Rouben Mamoulian

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Rouben Mamoulian in 1930s

Rouben Zachary Mamoulian (/ruːˈbɛn mɑːmuːlˈjɑːn/ roo-BEN mah-mool-YAHN; Armenian: Ռուբէն Մամուլեան; October 8, 1897 – December 4, 1987) was an Armenian-American film and theater director.


  • I lifted the sound-proofed camera off its feet and set it in motion on pneumatic tires. Scenes moved out of one room and into others without halt. I tried to introduce what I call counterpoint of [a]ction and dialogue. The camera flew, jerked, floated and rolled, discarding its stubborn tripod-legs for a set odfwired wheels that raced over the studio floors.
    "The camera here becomes descriuptive in a new sort of way. Where a break in the ordinary film to allow for a close-up has been the modus-operandi, I now guide my lens along a strraight and continuous line, without breaks in continuity, without needless exolanatory speeches and also sans the printed subtitle.
  • In this unhappy, fragmented world of ours, overflowing with mutual suspicions, hostilities, violence, and destruction, we need a constructive force. Politics, economics, religions seem to fail. I think our best hope is in the arts. Today, the most powerful and universal and powerful medium of art and communication is in the film. In the last few years I've done a great deal of traveling to many countries, and I've been amazed at the impact of films on both the individuals and the societies of different nations. The influence is enormous. So we must all strive to elevate the quality of motion pictures. We must affirm and insist that the ultimate goal of a film, no matter what subject matter it deals with, is to add to the beauty and goodness of life, to the dignity of human beings and to our faith in a better future.
    • At the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies (c. late 1970s/early 1980s), as cited in David Luhrssen Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen, The University Press of Kentucky, 2013, p. 130

Sight and Sound interview (1961)[edit]

Interviewed by David Robinson for Sight and Sound, as cited on the BFI website (posted 7 October 2022).
  • [In 1927] 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • In the last scene of Queen Christina (1932), Greta Garbo in the lead role stands on the prow of a sailing ship.
  • 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.
  • 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.

About Rouben Mamoulian[edit]

  • There was a blue lamp on the table. Mr Mamoulian placed an orange against it for contrast. He shoved a green chair in front of a red curtain. He made caustic remarks about the visitor's tie, pointed out that it wouldn't look well against a yellow drape. He spoke of mosaics and color progression; of red for excitement, dark blue for dignity and rosemary for remembrance.
    "If blood was green it wouldn't be exciting," he said.
  • [Mamoulian] "[T]he majority of the films in the future will be done in color. Perhaps not immediately. Perhaps it will take three years or five years. But there must be progress and development in the cinema. Color will enrich it. It is part of that progress.

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