Applause (1929 USA 78 mins)
Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Paramount Prod: Monta Bell, Jesse Lasky and Walter Wanger Dir: Rouben Mamoulian Scr: Garrett Elsden Fort, from Beth Brown’s novel Phot: George J. Folsey Ed: John Bassler
Cast: Helen Morgan, Joan Peers, Fuller Melish, Jack Cameron, Henry Wadsworth, Dorothy Cumming
Those of us tempted to proclaim the death of cinema should take heart; critics have been pronouncing the medium dead almost since its birth. And rarely can such prophecies have seemed more justified than at the end of the ’20s, as the silent cinema’s rich, flexible and beautiful language of images gave way to the primitive sound film. Paul Rotha spoke for a generation of theorists when he wrote that “the introduction of the human voice merely relieves the director of his most serious obligation, to convey meaning to the mind by means of the resources of the visual cinema[…]. The dialogue film at best can only be a poor substitute for the stage.” (1) Anyone who has sat through even a tiny fraction of the flood of such tinny, static, stagy early talkies as Rio Rita (Luther Reed, 1929) and The Great Gabbo (James Cruze, 1929) will admit that he had a point. Yet at the same time, a few creative filmmakers were beginning to experiment with the possibilities of the new medium, exploiting the dramatic potential of sound alongside the visual eloquence carried over from silent cinema. One such filmmaker was Rouben Mamoulian, whose first movie, Applause, shot in 1929, released in January 1930, may qualify as the earliest sound film that can be considered outstanding.
Mamoulian is one of Hollywood’s most fascinating marginal figures. His brief time in the sun, when he was trusted with major projects and critically acclaimed, gave way to a longer period of frustration, when producers became hostile and work scarce. He was both innovator and plagiarist – sometimes, as in his masterly pastiche of the Lubitsch musical, Love Me Tonight (1932), both at once. And while his imitations would often pass for the real thing, his stylistic innovations were so striking that they have tended to become detached, in the minds of critics and audiences, from the narratives they support. Thus Becky Sharp (1935) is remembered more as the first film in three-strip Technicolor than as Hollywood’s slyest screen rendering of Thackeray; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) more for its experiments with subjective camera than for its brooding portrait of sexual repression in a gloomy Victorian London; and Applause, more for its creative manipulations of the soundtrack than because it is, despite its flaws, one of the cinema’s most heartrending studies of human degradation.
Applause is perhaps Hollywood’s least romantic study of show business, and its most tragic exposition of mother love. It recounts the decline and fall of Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan), a burlesque singer who sacrifices herself for her innocent daughter April (Joan Peers). Its title is ironic: Mamoulian’s film is about what happens when the applause fades. The opening shots – including an extended track over a grimy road strewn with torn posters for the heroine’s burlesque show – create the mood; already, Kitty is trampled into the ground. The theatre itself, visualised as an underworld of grime and squalor, is sharply delineated in a few shots, before Kitty, on stage, collapses and goes into labour. Determined that her child will not know the same harsh life, Kitty sends her to a convent school. But when the naive April returns, she is faced with the same threat of exploitation in the corrupt world of show business: a destiny which threatens her possible happiness….
It is in the light of this narrative that Mamoulian’s visual and sonic innovations must be understood: they are, as film technique always should be, at the service of the movie’s themes and feelings. Himself born in the territory that would become Soviet Armenia, Mamoulian contrived montage juxtapositions almost worthy of Eisenstein; a dissolve from the vaulted roofs of the convent school church to the similarly shaped vaultings of New York’s Grand Central station conveys with full force the contrast between the sacred, sheltered world that April has left, and the ruthless, commercialised, secular world which will now claim her. Mamoulian’s use of the sights and sounds of New York City daringly looks beyond the glamorous facade in a more abrasive manner than almost any other Hollywood melodrama: his expressionist effects sometimes giving the air of film noir to the landscape of refuse and sordid back rooms.
Mamoulian’s most daring innovations were with sound. When April first returns to New York, Kitty comforts her by singing a lullaby, while April herself murmurs a prayer under her breath. Against all the advice of his cameraman, George Folsey, Mamoulian demanded that both lullaby and prayer be recorded simultaneously. Primitive sound equipment could not detect both sounds with one microphone, so Mamoulian insisted on using two, combining the tracks in the cutting room. The technique broke new ground in 1929, but, seen today, when its originality is no longer apparent, the scene is still fiercely moving; a tender description of the comforting power of human love in a hostile world.
If Applause now appears somewhat dated, that is mainly due to incidental details. Much of the acting, in particular, seems heavy-handed, but no such criticisms apply to the stunning performance of Helen Morgan as Kitty. Her acting incarnates the pain and despair of the heroine with perfect conviction, and gives the tragic climax an overwhelming intensity. Too glib to remark that Kitty’s decline prefigures the actress’ own; she was to die an alcoholic in 1942, having appeared in only a handful of films. Yet for all its external resonance, Kitty Darling’s fall is, in itself, overwhelmingly affecting, and proof that, beyond all its technical innovations, Applause merits our admiration as one of the great Hollywood melodramas: flawed, perhaps, but a flawed masterpiece.