Film Essays & Articles >> Armenians and American Film

By Dickran Kouymjian

Haig & Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies, California State University, Fresno

Translated from a talk given in French in Paris, and printed in the book catalogue of the major 1993 Armenian film festival Le Cinéma Arménien (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1993), pp. 104-122

(English translation by Leo Damrosch)

No one has yet attempted to write the history of Armenian film in America. The terms have not even been defined that would allow an adequate consideration of what is meant by “Armenian film.” It is necessary, therefore, to approach the question on several levels, some of which involve the very concept of making Armenian films. If by that is meant films in the Armenian language, their number is not great – only half a dozen, from a few directors. The field is appreciably larger if we take account of films and documentaries made by Armenians or concerning Armenians, but even then it remains relatively narrow, twenty or so. Only when we include films made by directors of Armenian origin, and include as well producers, actors, film editors, and technicians, can we begin to speak of “Armenians in American cinema” as a huge subject that concerns hundreds of films and dozens of actors.

In this brief overview it is impossible to refer to everything, and we must limit ourselves to a general assessment of some of the films that were screened during the Festival of Armenian Cinema at the Centre Pompidou. Special attention will be given to films in the Armenian language, and to Armenian directors.

The oldest footage of the “made in America” type concerning the Armenians is a valuable fifteen minute film made in the Armenian Republic in 1919 by the Broadcasting Service of the U.S. Army, for the commission that was sent there, under the direction of General James G. Harbard, by President Woodrow Wilson. Harbard’s mission was to investigate the possibility that the United States might assume the mandate over Armenia after the First World War. This film, which is preserved in the National Archives in Washington, captures the Republic in its second year of existence, and contains moving images of the Armenian leaders of that time. J. Michael Hagopian, to whom we will refer again, used excerpts from it in historical documentaries on the Armenian question and on the life of Armenians in the United States. He also produced a thirty-minute film Mandate for Armenia based on the Harbard film.

Not long afterward, a film on the Genocide entitled Auction of Souls was distributed; I have not seen it. It was inspired by Ravished Armenia by H.L. Gates, published in 1918 by the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, which told the story of Aurora (Archalouys) Mardiganian. Oscar Apfel directed this film, which had a screenplay by Nora Wain and was produced by William N. Selig. Mardiganian played herself, and Irving Cummings was her lover Antranig. Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador in Turkey at the time of the Genocide, made a brief appearance, as did two hundred Armenian orphans. The film was shown in 1919 and 1920 in most major cities in America, as well as in Mexico, Cuba, and Great Britain, and probably in France as well. Publicity for it appeared in American newspapers, for example in the Los Angeles Examiner of June 23, 1919. There was an extended showing of it in Clunes Auditorium. The film was made under the auspices of the Committee for Armenian Relief, a humanitarian organization, which is known to have done publicity since the posters announcing it have come down to us, but so far as I know no copy of the film exists. (Some fifteen minutes of the film has been recovered from footage which ended up in the Armenian archives and is now available on a commercial video.)

Another film from that period, probably made in New York in 1922 or 1923, was entitled Harem Master. It supposedly described the life of General Antranig, and the rather startling title presumably helped with distribution. Setrag Vartanian (I will talk about his films later) was involved with the distribution; according to him, it was made by a certain Baghdassarian.

One assumes that a number of amateur documentaries were produced in America during that period, and one of those has recently surfaced. Made in 1924 by Vahan Altchian, its subject was General Antranig, who was then living in Fresno, California. Copies may be found in Erevan and Paris. The film archive of the Program of Armenian Studies at California State University, Fresno, has three reels of film, amounting to thirty minutes altogether, dating from 1929-1931. These show picnics on the East Coast of the United States, one of which was organized by the Hentchak party, where Armenian political and religious figures of the time can be seen.

