Some thoughts about Rouben Mamoulian, Helen Morgan and Applause, inspired by The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Colour.
Applause (1929) was the first film Rouben Mamoulian directed, lured from the stage (credits included Porgy and Wings Over Europe) by the advent of sound technology. Despite prior stage success, Mamoulian’s screen career proved to be short-lived; he never quite figured out how to survive and thrive within the Hollywood system – somewhat disappointing considering his inaugural effort showed so much promise. Mamoulian was keen to keep the expressive beauty of silent cinema, merging it with elements of stage production whilst avoiding an overtly ‘staged’ feel.
Of course, the director’s efforts were hampered by the limits of the then-infant technology. It was difficult to edit the soundtrack, sounds had to be recorded simultaneously to ensure a synchronised track or scenes often had to be shot in one take (visually dull) or cut between multiple cameras – a costly technique as each camera had to be kept rolling for the duration of the scene, resulting in a lot of (mostly unused) film. Considering these constraints, Applause is an accomplished film, and one of the best examples of backstage musicals. Helen Morgan was well cast as Kitty Darling, a fading burlesque star, although there are sad parallels between Morgan’s character and the actresses’ early demise.
Applause combines elements of melodrama and tragedy; the simple (but not ineffective) plot charts the aforementioned Kitty’s attempts to save her convent-educated daughter April (played by Joan Peers) from following in her own ‘tawdry’ footsteps. Most of the film was shot in Paramount’s Astoria studio, just across the river from Manhattan. The studio setting allowed Mamoulian to experiment with a variety of sound techniques, but also inspired the director to incorporate ambient sounds from everyday New York life; a new idea at the time.
One of the most successful ‘sound’ scenes in the film is the one when April leaves the convent in which she has been educated. The camera follows April and the Mother Superior as the walk along the corridor and into the chapel; the camera position ensures that April’s face isn’t revealed until the last minute and the steady tracking movement is at odds with the busy shots that were used to create Kitty’s onstage and backstage world and emphasises the differences in April’s upbringing and education. Outside, Mother Superior embraces her departing pupil – this is in fact a silent extract overlaid with an orchestral score – allowing the audience to fully appreciate the poignancy and pathos of the moment. As April journeys into the city the soundtrack changes, on-location effects from Penn Station are a rude introduction to city life. The use of a handheld camera, and the jerky movements that it captures, enhance the noise and bustle of city life.
A later scene takes place in Kitty’s apartment, after mother and daughter have been reunited. In this section, Mamoulian allows the city to intrude on the interior scene through a clever interplay of light and sound. The flashing sign outside the window provides intermittent light, whilst a well-placed lamp throws a spotlight on April, who is lying in bed. This suits both close-up and panoramic shots, and allows the audience to observe Kitty and April’s differing emotions. During close-up shots of April, they are continuously reminded, via the flashing backlight, of the seediness of the location and Kitty’s burlesque lullaby, interspersed with her daughter’s prayer (an effective use of a layered soundtrack) highlights her limitations as a mother.
The entry of Hitch Nelson (Kitty’s boyfriend, played by Fuller Mellish Jnr.) marks out his unsavoury credentials. His looming shadow, projected on the wall, underscores his sinister motives; an expressive technique that owes much to silent films but works equally well here. The mix of realism and abstraction is something that works throughout the film; Mamoulian was determined to be as creative as he could be, despite the technical limitations that early sound films imposed.
Concluding comments are perhaps best left to the director himself. Born in 1897, Mamoulian lived until 1987, affording plenty of opportunities for interviews, many of which the director undertook willingly. In an interview in Andrew Sarris’ Hollywood Voices, he described his early foray into film: “It’s curious really. Here I had been recruited as a stage expert on dialogue, and all I could think of was the marvellous things one could do with the camera and the exciting new potentials of sound recording. The camera fascinated me.”
Further reading: Rouben Mamoulian, Senses of Cinema