice and identity expressed across a wider range of genres and themes and stylistic tendencies than can fit into any easy categories. - Haden Guest

Special thanks: Todd Wiener—UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Haden Guest.


Friday August 12 at 7pm

Applause

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Helen Morgan, Joan Peers, Fuller Mellish Jr.
US 1930, 35mm, b/w, 80 min

Despite a background in the theater, Mamoulian wasted no time making the most of the cinematic medium for his first film foray. Feeling stifled by the generally still camera of early cinema, Mamoulian was determined to free both image and sound—still in its infancy—from the usual constrictions and is not only credited for the first use of a moving camera in a sound picture, but also for one of the earliest uses of a multichannel soundtrack. These are just a few of the pleasantly unpolished delights that buttress this backstage peek into the lowbrow theater lifestyle. In the midst of a circus-like atmosphere with all of its sleaze and grotesquery as well as its charms and camaraderie, Helen Morgan strikes raw gold with her portrayal of Kitty Darling, a washed-up actress blind to the machinations of her shady boyfriend and devoted to a daughter whose Catholic boarding school upbringing makes their reunion more complicated. Together, they suffer through a variety of desperate improvisations on and offstage, until finally answering a tangled, bittersweet curtain call. Print courtesy Universal Pictures.

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Friday August 19 at 7pm

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 97 min

By the early 1930s, the popular Robert Louis Stevenson novella had already been adapted for the screen several times. Frequently cited as the best version, Mamoulian’s take dexterously integrates his signature technical flourishes into the tale’s symbolism and subtext. Opening with a strangely suspenseful point-of-view tracking shot of Dr. Jekyll—and introducing the tale’s examination of subjectivity—the film is sewn together by luxuriously long dissolves that allow one reality to overlap the next. London’s foggy, shadowy and more risqué substrata visually intrude upon the mannered rules and repressions of Jekyll’s world. Of course, Mamoulian’s most infamous effect—and his secret for decades—the Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation is miraculously achieved with no cuts and is completed by Fredric March’s tour-de-force performance as the insidious, unbearable monster. Likewise, Miriam Hopkins’ easy charmer is virtually unrecognizable after her believable metamorphosis into tormented victim. Mamoulian derives much of the film’s terror from this focus on the mutability of self and draws the more fantastic elements down to earth by linking class difference with sexual freedom and repressed drives with psychotic action. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.

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Friday August 19 at 9pm

Summer Holiday

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Mickey Rooney, Gloria DeHaven, Walter Huston
US 1948, 35mm, color, 92 min

Based on the lightest play by Eugene O’Neill, Ah, Wilderness!, Summer Holiday was further lightened and made into a sunny musical. In his slice of small-town America at the turn of the 20th century, Mamoulian plays up the long-gone, nostalgic Danville, Connecticut of memory—even including restaged paintings of artists such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton—so that his coming-of-age tale feels more like an afternoon reverie. As in Love Me Tonight, the film verges into Jacques Demy territory: all of the songs—sung by the actors in their actual voices—are smoothly blended into the rhythmic fabric of the film. A town of colorful characters swirls around Mickey Rooney’s young Richard, just graduating high school and contemplating love, marriage and changing the world. Unlike the politics in earlier Mamoulian films, Richard’s leftist ideals are relegated to the quixotic dustbin of his other adolescent expressions of self-importance, and his hardest life lessons appear more awkward and confusing than profoundly painful. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.

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Saturday August 20 at 7pm

Love Me Tonight

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charlie Ruggles
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 89 min

Only the second musical written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Love Me Tonight allowed Mamoulian the chance to, in his words, “combine all the elements of movement, dancing, acting, music, singing, décor, lighting” into one fluid, funny, rhythmic production. Taking two of Ernst Lubitsch’s popular stars and embedding them in a coy confection that is singularly Mamoulian, the film reflectively and parodically takes note of itself while embarking upon a sincere love story between Maurice Chevalier’s “lowly tailor” and Jeanette MacDonald’s bored princess. One of the opening numbers, “Isn’t It Romantic?” is an infectious marvel of syncopated movement, music, dialogue and editing that ultimately connects the two socially and spatially distant stars through song. From there, Mamoulian explores his recurring themes of class difference, mistaken identity and love’s transcendent powers via facetious, fanciful use of slow and fast motion, sing-song dialogue laced with double entendres, a pastiche of accents and affectations, and a menagerie of quirky characters on both ends of the economic spectrum—including the princess’ three witch-like aunts who mark the drama with a fluttering, birdlike chorus. Print courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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Saturday August 20 at 9pm

