From the Vault: The Golden Age of Armenian Cinema

Paramount Pictures, before adopting its monumental name, was first known as Famous Players.

Rouben Mamoulian would later work for Paramount Pictures in the 1920s and 1930s, and if we could embrace that term as our own, we can discover our own culture’s Famous Players.

I plan on focusing on some of these actors, writers, directors, and musicians in depth when the time comes, often dedicating an entire article to them if necessary, but an introduction to some of these artists is essential. Their contributions to cinema, in general, have had and will continue to have lasting effects.

Rouben Mamoulian remains an inspiration for countless filmmakers for his preference of stylization over realism. In 1923, after having been born and raised in Tiflis (now Tbilisi) and having worked in London directing plays for a year, he earned the attention of Vladimir Rosing and moved to the United States, teaching music, directing opera and theatre.

In his career, which spanned over three decades, he directed films for major studios, such as Paramount Pictures, MGM, Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox, and worked with stars such as Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, and Fred Astaire. In addition to having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he was also a two-time winner at the Venice Film Festival (1932 and 1935) and received a Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award in 1982.

There are also a number of filmmakers who achieved international success with their films. Sergei Parajanov’s parents (Isoif and Siranush) were both artists and he adopted their artistic sensibilities. In 1945, he enrolled in VGIK (one of the oldest and most respected film schools in Europe). In his career as a filmmaker and an artist, however, he was continuously censored and banned. In particular, he was criticized for his representation of religion in his visual masterpiece Sayat Nova (1968), also known as The Color of Pomegranates.

In 1973, Sergei Parajanov was imprisoned on charges on rape and homosexuality. This provoked protests from a number of respected filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini, who wrote letters pleading for this “master of cinema” to be released from prison.

The written word was another form of expression for our culture’s filmmakers. The writer of Battleship Potemkin (1925), one of the most studied films in the history of cinema, was Nina Agadzhanova. The director of the film, Sergei Eisenstein, is known for his theories on collision montage editing. The film has influenced filmmakers for nearly a century and is known for its famous scene, the Odessa Steps sequence.

In 1944, William Saroyan became the first Armenian to win an Academy Award for his work on The Human Comedy, the same year in which Casablanca won Best Picture. William Saroyan never even attended the ceremony and is said to have given his award away to his sister, which later fell into he hands of various pawn shops before finally being donated to William Saroyan Society in Fresno.

In more recent years, Steven Zaillian has made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most respected screenwriters. Steven Zaillian won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Schindler’s List, and his screenplays have been directed in the hands of some of the most well known filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. Steven Zaillian transitioned into directing himself and has directed actors such as Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins and Kate Winslet.

Stanley Kubrick’s epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) consists of Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane Ballet Suite.” The musician was born to a poor family and was later surrounded with artists, and although he didn’t have any experience, he enrolled in musical composition classes, showcasing an immense amount of creative sensibilities. In 1935, he composed the score for the first Armenian sound film, Pepo (1935), and his work today is immediately recognizable with audiences.

Charles Aznavour is considered a major force in the world of music and has been labeled the Frank Sinatra of France, but he has also worked in a number of films with respected filmmakers. François Truffaut, one of the fathers of the French New Wave, cast him in the lead for Shoot the Piano Player (1960). In 1999, he followed in the footsteps of Aram Khachaturian, and had his music featured in a Stanley Kubrick film, this time, the filmmaker’s last feature film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

It’s difficult to piece together a concise history of a nation’s cinema. In fact, the films and filmmakers I have brought to attention have worked outside of Armenia itself.

The ultimate goal is to learn from each of these creative artists, some of which deserve to forever be known as our culture’s Famous Players.

This article was originally published for Yerevan Magazine on October 31, 2011.