Oscar Profile #434: Rouben Mamoulian

Born October 8, 1897 in Tiflis, Georgia, Russian Empire to Armenian parents, Rouben Mamoulian’s mother was a director of the Armenian Theatre and his father was a bank president. Educated in Tiflis and Paris, he founded a drama studio in Tiflis in 1918. He relocated to England and started directing plays in London in 1922. Brought to America the following year by opera tenor and director, Vladimir Rosing to teach at the Eastman School of Music, he was also active in directing opera and theatre.

Mamoulian made his Broadway debut in 1927 as director of the non-musical version of Porgy, opening the play with an innovative blending of sounds which led to his film debut with 1929’s Applause which included an innovative use of the camera for talking films which had been more or less frozen with the advent of sound two years earlier. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1930 as soon as he was eligible.

With 1931’s City Streets, he used novel tracking shots and introduced subjective sound. The same year’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is notable for its use of a subjective, 360-degree revolving camera and stunning transformations of man-becoming-monster right before your eyes. It’s also notable for its emphasis on sexual tension over horror.

One of the most inventive original screen musicals, 1932’s Love Me Tonight, with a score by Rodgers & Hart, was conceived entirely in musical terms and opens with a stylish symphonic montage of an awakening city. 1933’s Queen Christina has two remarkable scenes, the bedroom scene in which Greta Garbo fondly touches inanimate objects, and the final close-up in which Garbo’s face becomes a haunting enigma.

After directing 1935’s Becky Sharp, the first feature-length, three-strip Technicolor film, Mamoulian returned to Broadway in triumph to direct the musical version of Porgy and Bess. Back in Hollywood, he directed such important films as 1939’s Golden Boy, 1940’s The Mark of Zorro, 1941’s Blood and Sand and 1942’s Rings on Her Fingers before returning to the Broadway stage to direct his greatest triumph, the original 1943 staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! .

In Hollywood again to direct 1944’s Laura, Mamoulian was fired and replaced by Otto Preminger. He returned to Broadway to direct the same year’s Sadie Thompson and another milestone, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1945 legendary original production of Carousel. He married long-time sweetheart, artist Azadia Newman in 1945.

After another successful Broadway musical, 1946’s St. Louis Woman, Mamoulian was back in Hollywood directing 1948’s Summer Holiday, the musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! . Then it was back to Broadway and his last two stagings of original musicals, 1949’s Lost in the Stars and 1950’s Arms and the Girl. He then staged two Broadway revivals of Oklahoma! , one in 1951 and one in 1953. They would be his last works for the theatre.

Mamoulian’s last completed film was the 1957 film version of Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, the musical version of Ninotchka. He was fired from both 1959’s Porgy and Bess, once again being replaced by Otto Preminger, and 1963’s Cleopatra, which he also began in 1959, being replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Forced into retirement at 62, he would later receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America in 1982.

Rouben Mamoulian died December 4, 1987 at the age of 90. Azadia, who was five years his junior, would outlive him by 12 years, dying in 1999 at the age of 97.



Mamoulian’s first film is renown for its creative use of sound. Filmed just after the advent of talking pictures, other directors were concerned mostly with providing audible dialogue. Mamoulian did much more. In freeing the camera from the soundproof booths that were hobbling early sound films, he was able to shoot many of his scenes around New York City, transforming a standard tear-jerker about an aging burlesque queen and her convent raised daughter into a work of art. The film, starring Helen Morgan and Joan Peers as the mother and daughter, entered the National Film Registry in 2006.


Mamoulian did not reveal until the 1960s how the remarkable Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation scenes were done. He did it by manipulating a series of variously colored filters in front of the camera lens. Fredric March’s makeup for Hyde was in various colors. The way his appearance registered on film depended on which color filter was being shot through. Superior in every way to the more than forty other film versions of the story, this landmark film benefitted from being made before the Hollywood Production Code was put into full force with its astonishingly uninhibited performances from Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins.


Greta Garbo had originally requested up-and-coming Laurence Olivier as her leading man, but when rehearsals proved they had no chemistry together, she requested John Gilbert in what would be his next to last film. The film premiered in New York in late December 1933, but MGM did not release it in Los Angeles in time to qualify for an Oscar and by the time the following year’s Oscar nominations were announced, it had been long forgotten, which is a shame because this was one of Garbo’s finest films, if not the finest. She definitely deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance, as did Mamoulian for his direction.


Once again Mamoulian directed the definitive version of a classic, with Tyrone Power as the young aristocrat masquerading as a fop but secretly donning the mask to hide his identity as the masked avenger, Zorro, in the early days of California. Linda Darnell is his love interest, with master swordsman Basil Rathbone and the rotund Eugene Pallette playing characters similar to their roles in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood in support of Errol Flynn. When asked how Power’s fencing skills compared to Flynn’s, Rathbone replied “Tyrone Power could fence Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”


This musical version of Ninotchka was Mamoulian’s last completed film. It was also intended to be Fred Astaire’s last musical, and would be, except for his brief return to the genre in 1968’s Finian’s Rainbow. Astaire and Cyd Charisse played the roles originated on Broadway by Don Ameche and Hildegarde Neff with Janis Paige in her comeback role as a thinly disguised Esther Williams, a role played on Broadway by Gretchen Wyler. Astaire, Paige and Jules Munshin are the only principal players who do their own singing. Charisee, Peter Lorre and Joseph Buoff are dubbed.


  • No nominations, no awards.

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