The first person to make films in the Armenian language in this country was Setrag Vartian (Diyarbekir 1904 – Los Angeles 1984). His two films and a documentary were all made in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Vartian began his career in the Armenian theater in the United States, with roles as an actor and singer in the famous play Archin Mal Alan in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He set up a production company in New York and New Jersey, and in 1937, almost by himself, he produced, directed, and played the lead role in his first long film. Even today, Archin Mal Alan, with its period décor of 1900, its vitality, and its broad farce, continues to delight the public. This comedy of manners, written originally in Azerbaijanian and translated by Malalian, continues to have success in Armenia. The story is of a young westernized bourgeois who, to find a fiancée, disguises himself as an itinerant merchant in order to gain access to women. In spite of some technical defects, the film has the same spontaneity and freshness as the play.

Vartian settled in California before making his two other films during the 1940s. The first was a full-length feature, the opera Anoush by Armen Tigranian (1945), with Zarouhi Elmassian, his wife, in the lead role. His last film was a dramatic documentary, The Life and Songs of Gomidas Vartabed (1946). In the 1970s Vartian went to Erevan, with the intention of co-producing Kikor by Hovhannes Toumanian, with a very elaborate screenplay, but the project came to nothing. A quarter of a century had to pass before a new series of films in Armenian made in America would see the light.

During the entire period from the late 1920s to the late 1950s, one name dominated the imagination of Armenians – Rouben Mamoulian (Tiflis 1897-Los Angeles 1987). Born to a well-placed family and devoted to the arts, he was attracted from adolescence onward to the theater. In the end he went to Moscow to study law, but he worked in theater at the same time with such masters as the Armenian Yevgeny Vakhtangov and the legendary Constantine Stanislavski. In 1922 he achieved sudden fame in London when he directed at the St. James Theatre. The following year, after turning down an offer from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, he went to Rochester, New York, where George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, appointed him director of his new American Opera Theatre. During three years there, he directed operas by Verdi, Bizet, Wagner, Debussy, and Gilbert and Sullivan. He then moved to Broadway where he became one of the most sought-after directors on the American stage. In 1929 Paramount invited him to visit its Astoria studio in New York where a film was being made with the idea of enticing him into directing films. That same year he made his own first film, Applause, one of the great classics of the first year of talking pictures. His direction of Helen Morgan, and his characteristic feeling for movement and rhythm, demonstrated to all that Mamoulian had made the transition from stage to screen with ease, and in addition that he was a great creator and innovator.

In the ensuing fourteen years, Mamoulian directed – and sometimes produced – fourteen films, most of which stand among the Hollywood classics. His ingenuity, daring, intelligence, and sophistication brought a badly-needed dimension to American cinema. His final last films were made after the Second World War, Summer Holiday (1947) and Silk Stockings (1957). During his career he directed the greatest actors of the day: Frederic March, Greta Garbo, Helen Morgan, Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Randolph Scott, Irene Dunn, Anthony Quinn, John Carradine, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Walter Huston, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, and still more, in films as diverse as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Queen Christina (1933), The Mark of Zorro (1940), Becky Sharp (1935), and Song of Songs (1933).

Mamoulian continued to work on Broadway as well, where he directed some of the most famous American musicals: Porgy and Bess (1935), Oklahoma! (1943), and Carousel (1945). During his last thirty years he was also involved in various theatrical productions, such as Hamlet (1966), and he wrote a great deal. His oeuvre in American film and theater has long been considered classic, and there have been some thirty Rouben Mamoulian festivals, three of them in Paris.

As an example of innovation, one may cite Becky Sharp (1935), the first film to employ Technicolor – which had just been invented – in a dramatic way. In this film, color served not just to enhance the image but was also used symbolically, which Mamoulian discussed in a number of articles. For example, in the great scene of the ball, light colors turn into green and blue, and then, in a dramatic alteration, into a red that intensifies as the threat of Napoleon’s cannons comes closer to the ballroom. Becky Sharp was based on a masterpiece of English literature, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and it is one of the rare films that come close to conveying the essence of a great novel. Miriam Hopkins, the star of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was masterfully directed by Mamoulian, giving proof of his genius in getting the most from a great actress. In addition to innovation in the use of color, this film had his habitual hallmark of rhythm and elegance. Jacques Siclier brought these qualities out well in Le Monde (Dec. 9, 1987), in a tribute entitled “The Death of Rouben Mamoulian, Director of Stars.”

