Lost among the lists of vital American films is Rouben Mamoulian's directorial debut, Applause. Frequently listed among innovative early sound features, the film still today doesn't have a very high esteem critically. Perhaps it is the fact that it is dated, or perhaps its too melodramtic for some tastes. People frequently look to its freely mobile camera as one of the first films not to be burdened by the troublesome innovations of early sound. The film is much more than an example of an early backstage musical, or fluid camera work however.
Despite a background in the stage, Mamoulian came to film with a uniquely cinematic eye. He had already mastered staging, lighting, and movement of his actors on the stage, but film gave him a new lease on things. Mamoulian was able to shoot on location, and explore intrinsically cinematic elements particularly editing. Applause was a rarity among early sound films, being shot on location in New York. The film is full of various overhead shots of the city, subways, the Brooklyn Bridge, etc. Which gives the film a more Broadway-esque feel to it, than a typical Hollywood melodrama.
Now the casting in this film is hardly perfect, but the leads are. The film begins with a low shot of the legs of a somewhat chubby chorus line. The camera moves its way up to reveal the faces of these girls, and I literally had to laugh. This took the cake as quite possibly the ugliest chorus line in history. Every one was fat, old, or just plain ugly and I couldn't tell if they were supposed to be. Of course Kitty Darling (a never better Helen Morgan) is in burlesque, not Broadway, one could imagine getting a little nicer group of females for support. Not to mention how horribly bad their dancing and lackluster leg kicks were. At this stage in the story Kitty is still a big name in her small world, so again one would think the quality might be better. Mamoulian coming from stage however, should have been able to inspire better work from his background, but perhaps it was a conscious effort to downgrade it so it wouldn't be Broadway calliber.
We quickly realize Kitty is doomed to failure as she perpetually talks about getting out of this racket and making it on Broadway. It is certainly a lost cause, and we know it, although it takes her nearly the entire film to figure it out herself. There is a life expectancy in burlesque, and although Kitty hadn't hit it when the film starts, its very clear that by the time April (a very underrated Joan Peers) is grown up, Kitty should be done. It is the fear of April becoming Kitty that worries Kitty so much. She wants her daughter to grow up nice, respectable, and although possibly having a career in show business, not one involving stripping. Kitty does have a weakness, and that appears to be men. At first she seems independent, strong willed. We never know of April's father, and she insists upon raising her alone, we respect her will and determination. Although she won't let a man marry her and take her out of the life, she does consent to his advice to send her daughter away to a boarding school. This is the first sign that Kitty is impressionable. Therefore when April has been away for several years and her mother's lecherous boyfriend demands her to be brought back, we know what will happen. Kitty by this point isn't the draw she was, so naturally saving the money she was paying for school is a plus, but it is the man that corrupts her.
Unlike most films woman isn't the downfall, the snake, or Eve if you will. Here it is man, or Adam if you will. Still the stereotype of the weak female is evident, she is not the curroptor, or the ruiner of men. Instead a gold digging male is her downfall. For this one should naturally point to Beth Brown, who's 1928 best selling novel of the same name is where the film came from. This gives a slightly different POV for the film, and naturally places the heaviest emphasis on Kitty and later April.
I'm not sure exactly what films may have influenced Mamoulian directly, but there is certainly a deep understanding and knowledge of international cinema on display here. There is at times an expressionistic side to the film. The performances are generally naturalistic, although Morgan at times during the end does amp it up. the use of shadows and staged sets as well as the slum inspired background are borrowed from a German tradition. The editing however is equal parts Montage and Impressionism. Mamoulian's boldest move comes when April first gets a look at the burlesque show her mother is appearing in. We see the closeups of the chorus girls (slightly prettier this time), the salivating audience members, and random other cuts including musicians and lights. The type of montage would be used repeatedly, even by Orson Welles in a similar scene inolving Dorothy Commingore in Citizen Kane. Its juxtaposition of shots, complete with canted angles, and superimpositions however remind the viewer instantly of the work of Russians at the time. Eisenstein's Potemkin as well as Strike and October were already released in the US by this point, and his Old and New came out the same year, so its quite possible that Mamoulian was directly inspired by his work.
Mamoulian also loves to play with framing. Several scenes begin and almost completely take place without even seeing the actors faces. Including the first meeting of April with her fiance. The action takes place from floor level, and after a brief altercation, George J. Folsey's camera picks up the action, and follows the two soon to be lovers down the street. The love story between these two is somewhat rushed, as they often are in a 79 minute film, but it is the sweetest aspect of the film. The emotional weight in the end doesn't come from the deterioation of Kitty, but in the thought that her deterioration will in turn ruin April. We don't want the good, sweet April to have to suffer for her mother's sins/failures, and this sets up the final conflict. The film does resolve things in the way that only escapist entertainment can, but I must say it was damn satisfying. A landmark of early film, and one of the most remarkable debut features made from a director.
Applause is now available on DVD from Kino Video.