Applause (1929)

By now I’ve seen enough early talkies to know that, at least on a technical level, Applause really is kind of extraordinary. The DVD reproduces an interview with director Rouben Mamoulian during the film’s making in June 1929, and it’s interesting to see how this stage director making his first film already had clear ideas of what a film should be, and that the newfangled talking film shouldn’t really be any different from the soon to be dead silent films. Remarkably, it’s still apparent that with Applause he was not only determined to put these ideas into practice, he was also largely successful with them; the film is a damn sight livelier visually and aurally than almost any 1928-32 sound film I’ve seen. In spite of which it still somehow manages to feel a lot longer than its 78 minutes, which I suspect may be down to the actual story, which is a titanic downer, a tale of a has-been burlesque star, Kitty, her convent-raised daughter April, and the leech who lives off the fading Kitty and wants to put April on stage in her place to keep the money rolling in. Needless to say, this cannot and does not end well. It’s a bitter affair, and the film’s fortunes were helped neither by its copious censorship problems, nor the fact that it opened just a couple of weeks before a certain stock market crash changed the world. It’s Mamoulian’s technique that makes the film still watchable; he was determined that his camera should not be restrained (no five-minute static “why a duck” scenes for him!) as was the norm with early talkies, and the resulting mobility of the visuals would’ve been remarkable in a silent film, so it’s miraculous here. The acting is similarly far less stiff than what I’ve seen in a lot of other films of this time. If Applause is perhaps mainly of historical interest now, I still have to grant that it feels like the work of a much more experienced director, not one who’d never made a film before…

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