The terms are defined as convent school and burlesque house, each with a definite regimen. Mamoulian takes each of these as it comes, within its limitations. They are not the lovers on top of the world or Brooklyn Bridge.
The demands of métier are practically the stuff of sock theatrical drama, as Variety would say and didn’t, absorbed as it was in “the real old burlesque, in its background, people and atmosphere.” The New York Times (Mordaunt Hall) and Time called it the bunk with “camera tricks” and were no more pleased than any self-respecting Gothamite.
A rare critic of perception (Thornton Delehanty) cottoned on early, Mamoulian is so far ahead of the game it’s a wonder.
A very tough gangster film, even though it’s Hammett and Mamoulian on Die Meistersinger.
A dime-a-throw shooting-gallery cowboy can outgun anything, he wants to be in the circus, he’s a sap to a girl in her father’s mob.
She takes the rap and sees the light, while she’s in he rides shotgun on beer trucks and gets rich, as she had wished.
The mob boss makes a play for her when she gets out, all bets are off.
Variety was early on confused by certain camera angles very much to the point, but generally speaking the film is admired for everything but its raison d’être.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
A capital joke, Jekyll’s two-tier theoretical structure collapses like a bachelor’s daydream under the weight of a wedding delayed by “family tradition”, onto a lower order of Hyde.
Mamoulian casts his own rhythm, consciously or not. Every feature and aspect of the film, even the shaky dolly movement, is a deliberate effect of style. The way to see his films is always to give them their head.
The celebrated complex camera moves (“subjective”) and the engagement with style long in advance of its general arrival are all the batter and fizz of a picnic attended by, among others, Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor (he ups the joke by switching the roles), a very fine analysis.
Love Me Tonight
The viscount who doesn’t pay his tradesmen gets a visit from his tailor while staying with the duke whose castle he would like to raze to meet his debts.
There is a princess, she and the tailor fall in love. He is taken for a baron, it’s the viscount’s idea to keep him around for a few days and delay payment.
There is a famous hunting of the stag, and still more, which is very nearly all, the tailor’s dressing-down of the princess and his rapid fashioning of a new riding outfit more suitable. Mallarmé once edited a ladies’ magazine on style.
The tailor’s arrival at the castle ascends flights of stairs that continue with Mastroianni and Ekberg in La dolce vita.
“Rahab of the snows” attains the throne in childhood, vowing to win the Thirty Years War. A sort of isle, Sweden, under her learnéd reign.
Howard’s Fire Over England bears an amazing resemblance to the Spanish ambassador who wooed a Swedish gal. The erotic life awakened in “the murdering matinal pope-confessed amazon” is amply represented, Descartes is avenged.
The Song of Songs
Artist, model and collector.
And there is a tale to tell of fate in the workings of culture, and an eventual understanding, but you wouldn’t know it from the reviews.
The work is brought from such a solid abyss and left to the market that raises it into an edifice with an inevitable reaction that is nothing but destructive, nothing to do then but aspire further.
Mamoulian’s work of genius was, however, spared that fate, having been dismissed by critics at once out of sheer incomprehension, though he had put together an ideal cast to work with, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Aherne, Lionel Atwill, Alison Skipworth et al.
Hitchcock of course picked up a crucial note for Rebecca in the collector’s household.
We Live Again
The absolute conviction that life is somehow lived on a pair of feet, no matter what the circumstances, informs Mamoulian’s unequivocal position. Even in Hollywood, especially in Hollywood, where Blake Edwards livens up The Party with these Russian entertainers.
The nebulous Prince has a crise de conscience in the jury box, a murderous whore on trial before him is the peasant girl he grew up with and wooed and paid, his life has been an Army rise de rigueur through a general’s wife, he’s about to marry the judge’s daughter after various civilian amours.
Christ winking round a lady in the village church on Easter Sunday has the last laugh.
Mamoulian in this explores the vitality (“I shout huzza!”) of the medium shot. It cuts a relief against general backgrounds, or resembles ancient vase painting. The comedy is served on a silver platter, and squeezed like ripe fruits until every drop is drained.
Here is the original of Beckett’s Mrs. W. The medium shot fluctuates into a medium close-up back and forth, punctuated by a close-up or a long shot that dollies elastically to medium (exceptions to this are intercuts and montages), or, for example, tilts to follow a gag down and up with Hopkins. This is a great part for Nigel Bruce, who rarely shows the knife-edge of his subtlety so nicely. Cedric Hardwicke set into relief cuts a long furrow that frays at the ends. Alan Mowbray in a heroic part is a fine usage.
The showy attack by Napoleon is handled exactly like the latter scenes in The Towering Inferno (in a minute or so he has met his historical Waterloo).
Out of these very simple means, Mamoulian achieves some very striking images. But his theme is Vanity Fair, and the formality of the cutting produces beautiful surprises by compression, as his long takes stretch his comedy very taut.
The Gay Desperado
A perfect comedy with songs, achieved by Mamoulian with the semblance of greatest ease.
A melomanic malapropian Mexican bandido takes his muchachos to the Gran Cine Eden for an American gangster picture called Give ‘Em the Works, it gives him ideas.
He puts the theater’s tenor on the radio at gunpoint, fortuitously kidnaps an American couple on their “moneyhoon”, calls in “Señor Butch” the American gangster when they escape, and turns the overbearing hood and his gang in for a fifteen-minute head start.