William Saroyan, the American writer of Armenian descent, admired Mamoulian and formed a friendship with him when he worked in Hollywood in 1936 and again in 1942. It was in 1942 that Saroyan made a film – in bizarre circumstances – at the MGM studio. In December, 1941, Louis B. Mayer brought him from Broadway to Hollywood to write a screenplay that might inspire the American public with the surge of patriotism that was needed after entering the war. This was The Human Comedy (1943, 118 minutes), which afterwards became Saroyan’s first novel. He was anxious to direct the filming in order to prevent what had happened to his plays, which had been adapted by so-called professionals who were incapable of grasping his deeper intent. When Mayer asked if he had previously done a film, Saroyan replied, “No, but give me three days and I’ll give you a professional one.” Mayer agreed, so as not to offend him, and three days later Saroyan came back with The Good Job, a short subject (11 minutes) taken from his short story “A Number of Poor.” This film was distributed by MGM in 1942, but he was not allowed to direct The Human Comedy. Furious, the writer quit MGM and tried to buy back his screenplay for $80,000. (Mayer had paid him $60,000 for his work.) In his rage, Saroyan transformed the screenplay into a novel that was published just before the film came out. The film, directed by Clarence Brown, starred Mickey Rooney; it enjoyed immediate success, as did the novel. Saroyan also wrote a very acid play against Louis Mayer, Get Away Old Man, which was produced on Broadway in 1943. Ironically, in the same year he won the Oscar for best screenplay for The Human Comedy.

In 1948, James Cagney and his brother produced a full-length feature (109 minutes), directed by H.C. Potter, based on the play The Time of Your Life, which had won Saroyan the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. In addition to these three films, three others, all very short, have been based on his short stories. The Barber Whose Uncle Had His Head Bit Off by a Circus Lion (1984, 16 minutes) and The Coldest Winter since 1854 (1987, 31 minutes) were both directed by Valery Melkonian in the ArmenFilm Studio in Erevan, the latter with dialogue in English. And his nephew Hank Saroyan has just completed a third film, The Parsley Garden (1993, 30 minutes). There have also been fifteen or so televised productions based on various plays and short stories by Saroyan, six of which were supervised by the author himself in 1953 for the famous Omnibus program of Alistair Cooke. The Fresno photographer Paul Kalinian made two films about Saroyan, William Saroyan: An Introduction (1982, 25 minutes), a montage of old photographs with narration by Saroyan himself, and William Saroyan: The Man, The Writer (1991, 63 minutes).
Apart from Mamoulian, it was not until after the Second World War that Armenians appeared as directors. During the 1960s two of them, Aram Avakian (New York, 1926-1987) and Richard Sarafian (New York, 1927– ), were considered significant directors in Hollywood and New York. Avakian, after studies at Yale and the Sorbonne, began with documentaries such as Jazz on a Summer Day (1959, 84 minutes), which was the first full-length documentary on a jazz festival. He later made Girl of the Night (codirector, 1960), in which the new techniques of freeze-frame and jump cut were used brilliantly; Lad, A Dog (1963, 100 minutes); and End of the Road (1970, 110 minutes). Cops and Robbers (1973, 89 minutes), with Stacey Keach, was his most controversial film and also his most amusing, about a pair of New York policemen who enter the world of crime and then free themselves from it (shown in Paris in August, 1983 at the Olympic). Last of all he directed 11 Harrow House (1974, 95 minutes) with Candace Bergen, James Mason, John Gielgud, and Charles Grodin. Avakian was also admired as a film editor, and from 1983 to 1986 was a professor of cinematic art at the College of Arts in Purchase, New York.

