Slinky and unruly by the standards of its time, Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause – a stepping stone onto a proficiently very good if seldom great path as a cross-pollinating genre director – opens with its camera not only on the move but on the war path to prove the director’s ambition. Even the intro’s deceptively near-silent implementation of sound in the far off distance intimates that this is not a complacent motion picture by 1929’s standards. The roving camera more or less an ingrained tool by 1929, it was nonetheless not yet a known quantity, and sound was never as vigorously applied before as it would be in this feature. This knowledge in tow, Applause is a film that obviously shows Mamoulian, in his debut feature, was ready to go to bat with the future of film in his hands.
The story is tawdry moralism – fading burlesque star Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan) is magnetized to the sordid stageshow life, with her only reason to live, that of keeping her daughter out of the lifestyle she is subjected to, disrupted when the daughter comes roaring home from the convent she grew up in. But the filmmaking provides the theme with a frightening affective pulse. Desperate to keep her daughter from the showbiz life she once succumbed to, Kitty’s desperation courses throughout the film. A desolate Market-Crash-adjacent New York plays itself, with that petrifying opening shot evoking a city in mortal terror of itself. From there, Applause suggests a certain emptiness interrupted by intrusions of violent showbiz pandemonium, intrusions that reflect the flickers of fake, forced sudden-onset vitality demanded of women on the stage that only further counterpose the vacancy of life behind the scenes.
Earnest and undeniably prescriptive – the camera has a moral qualm with The Way Things Are – Applause is never once congested with moralism, largely on the back of its punchy, terse qualities as something more energized and deranged than a conventional Issue Picture. Rather than resting on the laurel of its concept and its moral importance, Mamoulian forces himself to prove his worth as a director; the concept becomes a catalyst for filmmaking rather than a destination where filmmaking happens to be the vessel. Surprisingly for a film of this vintage in America – and of this genre – Mamoulian kindles his film in the fires of expressionistic editing and superimposition, if not lighting or set design per-se; it’s diluted German Expressionism in the American tradition, like Universal Horror and still-to-come film noir, except the bricks Applause pulled from Expressionism are not at all synonymous with the quasi-Expressionist American genre-cinema tradition.
George Folsey’s cinematography is a marvel of expressive movement in both an anthropological, place-excavating sense and a more uncommonly perspective-oriented sense that flirts with the characters’ senses of self by teetering on the back of their necks. Even better is John Basler’s unruly editing, not accommodating to Hollywood continuity as a fiat or a monastery of sacrosanct status. Instead, the editing throbs with energy and prods the film forward as though it’s trepidatiously hurtling on hot coals, turning a potentially wheezing narrative contraption into a feverish plunge into backstage bedlam. There’s a daunting, alarming single edit from a romantic tryst in a bar to two people walking away from the camera, the geometric penitentiary of the Brooklyn Bridge dwarfing them on either side like they’re on their way to the Gates of Hell, with that particular tonal schism further revealing the spasmodic nature of a production that thrives on similar contrasts, shifts, and a multitude of dissolves and graphic matches that compare lives but more often counteract tonal complacency.
Soon enough, the cutthroat backstages are a ramshackle, cluttered post-hurricane, with everything splayed out on the screen like the camera just missed a tantrum of mise-en-scene. It’s like a threat that, if the camera was peeking in on the locations a minute or two beforehand, it would lay bare the harsh, hoarse brutality of this life. Contrasting the stillness of this backstage clutter with the manic introductory moments of jubilant showbiz and exultant glee visualized in hurtling cameras and lovingly artificial geometric compositions, the emotional fallout is inscribed in the mise-en-scene itself. Dancers become phantoms glimpsed behind sheets, now opaque and dehumanized rather than engorged with blood. Spirited kaleidoscopes of harshly-lit faces are presented for us like their souls are being exorcised by the camera.
The real-deal scene-stealer, though, is the sound design by Ernest Zatorsky, shifting from slithering silence to blaring oblivion on a dime and congealing New York into a cage with petrifying sound all around it, often unglimpsable like unknown flashes of a world denied from the characters. A coerced marriage agreement is stiletto-stabbed by a cacophonous drone from the sky itself, a premonition of gloom and an omen of hopelessness. In contrast, spontaneous slides into sangfroid and silence – when Kitty saunters to a poison bottle to fulfill someone’s doom and the sound cuts out completely – are stirring incisions of silent film shock energized by toying with our expectation that, now gifted with sound, a film must use it as a statement of fact and principle. But Zatorsky suggests that presence makes absence all the more disheveling.
As a backstage showcase for the sulfurous rot of a society primed to throw away women at a moment’s notice, it isn’t as iridescent as Pandora’s Box from the same year, but this more streamlined picture is sublime in nearly every way, Morgan most of all. Her performance is more conventional than Louise Brooks’ phantasmagoria of animalism breaking through plastic in Pandora, but Morgan’s gung-ho willingness to dive into the character’s broken-down, tormented, just-clinging-to-life middle-aged horror is genuinely disarming. Surrounded by the near-instinctual sound palette of urban noise bordering both jungle-growls and industrial-tremors, she is one more beacon of shattered life in a film that positively radiates with an irradiated, neurotic version of jazz-age razzamatazz.