From the Archives: Rouben Mamoulian, Last Surviving Founder of Directors Guild, Dies


Rouben Mamoulian, center, and Miriam Hopkins on the set of “Becky Sharp.”

(UCLA Film & Television Archive)
Times Staff Writer

Rouben Mamoulian, the last surviving founder of the Directors Guild of America, has died at the age of 89 at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills.

The Russian-born Mamoulian, who came to the United States in 1923 to direct operas and operettas in New York, died Friday.

He was one of stage and screen’s foremost innovators, directing the brilliant early talkie “Applause” in 1929, the famous 1931 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that brought Fredric March an Oscar, George Gershwin’s 1935 musical “Porgy and Bess,” and the 1932 classic “Love Me Tonight,” with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.

His last film was the musical “Silk Stockings” in 1957 with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.


Equally at home on the stage, Mamoulian’s landmark musicals included “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” in the 1940s. Later, he collaborated as a writer on several Broadway productions and in 1965 published “Hamlet Revised and Interpreted,” a drama textbook.

Many of his films introduced striking new images to moviegoers, such as a scene with Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina” in which she lovingly strokes inanimate objects, remembering a past love affair. In “Blood and Sand,” starring Tyrone Power, Mamoulian styled many of the scenes after painters, including Goya and El Greco.

His first film, “Applause,” is credited with helping reestablish film as a visual medium capable of extraordinary power.

He rejected the then-popular technique of enclosing cameras in soundproof booths--a practice that restricted the texture and look of early sound films. Instead he employed a camera that could be moved freely about.


Many critics believe his inventive flair was at its height in “Love Me Tonight,” in which he interwove musical numbers by Rodgers and Hart with a classically witty script and off-camera sound tricks.

It was perhaps a mark of his personal appeal that he became lifelong friends with the two stars of that movie, Chevalier and MacDonald.

Clashed With Studio Heads

Nevertheless, because of his fierce independence, he often clashed with the studio chiefs. He completed only 10 minutes of the film “Cleopatra” in the early 1960s before he was fired, and in 1944 he was removed from directing “Laura” and replaced by Otto Preminger.

Franklin Schaffner, Directors Guild of America president, said Mamoulian had “extraordinary talent, insight and courage.”

“More than half a century ago, he and a small group of colleagues fought an uphill battle to create a guild for film directors,” Schaffner said. “His death marks the passing of the last of those extraordinary men who were the founding fathers of the Directors Guild of America.”

Mamoulian and 10 other directors, in a historic meeting at the home of King Vidor in 1936, organized what later became the Directors Guild of America.

The studios were resistant to the idea of creative protection for directors, so Mamoulian, Vidor and others individually wined and dined the top directors, eventually attracting more than 40 to their group.


They demanded official recognition from the producers’ association before the National Labor Relations Board and finally prevailed. Today the guild has more than 7,500 members nationwide.

In a 1986 interview, Mamoulian said the guild won protection not simply for directors but “for the art form.”

In recent years he had decried the violence, cynicism and lack of subtlety in today’s movies, saying that film “can make a statement about man’s dignity, his willingness to transcend himself for the sake of the future.”

‘A Final Uplift’

He likened great films to Shakespeare’s works, which he said used violence, murders and betrayal to lead the audience toward “a final impact, a final uplift.”

Charles Champlin, arts editor for The Times, said Mamoulian was best known for his “amazing range of abilities. The thing that made him quite remarkable was that he did remarkable work both on the stage and in film.”

Champlin said Mamoulian was “an extremely courtly man, and, as film directors go, he could fairly be called an intellectual.”

He said Mamoulian’s second film, “City Streets” in 1931, was “a very good gangster film in which he showed no violence at all and of which he was very proud.”


In 1984, Mamoulian was awarded the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.'s career achievement award and delivered a speech in which he discussed the relationship between film critics and directors.

“Instead of just saying, ‘Thank you a lot,’ he read a speech he had written about how important the critics are to the whole process,” Champlin said. “He put a great deal of thought into everything he did.”

Information on funeral services was not immediately available.

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