The best known film of Richard Sarafian is probably Vanishing Point (1971, 99 and 107 minutes), with Barry Newman and Charlotte Rampling, which soon became a cult film. It has what is undoubtedly the most complicated car chase of all time, and above all it embodies the twentieth-century allegorical journey of the “stranger” and the “marginal.” Close friends with Robert Altman in Kansas, Sarafian married his sister. His other films are: Ordeal at Dry Red (1957); a western, Terror at Black Falls (1962, 76 minutes); Andy (1963, 86 minutes), which had a success at Cannes; I Spy (a televised series with Bill Cosby, 1963 to 1968); Run Wild, Run Free (1969, 100 minutes); Fragment of Fear (1970), with David Hemmings; Man in the Wilderness (1971, 105 minutes), with Richard Harris and John Huston; Lolly Madona XXX (1973, 103 minutes), with Rod Steiger (shown at the Olympic in August, 1983); The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973, 114 minutes), with Burt Reynolds, Sarah Miles and Lee J. Cobb; The Next Man (1976, 108 minutes) with Sean Connery; Sunburn (1979, 94 minutes), with Farah Fawcett; The Gangster Wars (1981, 121 minutes); Eye of the Tiger (1986, 90 minutes); Liberty (1986, made for television on the centenary of the Statue of Liberty); and Street Justice (1987, 93 minutes).

In 1964 the first postwar film in Armenian was made in Hollywood by Marzpetouni. A Debt of Blood had Lillit Marzpetouni and Sarky Mouradian as stars, and its goal was to use this commercial venture to obtain funds to finance a film on the Genocide, in particular the events of Karahissar, with the title The Forgotten Cry. Marzpetouni’s premature death left the screenplay unfinished.

At about the same time, J. Michael Hagopian (Van 1913– ), after having earned a doctorate in international relations at Harvard, turned to cinema by founding the Atlantis Films Company. It produced over fifty documentary films on ethnic minorities and foreign lands, such as Ali and His Baby Camel (1953), Asian Earth (1954, 22 minutes), Jerusalem, Center of Many Worlds (1969), Africa Is My Home (1978, 21 minutes), and Century of Silence (1978) on the American Indians. Hagopian began making Armenian documentaries with Historical Armenia (1967), Where Are My People? and Soviet Boy, but it was a film made in 1975 for the sixtieth anniversary of the Genocide that most impressed viewers, more or less worldwide. There are two versions of the film, a short version, The Forgotten Genocide (1975, 28 minutes), and a longer one, The Armenian Case (1976, 43 minutes). Both were narrated by Michael Connors (Ohanian), known to millions of television viewers as Mannix. The American television networks broadcast both films. Hagopian also made an important documentary, Strangers in a Promised Land (1984, 65 minutes), which recounted the history of Fresno, a typical Armeno-American community in California, the hometown of Saroyan and many others, from 1881 to 1981. The narrator was the Armenian former governor of California, George Deukmejian. This work was enthusiastically received. Its intention was to show, in positive terms, the accomplishments of Armenians in spite of the Genocide, and also the persecution and discrimination in America. In addition, Hagopian was the founder of the Armenian Film Foundation (AFF), which financed this film and mounted (together with other groups) a major project of videotaping the testimony of Genocide survivors. Other films promoted by the AFF included Legacy (1987, 43 minutes) on the significance of films about the history of Armenia; Cilicia, Rebirth (1988, 26 minutes); Ararat Beckons (1990, 48 minutes) on the first ascent of Mount Ararat; and The Armenian Genocide (1991, 25 minutes), which was intended for the California public schools, but whose distribution was halted after it was violently attacked by the Turkish-American lobby. The AFF also organizes Armenian film festivals in Los Angeles.