The Gay Desperado

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Nino Martini, Ida Lupino, Leo Carrillo
US 1936, 35mm, b/w, 85 min

Among Mamoulian’s most unusual and infectious films is the overlooked The Gay Desperado, a musical-gangster-comedy set in Mexico and telling the story of Mexican banditos enamored by onscreen images of Chicago gangsterism. Ida Lupino is glorious in a frothy comic role as an heiress kidnapped by the ambitious banditos. Adding antic comedy, and romance, is a dashing young tenor selected to be the personal singer for the bandit chief brilliantly played by Leo Carrillo. Although The Gay Desperado displays ethnic stereotypes common in the 1930s, the film nevertheless also pokes pointed fun at derogatory images and ideas of Mexicans, especially Carrillo’s larger-than-life and absolutely hilarious bandit chief. The second and last film produced by Mary Pickford together with her former boss Jesse Lasky, The Gay Desperado was largely forgotten until a 2006 preservation by the UCLA Film & Television Archive gave special attention to the luminous exterior shooting by cinematographer Lucien Andriot. 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

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Sunday August 21 at 5pm

Becky Sharp

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke
US 1935, 35mm, color, 83 min

With his condensed version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Mamoulian found his most provocative and insubordinate female lead. Hardly taking a breath, Miriam Hopkins’ Machiavellian Becky Sharp lives her life as one great performance after another while steadily climbing the social ladders of 19th century Britain. Suiting Becky’s painted, ever-changing persona, Becky Sharp is the first feature to use the three-color Technicolor process, with its particularly rich, saturated hues. As Hopkins vanquishes every scene, Mamoulian fills in the drama and metaphor with stylized color choices—transforming whirling rainbows of gowns into a near black-and-white palette with a shift in mood. Making fun of both high and low culture with equal zeal, Becky leaves few unscathed. Thus, it is all the more moving when her actual emotions break through and she—under Mamoulian’s sensitive, chromatic brush—momentarily exposes unfeigned vulnerability. 35mm restored print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Restoration funding provided by The Film Foundation.

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Sunday August 21 at 7pm

Rings on Her Fingers

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Laird Cregar
US 1942, 35mm, b/w, 86 min

Mamoulian’s sole screwball comedy is a delightful confection starring a radiantly young Gene Tierney as a girdle salesgirl lured into the world of two con artists intent on fleecing a hapless accountant, played by Henry Fonda, who they mistakenly take for a millionaire. Fueled by lighting quick and sexually sparked comic dialogue, Rings on Her Fingers is a charming and little-known late entry into the screwball cycle. Mamoulian’s flair for theatrical fantasy is wonderfully embodied in the figures of the con artists vividly rendered by the unforgettable pairing of bold character actors Laird Cregar and Spring Byington. Print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

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Friday August 26 at 7pm

Golden Boy

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, William Holden
US 1939, 35mm, b/w, 99 min

William Holden’s first starring role throws him headfirst into a contentious boxing ring, up against a series of formidable challenges—including a father who wants him to save his hands for the violin; a mob boss who promises fame and fortune at an ethical price; and the fluctuating heartstrings of Barbara Stanwyck’s enigmatic, world-weary pragmatist. In the most noir corners of Mamoulian’s adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play, the dialogue comes as sharp and fast as the punches, while “golden” Joe Bonaparte encounters ever-deepening moral, artistic and existential dilemmas. Despite the full-bodied melodrama faltering in its clichéd characterizations of Lee J. Cobb’s handwringing Italian patriarch and Joseph Calleia’s ominous gangster, Golden Boy maintains a tense, tormented excitement and delivers—in romantic, Mamoulian fashion—at least two cynical souls who cannot escape the heart’s innocence. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.

