An extremely innovative early talkie, Applause (1929) is one of two Rouben Mamoulian-directed films released by Kino, both of which have been given the care and attention commonly reserved for top-tier Criterion titles. Kino's other release, Love Me Tonight (1932), is more entertaining and less dated, but Applause is equally innovative in many ways. Compared with the stage-bound, bolt-the-camera-to-the-floor look of nearly all the earliest sound films, Applause is downright astounding.
The movie itself is pure melodrama, essentially a vehicle for torch singer Helen Morgan. The film is not really a musical, though there are bits of musical numbers within in. Its story concerns a fading burlesque queen, Kitty (Morgan), determined to keep her pure, 17-year-old daughter, April (Joan Peers), out of, as she calls it, "the show business." Kitty's two-timing, no-good boyfriend, Hitch Nelson (Fuller Mellish, Jr.), has designs first on April's earning potential then on April herself. But she falls for a kind sailor from Wisconsin, Tony (Henry Wadsworth), and finally Kitty must chose between her own happiness and that of her daughter.
Applause works on several levels. First and foremost is Mamoulian's impressive directorial debut which, much like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941), is a barrage of experimentation and innovation, some of it showy but nearly all of it excitingly inventive. As if to counter the static nature of most early talkies, Mamoulian and cinematographer George Folsey keep the camera moving almost constantly. The picture opens with a clever series of quick cuts as the camera follows crumpled pieces of burlesque ads floating strewn across the street. Shots are composed in interesting ways: silhouettes of pipe-smoking audience members sitting in the balcony frame the action taking place on stage below. There are extreme high and low angles used to reflect a character's state of mind. Wracked-focus is used to draw attention away from a conversation to action in the background, and so on.
Mamoulian is equally innovative with sound, mainly in using its ambience to buttress the atmosphere, this at a time when most early talkies featured dialogue spoken in a kind of vacuum, cut off from the noises of the real world.
The picture was shot at Paramount's Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, the same place where the first two Marx Bros. movies were filmed, and where most of Woody Allen's pictures are shot. However, Mamoulian took his cast and crew into the city for several key sequences. There are highly effective scenes filmed at a real subway platform (on what is now the BMT Nassau Street Line at Chambers Street, according to the IMDb), atop a skyscraper to study the Manhattan's skyline, and on the Brooklyn Bridge. The integration of these dazzling locations add a verisimilitude to its urban setting, and are fascinating for their glimpses of a New York 75 years ago.
Indeed, another asset to the picture is the authenticity carried over to its burlesque scenes. Perhaps more than any other film, Applause captures the workaday bustle, excitement and seediness of that long-lost form of American entertainment. Here, the chorus girls are run-down and flabby, the audience sweaty and mean.
In this milieu, Helen Morgan fits right in. She was 28 years old when the picture was made but with her skinny legs, jowly features and baggy, buggy eyes, looks well past 40, probably owing to the alcoholism that eventually killed her. The tragic singer is best remembered today for originating the role of Julie in Show Boat and for introducing the standard "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." But Applause leans more on her acting than her singing, and Morgan isn't really up to the task. Rather grotesque (in fairness, this is partly by design) in a blond, Harpo-like fright wig, she plays to the back of the theater in broad gestures with a raspy voice reminiscent of Bette Davis and generally looks like a broken-down tart. Conversely, Joan Peers seems to have attended Kathleen Freeman's School of Elocution, with a very mannered performance common to the period. The amusingly-named Fuller Mellish is like a cartoon, and only Wadsworth's Tony comes anywhere close to a relaxed, naturalistic performance. Despite all this, the picture still packs an emotional punch by its final reel, a resolution to the drama that's still moving and effectively realized by Mamoulian and his crew.
Video & Audio
Licensed from Universal (owners of the pre-1948 Paramount library), Kino's Applause is a good transfer of worn elements. Some reels rain with preprint scratches, others are in surprisingly good shape. Mamoulian's soundtrack is so crammed with the hustle and bustle of New York street noise that it tests the limits of early sound technology. For that reason, some of the dialogue is difficult to follow, and the DVD does not include subtitles.
As with Kino's Love Me Tonight, Applause is crammed with fascinating and informative extras, which are divided into three sections. "Film Clips" includes a three-minute Excerpt from Glorifying the American Girl, a 1929 musical that features a brief musical performance by Morgan. She also sings in Helen Morgan Newsreel Footage from 1933, where she appears with new husband Maurice Maschke, Jr. The director himself appears in Rouben Mamoulian Address to the DGA, shot on film about a year before his death.
"Images" include a Gallery of Rare Photographs, with several fascinating behind-the-scenes images. The best of these show the "half-set" built in Astoria for an innovative sequence that finds April and Tony walking the streets of New York. It was filmed as a long tracking shot shown entirely from the waist down, thus only the bottom four feet or so of set was built. A superb Gallery of Promotional Materials rounds out this section.
"Text" includes three excellent Essays by Christopher Connelly, Morgan's biographer, a 1929 Interview with Rouben Mamoulian, Excerpts from the Censorship Files, and Excerpts of Beth Brown's Novel from which Applause was based. All of this material is top-notch.
Though time hasn't been kind to Helen Morgan's theatrical performance or its old-fashioned melodrama, Applause still works its magic 75 years after it was made. Mamoulian's often ingenious and experimental direction lift this out among the sea of creaky early talkies, and Kino's top-drawer presentation make this a must-see.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.