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Mamoulian: Unforgettable--and Forgotten

December 08, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

When he was younger, Rouben Mamoulian, who died on Friday at the age of 90, used to be annoyed that people thought he was older than he was.

He had begun very young, giving acting classes in his native Tiflis, Russia, when he was only 20, directing his first play in London at 24, beginning work in the U.S. at 25, directing the drama "Porgy" (from which came "Porgy and Bess") on Broadway at 29.

At a luncheon George Cukor gave for Luis Bunuel years ago, Mamoulian was remembering a triumphant return to Tiflis after he had become a world-famous Hollywood director.

"A very old man came up to me and said, 'Ah, Mamoulian, what a pleasure to meet you. I saw one of your films when I was just a little boy.' I told the old man, 'And do you know how old I was when I made that film? Three years old .' "

There was a touch of the wry, if not an edge of bitterness, in Mamoulian's anecdote. He had made his last film, the elegant and inventive Cole Porter musical "Silk Stockings" with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, in 1957 when he was still only 59. He was inactive as a film maker for the last 30 years of his life and it seemed a waste.

Only a handful of directors--Elia Kazan, Joshua Logan and Mike Nichols come quickly to mind--have worked with equal innovative skills on both stage and screen. "Porgy and Bess," "Carousel," "Lost in the Stars" and "Oklahoma!" would have sustained any stage director's reputation.

But Mamoulian was also one of those pioneer definers of what the movies can achieve. His "City Streets" in 1931, with its stunning opening sequence of speeding vehicles seemingly photographed from a manhole, is a gangster film in which the violence is all off-screen. It is a classic demonstration of the movies' powers of suggestion and implication, which Mamoulian also exercised to grand effect in the area of romantic passions.

It may be that his lost years were due partly to his reputation as a strong-willed and uncompromising film maker who wanted things his own way, not the producer's. He is famous not least for having been replaced by Otto Preminger on both "Laura" and Sam Goldwyn's filming of "Porgy and Bess" and for being one of the casualties of "Cleopatra," which Joe Mankiewicz took over.

It was certainly true that Mamoulian, like Frank Capra, perceived that the movies in the '60s and '70s were not going his way. Elegance and restraint were not hallmarks in the period of acrid social realism, graphic violence and everything-bared, no-holds-barred sexuality.

Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that Mamoulian was another of those senior film makers who were ignored or rejected by a later generation of Hollywood decision-makers.

Frank Capra, now seriously ailing, made his last feature, "A Pocketful of Miracles," in 1961 when he was still only a vigorous 64. He has watched with irony as "Capraesque" has become a sell-word for any film with a happy ending, although he was earlier convinced that he had gone out of style.

King Vidor directed the vigorous lust-in-the-dust epic "Solomon and Sheba" in 1959 when he was only 65. It was far from the best script he'd had to work with, but its energy, and his, were evident. Yet Vidor worked on nothing but some documentaries of his own devising the last two decades of his life.

The wasted potential can be measured by the exceptions who were able to keep busy: George Cukor doing "Love Among the Ruins" and two other important films for television in his 70s and the feature "Rich and Famous" at 82. It, too, was not the best script of a career that included "Dinner at Eight" and "The Philadelphia Story," but it was an assured and sophisticated piece of work.

The remarkable Luis Bunuel had co-authored and directed "That Obscure Object of Desire," a provocative and bizarrely original film (with two actresses alternating in the same role) at 77, and was preparing another film on terrorism when he died at 83.

Alfred Hitchcock, who did "Family Plot" at 77, had been preparing another film at his death at 81. It is said that Fred Zinnemann, whose credits include "High Noon" and "A Man for All Seasons" and who is 80, would like to work again even now. His impeccably mounted but weak-scripted "Five Days One Summer" appeared in 1982, when he was 75.

When a great career ends, the attention is inevitably on the achievements: Mamoulian's "Applause," "Queen Christina," "Golden Boy," titles from a Hollywood that had predeceased him by many years. Yet in the case of the witty and erudite Armenian who gave the movies a real touch of class, it is hard not to give thought to what else might have been.

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