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Friday August 26 at 9pm

City Streets

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 83 min

City Streets is a relatively early example from the gangster genre, but so imbued with poetry that it more closely resembles the rough beauty of Sternberg’s early crime films than the more violent works that would follow in the wake of Scarface’s success the following year. Paramount star Gary Cooper is the Kid, a sweet, roguish naïf working at a shooting gallery when he falls in love with a mobster’s daughter. Her ambivalence towards her father’s life of crime and the Kid’s resistance to becoming a gangster present obstacles to the consummation of their love in this touching romance with exquisite cinematography by the great Lee Garmes. Print courtesy Universal Pictures.

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Saturday August 27 at 7pm

Queen Christina

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith
US 1934, 35mm, b/w, 101 min

With all the ingredients for Mamoulian magic in place—a strong, captivating woman at the center, an extended play on identity, and a controversial romance choked by society’s expectations—Queen Christina only needed the addition of Greta Garbo to give mesmerizing, subtle definition to the eccentric Swedish queen. Only loosely based on reality, Christina remains a striking role for a woman who preserves an intellectual, emotional and sexual independence throughout the film, not to mention an ironic flair and meltable heart. Garbo not only asked for Mamoulian to direct her but for her alleged former lover and struggling silent screen star John Gilbert to play the love interest, thus spreading another tender layer onto their famously sweet and intimate pre-Code bedroom scene. Christina—who at this point has removed only the first cloak of her disguise—spends an eternity in movie time tracing the contours of the place in which she has fallen in love. She explains, “In my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.” And in film history memory, Garbo’s ineffable mystique lives a great deal in Mamoulian’s enchanting film. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

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Saturday August 27 at 9pm

We Live Again

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Anna Sten, Fredric March, Jane Baxter
US 1934, 35mm, b/w, 85 min

Based on the Tolstoy novel Resurrection and starring Ukranian discovery Anna Sten, We Live Again allows Mamoulian to step a bit into his own culture with an opening montage in the vein of Dovzhenko’s Earth; an extended, sensual Russian Orthodox Easter Mass; and an unusually bleak, un-American happy ending. Even here however, the director waxes poetic on some of his favorite subject matter: a forbidden romance, complete character transformation and the hard, but necessary, corruption of an innocent. Love and lust briefly blossom between Fredric March’s Prince Dmitri and the beautiful servant Katusha, yet it is not only their class differences that divide but Dmitri’s dissolution and rejection of his revolutionary socialist values. Used and abused, Katusha must learn life’s lessons the hard way while Dmitri has the opportunity to choose a path to redemption. Dmitri’s radical decision is one cold war away from the Technicolored dance with capitalism in Silk Stockings thirteen years later. Print courtesy Park Circus.

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Sunday August 28 at 4:30pm

Silk Stockings

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Janis Paige
US 1957, 35mm, color, 117 min

Mamoulian returned to the screen after a ten-year hiatus for what would be his last film—and Fred Astaire’s last dance movie—with Cole Porter’s musical take on Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. In the Porter version, a dutiful—and beautiful—Russian commissar comes to Paris on assignment and falls in love with a carefree American film director. Adding two additional, newly written Porter songs, Mamoulian produces an even more colorful and comic send-up of both Communism and Hollywoodism, featuring cartoonish Russian envoys—including a happily debauched Peter Lorre—and Janis Paige’s swimming movie star who is trying to recreate her image in a non-swimming picture, a dumbed-down, Americanized musical of a treasured Russian tale. At the film’s heart are the Astaire and Charisse dances, during which they reveal their emotions most expressively, and the ice queen nimbly dissolves into a romantic in “glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope and Stereophonic sound.” Print courtesy Warner Bros.

