1929. The world was in turmoil. After riding high on the excess and lavishness of the Roaring 20's, the entire country came to a standstill on October 29. An economic depression unlike ever witnessed before was sweeping the land, affecting families in unimaginable ways. People immediately turned to the movies for escape from this harsh reality, but they, too, were in the middle of their own crisis. Not only were they affected by the Depression, but, after the debut of The Jazz Singer in 1927, Hollywood was in the (expensive, both financially and artistically) process of converting to sound pictures. As films like Singin' in the Rain proved, it was a long, laborious process that posed many difficult challenges to overcome. Perhaps the most challenging of them were the clunky cameras necessary for the sound equipment which prohibited the movement and fluidity silent movies had achieved by the late 20's. By 1929, sound films were the new standard with the last studio silent film, Garbo's The Kiss, released that year. The problem, however, was that many of these early talkies were wooden, visually flat and all-around unappealing. Films like The Broadway Melody were big hits with audiences eager for talking pictures but they often looked like the director's goal was to point straight at the actors, get one mediocre take where no lines were completely butchered and pray to God that the sound was clean enough for a final print. This was cinema's lost year, a year in which they were a slave to inflexible technology. All hope seemed lost.
But then came Rouben Mamoulian and a little film called Applause. In a town full of sadness and tedium, Applause is the Billy Elliot tap-dancing his heart out, ready to bust out of his small town with a staggering burst of energy and near-flawless execution. The film is about a burlesque dancer, Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan), who unexpectedly gives birth to a daughter, April, during the middle of a performance. Wanting April to get away from this horrid burlesque world and make something of herself, Kitty sends her to a convent school. Years later, Kitty's two-timing boyfriend pressures her to bring April home so they can earn more money for him to mooch off. The two of them reconnect and try to build the relationship they never had as numerous tragic events befall them in quick succession. The movie is your standard melodrama of the time, although the tragedy of the piece is played to perfection. You feel for these characters like they were real people, watching in disbelief as they make catastrophic mistake after catastrophic mistake. In a way, the final 20 minutes of the film are reminiscent of a Shakespearian tragedy, with both Kitty and April making heartbreaking, life-changing decisions without the other knowing that have the potential to ruin their lives.
The main reason for Applause's success, however, is the direction from Rouben Mamoulian. With sound films still in their infancy, there was a lot of room for experimentation to try and figure out the best way to use sound in the film. Many directors were so concerned with the sound equipment, they didn't try to use the camera in interesting ways. Not Mamoulian. His roving camera is restless, hovering back and forth, often multiple times, across a scene. He's not interested, unlike a lot of early sound directors, in letting the words tell the story. Mamoulian's fascination with visuals is apparent throughout the movie, as in the scene when Kitty is berated by her boyfriend to remove her daughter from the convent. He starts yelling at her but eventually, the camera starts to zoom in and all we see is his huge shadow on the wall, bearing down heavily on a comparably smaller Kitty. With lighting tricks like these, it's obvious Mamoulian has a theatrical sensibility, but he also knows how to adapt those sensibilities to the film medium. His rapid-fire editing style during the burlesque numbers, complete with shots of lascivious audience members gazing upon scantily clad women who make Marie Dressler look like a beauty queen, shows with unrivaled precision just how dank and downright disgusting the world of burlesque truly was.
Mamoulian's work in Applause is experimental in every sense of the word. He's not quite sure what's going to work, so he throws it all on-screen in the hopes that something will stick. It is true that not everything works and some of Mamoulian's tricks are more distracting than helpful. When something does work, however, it quickly erases the minor mistakes. And just when you're ready to say something negative about all the camerawork, Mamoulian slows the flow down, proving that he really has the story's interest at heart and not some gratuitous desire to move the camera as much as possible. Two of the most memorable scenes in the entire film--Kitty telling April she'll do anything for her and April trying to convince her fiance that she'd rather be on stage than marry him--involve very little, if any, movement at all. Helen Morgan and Joan Peers (as April) are hardly the most "natural" of actors, and they occasionally lapse into the stage affectectedness that haunts so many of the early talkies, but they know how to sell many of the major emotional high points of the film.
Applause is a landmark in the history of filmmaking. Even if the story and camera tricks feel a little dated, it is only because so many films have borrowed from Applause over the years, probably without even realizing it. Rouben Mamoulian is an often underrated director who helped elevate films like Queen Christina and the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from mere studio projects to quiet, unassuming masterpieces. He was a pioneer in the early sound days with Applause proving that he was someone to be reckoned with. A