5 January 2010 | FilmFlaneur
One of the greatest early talkies
One of the greatest of the early talkies Applause was also the debut feature of Rouben Mamoulian, whose later successes include the celebrated Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1931) starring Frederic March, one of Garbo's finest vehicles Queen Christina (1933), as well as the groundbreaking Technicolor production Becky Sharp (1935). Lured into cinema after great success in theatre, like Welles later on Mamoulian found out how to make films in a crash course partly of his own devising: by absorbing the process at studios in New York, resolutely watching the work of others until he "learned what not to do." Hired ostensibly as a stage expert on dialogue to help make the most of the new sound medium, Mamoulian, again like the future Welles, quickly proved himself an all-round innovator, looking at production with fresh eyes with an ability to reinvent aspects of cinema as he found them. "All I could think of was the marvellous things one could do with the camera and the exciting new potentials of sound recording," he said.
Applause was the result - a film which still astonishes us today, let alone those who saw it for the first time 80 years ago when sound had made considerable attack on the creative freedom previously taken for granted by silent films.
Mamoulian's choice of subject matter for his first feature initially seemed to promise little that was striking: a somewhat hoary old novel about a fading burlesque queen sacrificing herself for her daughter, which promised much melodramatic moralising. But the fledgling director was to prove not so much interested in the story as in the way he could find of telling it, invigorating the material.
Mamoulian's practical experience of film-making was gained largely by sitting on the sidelines at Paramount's New York studios. His theoretical inspiration may one suspects, but cannot prove, have been inspired elsewhere: notably the expressive use of fluid cinematography shown in Murnau's great American opus Sunrise, made and released to huge industry interest just a few short years before. Indeed, Mamoulian was later to use the great German's director of photography when he later came to make Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. In Applause we find moments of expressionism mingled with lyricism with which the German would find himself at home. Like Murnau, Mamoulian too set out to tell his story primarily through the movement of his camera, adding to this some striking location work. The earlier director was not constrained by the mechanics of soundtrack; where Mamoulian took a step forward was in the way he insisted that few of the limitations of the new format since then were necessary, a fact shown by the fact many of his experiments in Applause have become common film language.
This approach becomes apparent right from the opening scene, where the thought is more more in terms of travel than of sound: first a few shots of a closed shop front, then a track along a newspaper-blown street. A small dog is rescued from the litter by a girl, before a brass band introduces her and us to the arrival of the burlesque queen, Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan), and her progress in an open carriage. The film cuts to inside her theatre, tracks steadily past musicians in the pit, pans back and forth over the dancing bodies on stage before finally resting on the tired faces of the chorus girls. Mamoulian's concern with the "delight of movement" as he put it, is everywhere. Such concerns brought technical considerations for the sound men that were at first considered impossible. One later scene in particular brought on a significant crisis, where Kitty sings a burlesque song to her daughter by way of lullaby as the child simultaneously whispers her prayers (this in a long single take). The primitive microphone picked up one and not the other, so the director suggested using two mics, and mixing it together later. From such guileless innovations are revolutions made; after some strenuous initial doubts, the studio heads gave Mamoulian carte blanche to continue the film just as he sought fit.
Applause is one of those movies where virtually every scene demands attention for the interested viewer, either by virtue of Mamoulian's skill or, in the case of Helen Morgan, through an especially moving performance. The director had filled his cast with those who were as new to the medium of film as he was. Some, like Fuller Mellish, playing the city slicker, as well as Jack Cameron (Kitty's predacious beau) overplay slightly in that 1930s wiseacre fashion distracting to modern taste - one of the film's few weaknesses - but Morgan's pathetic dignity more than compensates for this and edges the melodrama onward into tragedy. Even the doomed, blossoming romance between Kitty's daughter April (Joan Peters) and her sailor, although somewhat hackneyed in expression, becomes acceptable in the hands of such a sensitive director who to their scenes together, as critic Tom Milne noted, "brings a simple lyricism which is neither faux nor naïf". A particularly fine moment is provided by the lovers' subway platform farewell shot, again in long take. The two have been forced apart by ironic circumstance but he does not know why. April's lover has little say in his despondency but, almost absent-mindedly, buys and pushes a cheap packet of gum from a machine into her hand as a leaving present. Another director would have made this pathetic action trite; Mamoulian makes it say everything there is to say about a closing relationship between two people, where something so slight can be so precious.
It would have been too easy to produce a first work that showed off for its own account. But Applause remains so compulsive because it succeeds both as an empathetic story of people and as a technical tour-de-force, without one overbalancing the other. It is also exhilarating as it shows how imagination and creative determination liberated film even at this early stage, from self-imposed limitations.