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Sunday August 28 at 7pm

The Mark of Zorro

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone
US 1940, 35mm, b/w, 93 min

The enduring, swashbuckling classic The Mark of Zorro marked a high point in Mamoulian’s Hollywood career, a box office and critical success that embodied the expressionistic and emotionally charged fantasy from which Mamoulian crafted his finest films. 20th Century Fox superstar Tyrone Power excels as the titular hero, returned from Spain to Los Angeles with a cunning determination to free the people from the grip of a cruel and power-hungry overlord in the guise of a wily proto-superhero (Zorro, of course, being Bruce Wayne’s inspiration). The Mark of Zorro was a personal project of Darryl Zanuck and a showcase for his often undersung talents as a screenwriter and inventor of action thrillers (such as the Rin Tin Tin series). It was Zanuck who invented the richly understated love triangle at the film’s center among Power, the enigmatic Gale Sondergaard and Linda Darnell, only sixteen years old when she was lavishly reinvented as a Spanish señorita. Mamoulian’s spirited remake of the 1920s Douglas Fairbanks classic was openly offered as a response to the swashbuckling trend begun by Warner Brothers’ The Adventures of Robin Hood two years earlier, even taking key actors from that film, with both Eugene Pallette offering basso profundo comic relief and Basil Rathbone returning again as a dastardly villain with a tongue as sharp as his saber. Print courtesy 20th Century Fox.

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Monday August 29 at 7pm

High, Wide and Handsome

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Dorothy Lamour
US 1937, 35mm, b/w, 105 min

Mamoulian’s final film for Paramount is an unusual epic musical boasting an imaginative story and cast lead by Irene Dunne as a spirited carnival signer and Randolph Scott as a visionary entrepreneur who find love in the wild storm of the pre-Civil War Pennsylvania oil rush. Clearly meant as a follow-up to the box office smash Showboat from the year before, High, Wide and Handsome’s eccentrically spirited Americana predicted Mamoulian’s successful direction of Oklahoma! on Broadway. Gifted with lesser known yet gorgeous Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein ballads—beautifully sung by Dunne and a devastating Dorothy Lamour—High, Wide and Handsome floats delicately between dreamy soundstage fantasy and a sweeping vision of American history set against stunning frontier landscapes. The film’s constant jumps between sawdust-and-tinsel artifice and a rousing narrative of brave Common Man pitted against the craven Capital Barons climaxes in an extraordinary melding of the two that makes clear Mamoulian’s vision of the cinema as a vehicle for both enlightenment and entertainment, or, as Richard Roud once called the film, a “fusion of Brecht and Broadway.” Print courtesy Universal Pictures.

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Friday September 2 at 7pm

Blood and Sand

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth
US 1941, DCP, color, 125 min

One of the absolute highpoints of Technicolor cinema, Blood and Sand is another visually stunning and emotionally resonant masterpiece of the vernacular fantastic conjured on the big screen by Mamoulian. Openly evoking Goya, Velázquez and El Greco, Blood and Sand brims over with rich symbols of Old Spain in the service of an intense and overripe tale of passions dangerously aflame. Mamoulian’s masterful mise-en-scène takes on painterly dimensions through his dynamic and expressive use of noir shadows and vibrant colors, such as the sanguinary crimson of the torero’s cape echoed throughout the film in the red hair and dresses that enchant the bullfighter hero played by Tyrone Power, reunited with Linda Darnell and joined by Rita Hayworth and Alla Nazimova. American matador and future auteur Budd Boetticher was hired by Fox as a technical advisor to give authenticity to the struggle of Man versus Beast. Print courtesy 20th Century Fox.

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Friday September 2 at 9:30pm

Song of Songs

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. With Marlene Dietrich, Brian Aherne, Lionel Atwill
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 90 min

After her star-making five-film rendezvous with Von Sternberg, Paramount wanted Dietrich to try something new; thus her Mamoulian turn as a naïve, orphaned peasant girl who has been consigned to an austere, tethered existence with her cantankerous aunt. Mamoulian wittingly withholds the iconic Dietrich—allowing cruel reality to gradually wear away the innocence—so that his audience may enjoy both versions and revel in the startling transformation. The somewhat star-crossed love story does not attempt to bridge the usual Mamoulian class gap but traverses a more eccentric, economic chasm. The director sweeps the melodrama along in sublime strokes, underlined by a comic touch and highlighted by Lily’s beautifully rapt soliloquy of love—reminiscent of Queen Christina’s ode to the bedroom—about her lover, yet directed to the earth. Print courtesy Universal Pictures.

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