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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Life on Stage and Screen

Biography of the director behind Dr. Jekyll and ‘Porgy and Bess’

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After reading Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen (University Press of Kentucky), David Luhrssen's comprehensive, illuminating biography of the pioneering director, I'm tempted to call its subject “the Kevin Bacon of the early-to-mid-20th century.” One could easily play Six Degrees of Rouben Mamoulian, given this visionary artist's associations with myriad colleagues from Gershwin to Garbo to Martha Graham, Hammerstein to Hepburn to Lena Horne.

But only one “degree” is needed for Mamoulian, who over three decades directed and/or collaborated with countless key figures both in Hollywood and on Broadway. What's more, while Bacon's presence improves his movies, Mamoulian truly was his movies, plays and operas. His productions were defined by a unique style, a tailor-made vision of how each piece should be lit, paced, choreographed, costumed, acted, scored, shot—and experienced.

Born to Armenian parents in Russian Georgia in 1897, Mamoulian inherited his interest in performing arts from his mother, Virginie, whose “greatest love,” Luhrssen notes, “apart from her son, was the theater…. She often appeared onstage [and] was president of the [local] dramatic society,” prior to the family's emigration to England.

Mamoulian made his directorial debut in London's storied West End, then relocated in 1923 to Rochester, N.Y., to teach and direct for George Eastman in the camera tycoon's performing arts academy. Through the combined force of charisma and talent, Mamoulian enlarged his role beyond Eastman's original intentions—then promptly made the leap to Broadway. When Hollywood beckoned, Mamoulian fashioned for himself a long-term bicoastal career, shuttling back and forth between Manhattan and Los Angeles as his stage and screen projects dictated.

Luhrssen evokes Mamoulian as “an elegantly Old World figure: tall, slender and black haired, with a pince-nez perched on his prominent nose, [wearing] beautifully tailored Savile Row suits and spats, and [carrying] a gold-headed black walking stick.” While his East-European bearing and exotic accent fed his mystique, Mamoulian's “otherness” also played into the prejudices of columnists like The New York Times' Dwight MacDonald, who, in a 1929 review, criticized the director's “Oriental greasiness.”

But Mamoulian's status as a kind of non-white, along with his heritage as an Armenian—victimized in the 20th century's first holocaust—equipped him with the sensitivity needed to co-adapt and then mount (with an unprecedented all-black cast) the wildly successful first stage production of DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy in 1927. Eight years later, Mamoulian directed the even more celebrated debut of the opera Porgy and Bess. In time, he'd introduce Oklahoma! and Carousel to Broadway as well, again to acclaim—but his Porgy doubleheader remains Mamoulian's towering theatrical achievement, given the steep socio-cultural obstacles overcome alongside the artistic ones.

Luhrssen thoroughly documents Mamoulian's willfully eclectic film career, from early efforts like the audacious Garbo vehicle Queen Christina (1933) through the mid-career Mark of Zorro (1940) to his swan song, Silk Stockings (1957). From the start, genius was afoot: for 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mamoulian shot the first reel entirely via subjective camera, from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll (an Oscar-bound Fredric March), as if to tell the viewer: “This isn't just his story; it's yours. We all have Hyde inside.”

A jaw-dropping choice—but for Mamoulian, par for the course: this same innovator created the internal-monologue voiceover and brought multi-track audio recording and overlapping dialogue to the movies. When the equipment he needed didn't exist, he commissioned its invention. One grins at the thought of Hollywood honchos enlisting this supposed stage director to helm their early talkies, assuming he would deliver by-the-book filmed plays, only to find “Mamoo” reinventing the medium before their eyes, steering cinema in ever-edgier directions.

He never won an Oscar, though multiple lifetime-achievement awards bespeak Mamoulian's recognized impact on theater and, especially, film. Then again, for this driven artist and empathetic aesthete, it was never about recognition; it was about, in his own words, “Style—your point of view on life [and] on the world…[in] literature, drama, music, painting—you see the world, and you also see the other world. The one we're longing for.”

Today, one sees both worlds anew while watching Mamoulian's movies—and while reading Luhrssen's vivid, sensitive account of the magnificent mind that dreamed those worlds into being.

David Luhrssen will discuss his book at Boswell Book Co. on Tuesday, May 7, at 7 p.m.