The tenor and the bride-to-be fall in love, the bridegroom is a rich kid and a drip.
Butch has ringers for Raft and Robinson and Cagney in his mob, the bandido Braganza wears studded swastikas on his leather cuffs.
The location cinematography instantly brings to mind Figueroa in Mexico, Fernandez was probably influenced in his second film, Soy puro mexicano.
Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times was made to stand and applaud “a first-rate musical comedy”, Variety had a hard time with “the aria from Aida, ‘Cielito Lindo.’”
Halliwell and Sarris were not impressed, Basil Wright and Graham Greene certainly were.
Among its perfections, Mamoulian has an absolutely even tone with the cast, all hilarious.
High, Wide and Handsome
Mamoulian is only decades ahead in the celebrated finale, which accounts for some of the adverse criticism. The rest is down to the action, early oilmen face a railroad combine intent on the freeze-out, and have to resort to building a pipeline to the refineries.
It’s oil for the lamps of China and Constantinople and everyplace else on God’s earth versus a business world that gleefully acclaims itself as thieving.
It couldn’t be better or more heroic.
Odets’ equation of a certain kind of success escaped notice in the face of Mamoulian’s attempt to force the issue of his dialogue in a complex Hollywood treatment (Nugent in the New York Times notes the altered ending and sagely reckons la mort c’est l’amour).
This lack of understanding, to put a good face on it, has deepened in time so that Odets himself has been maligned.
The grander point is Bonaparte as “monarch of the masses” (all the characters’ names are expressive) with reference to contemporary Europe, mentioned by Mr. Karp.
Victor Young’s sure touch was acknowledged with an Academy Award nomination.
The Mark of Zorro
A perfect masterpiece deeply-laid by Mamoulian in a style and technique beyond compare.
Variety and Bosley Crowther sniffed in their handkerchiefs nonetheless and pouted lazily, “no Niblo.”
It is astonishingly brilliant, well up to Fairbanks’ original, and Powers’ sound foppism is just the thing. “A situation like this would wreck my constitution in a week.”
Blood and Sand
After the high plateau he attained with The Mark of Zorro, Mamoulian immediately launches into new territory.
He looks back to Becky Sharp and the Old Masters (his El Greco effects are particularly striking), and is ten, twenty and thirty years ahead of everything.
The appalling review in the New York Times eats dust.
Russell in Mahler, Furie in his early trilogy (The Ipcress File, The Appaloosa, The Naked Runner), Reed in The Third Man (Vicente Gomez’ guitar), and Wood in The Pride of the Yankees, have various ways of admiring an aspect presented by Mamoulian, one of which is The Mark of Zorro.
Rings on Her Fingers
The amazing failure of Rings on her Fingers to win any plaudits is entirely incomprehensible. Perfection was the ideal Mamoulian sought, it freed him for the shaping of Gene Tierney’s role, primarily a vocal performance in several keys. These include the wisecracking shopgirl, the Forties ingénue, the young lady of sophistication, the good daughter, and the bride-to-be.
Each of the other unique performances (Henry Fonda, Spring Byington, Laird Cregar, Henry Stephenson) is played straight on, to a sort of kaleidoscopic effect.
Since Mamoulian’s career all but ended after this film, these superfluous remarks have the value of necessity. Reviewers have never been able to follow the plot, and so have not perceived the characteristic Mamoulian complexity in a young girl (Tierney) given her chance to escape the lingerie counter by two swindlers (Byington, Cregar) out to fleece a millionaire, any millionaire. The one they pick (Fonda) buys a yacht from them they don’t own, he’s poor, his life savings are gone.
The girl falls in love, ditches a rich marriage for real, and lets the sucker win his money back at gambling, courtesy of an old friend (Stephenson) to the little mob she’s in.
The play is abstracted for doggerel patter that floats between the Thirties and the Forties. If all the flitters of all the forces brought into play in a single dramatic situation were lovingly set there by the hand of an artist, it would be Mamoulian. Otherwise, the thing scatters and falls to pieces, like Uncle Sid on the bottle without Lily, she who remembers a nefarious past, and there it is, Richard Miller betwixt Dannville High and Yale contemplated in wisdom by his father. All of this on stage at the same time is the O’Neill proposition.
Only in more recent times have reviewers come to see it as anything more than a mirror to Bosley Crowther’s inanity.
Mamoulian’s mighty musical of Ninotchka, by courtesy of Cole Porter and Kaufman, MacGrath & Burrows, Gershe & Spigelglass.
“How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Collective Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?”
Eugene Loring and Hermes Pan share the sound stage for the two grand showstoppers, “Red Blues” and “The Ritz Roll and Rock”, there are a couple of famous numbers to boot, and still more (Loring’s extra skip-step is a great invention).
A film of great severity, and equal address, in dealing with the Soviet state and apparatchiks.
C’est le comble, as they say in Paris.
Rave review from Bosley Crowther (New York Times), another from Variety (“if over-long”), and Tom Milne in Time Out Film Guide (“irresistible”).
And it is the very same theme as his first film, Applause, Comrade Yoschenko’s convent gear and Peggy Dayton’s burlesque garments show this.
So much for mass movements. “You cannot do this to me, I am the Commissar of Art!”