In 1970, Sarky Mouradian began to make films in Armenian which had popular success, but whose cinematic value is disputable; they were widely criticized by movie buffs. These were Tears of Happiness, Sons of Sassoun (1976-1977), and Promise of Love (1978). Mouradian’s last film, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1982) was produced by John Kurkjian, who had bought the rights from MGM. Despite heavy publicity, this English-speaking film was an artistic failure, and to my knowledge was shown only in Armenian milieux. It was not just the mediocrity of conception that was disappointing, but also the failure to exploit a work that had real Armenian value. When will another film based on Franz Werfel’s novel be attempted? Henri Verneuil was probably right to say that the book did not lend itself to film adaptation, and perhaps it would have required a Mamoulian, who was able to draw the brilliant Becky Sharp from another kind of difficult novel, Vanity Fair. It is said that Mamoulian offered to give Mouradian and Kurkjian unpaid assistance with The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (a project he was well informed about, since in 1935 MGM had bought the original rights to it and he was to have taken charge of the production). They politely responded, however, that they had no need of his services.

To the same category of films belongs Hrayr Toukhanian’s Assignment Berlin (1982), which tells, in English, the story of the assassination of Talaat Pasha and the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian. Toukhanian had previously made documentaries for corporations, but he was unable to produce works of quality. Once again, despite using well-known professional actors, this film did not impress an informed public, but it had the same sort of success as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh since it appealed to the popular nationalist imagination. And once again a great opportunity had been wasted. Who will make another film on that subject any time soon?

At the end of the 1980s, younger directors produced three very good films on the Genocide and its consequences. The best of these was by Theodore Boghosian of Boston, who had gained a high reputation in public television before producing and directing An Armenian Journey (1988, 60 minutes). The principal character was a refugee from the Genocide, Miriam Davis. Boghosian accompanied her on a visit to her birthplace in Turkey, and to the places where she had watched her father, her mother, and her brother die one after another. Back to Ararat (1988, 100 minutes), by the Swede Pea Holmquist, is likewise a moving documentary, produced by a Swedish-American company and distributed in America.

Among those who have made documentaries on the Genocide and the present-day problems of Armenia, one may cite Eva Medzorian, who produced Nagorno-Karabagh: A Quest for Human Rights (1992, 6 minutes) and Armenian Struggle for Survival, Refugees (1993, 16 minutes), in collaboration with the director Zhirayr Agavelyan; also Razmik Grigorian, from Great Britain, who won the first prize of the Armenian Film Foundation in 1984 with Missing One (1984, 23 minutes), the story of an English soldier who witnessed the Genocide; and Harpik Avedian, Armenian Genocide (1987). One should note as well Everyone’s Not Here: Families of the Armenian Genocide (1988, 29 minutes), produced for the Armenian Assembly of America by Intersection Associates, which explores the relationship between the refugees and their Americanized grandchildren; and Bread from Stones: Armenia after the Earthquake (1990, 25 minutes), made by Moving Images of Seattle.

The directors cited thus far constitute a list that is far from being exhaustive. One should mention as well the films of Bob Kelljan (1930-1982): Count Yorga; Vampire (1970, 91 minutes); The Return of Count Yorga (1971); Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973, 96 minutes); and Angels in Vegas (1978). Kelljan was known in addition for his work in television.

In order to see films of quality produced or directed by Armenians in America, we must turn our attention to the new generation whose members have studied cinematography in the best American universities. Among the best-known producers are Howard Kazanjian with The Return of the Jedi, and Bob Papazian with The Day After, made for television. These two films had great success in France, both on the big screen and on the small. The most promising directors of all have yet to reach their forties, or indeed their thirties. Nigol Bezjian (1955– ), originally from Aleppo, who did his film training at universities in New York and Los Angeles, is the first to have dealt with political violence in Armenia, in The Hour of the Grey Horse (1984, 54 minutes), which won a prize in that year in the competition organized by the Armenian Film Foundation. It is the story of a young militant who kills a Turkish diplomat. Bezjian’s previous films – A Rock, a Rope, and a Tree (1980, 25 minutes), Cycle Carmen (1981, 27 minutes), Hangman (1982, 9 minutes), and Billy’s Night (1986, 18 minutes) – are short subjects that treat love in a dramatic way. His latest and most ambitious film is a bilingual full-length feature, Chickpeas (1992, 120 minutes), in Armenian and English. It recounts the adventures of three young Armenian immigrants who leave one diaspora, in Beirut, for another in Los Angeles. Bezjian drew upon the documentaries of Artinian and Madzounian that have already been mentioned. His wife, Roxanne Bezjian (Los Angeles 1961– ), drawing on her experience in television, has just completed an excellent documentary, Charles Garry, Street Fighter in the Courtroom (1992, 60 minutes), in which she pays tribute to the lawyer Charles Garry (Garabedian, 1910-1992), who, in the cause of human rights, constantly undertook the defense in difficult cases that no one else wanted to get involved with.

Other young Armenian directors are working in Los Angeles. Bill Ohannessian, whose editing of Hagopian’s Strangers in a Promised Land helped to make it an above average film, has also experimented with new techniques. His Shaved Legs (1981) was planned for the first Armenian Film Festival in Los Angeles in 1982, but at present he edits films rather than directing them. Tina Bastajian (Los Angeles 1962– ) has made two short experimental films, Oyster Bar (1984, 6 minutes), with dialogue in French and English, and Yellow Aria (1986, 13 minutes), in English and Italian. For several years she worked on a bilingual film in Armenian and English, dealing with memory, forced deportations, survival, and women, which is entitled Jagadakeer-Destiny: What Is Written on One’s Forehead (1989-1993, 30 minutes). Sylvette Artinian, who finished her studies at UCLA, edits videos. For her drama Waiting for Mary (1989, 20 minutes) Nigol Bezjian was her assistant director and Ara Madzounian assistant cameraman. Madzounian has produced a number of films: The Dull Blade (1985); This Time (1986), in video; The Pin Elephant (1987), filmed by Nigol Bezjian; and lastly, in collaboration with Czech television, a documentary on Armenia entitled Land of Open Graves (1990). He is working at present on an educational film whose subject is Armenians and AIDS. One should mention also Melvie Arslanian, who made a twenty-five minute experimental film in the 1980s called Stilletto, and Deran Sarafian, the son of Richard Sarafian, who produced a series of horror films – Alien Predators (1986, 92 minutes), Death Warrant (1990, 89 minutes), and To Die For (1989, 94 minutes) – and, most recently, a spy film made in Moscow.

The actress Nora Armani, born in Cairo, also plays an important role in the Armenian film scene in Los Angeles. She is the first American actress to have performed in an Armenian-language film – Zhamgedeh Yot Or (Deadline: Seven Days) (1992, 98 minutes), made by Ara Ernjakian of Erevan – and she is the official distributor of ArmenFilm in the United States, through her own company, Meronk Films. Together with her husband, the actor Gérard Papazian, she created and directed Sojourn to Ararat, a dramatic presentation of Armenian literature through the ages.

Less familiar in Armenian circles is the documentary maker Gary Conklin (Chankalian, Fresno 1932– ), who is interested in artists, writers, and intellectuals. His best known films are: Paul Bowles in Morocco (1970, 57 minutes), on the American composer and author; Rufino Tamayo: The Sources of His Art (1972, 28 minutes), narrated by Octavio Paz and John Huston, and with music by Carlos Chávez; Memories of Berlin: The Twilight of Weimar Culture (1976, 72 minutes), a coproduction with the Canadian Broadcasting Company; L.A. Suggested by the Art of Edward Ruscha (1980, 28 minutes); Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No (1983, 99 minutes), a feature-length film on the writer-critic’s campaign to become a senator from California; Notes from “Under the Volcano” (1984, 59 minutes), about the filming of Under the Volcano by John Huston; and most recently, A Question of Class: English Literary Life 1918-1945 (1992, 100 minutes). At present Conklin is doing research for a documentary on William Saroyan, and is also at work on a film about Hollywood social life.

Among other documentary filmmakers, Alex Keshishian made a name for himself with his Truth or Dare, or In Bed with Madonna (1991, 118 minutes), as did Ara Chekmajian, winner of an Emmy, who directed a fine biography, Forever James Dean (1988, 69 minutes). Less satisfying is the Dr. Caligari (1989, 80 minutes) of Stephan Sayadian, a clumsy parody of the great classic.

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