Friday, August 19, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: APPLAUSE (1929)

When talking pictures finally became a sure thing, it seemed like a good idea for the studios to bring successful theatrical directors to Hollywood, presumably because they knew how to direct dialogue scenes. But would they know how to direct movies? Could they think outside the proscenium? Talkies had already been fettered by the requirements of early sound recording; an unimaginative stage veteran might only make things worse. Fortunately, Rouben Mamoulian set the right example for the rest with Applause, recognized ever since as a milestone of creative framing and staging for sound film. Mamoulian approached the challenge of cinema in exactly the right way, thinking of everyone he could now do that was impossible on the stage. If he was brought to Hollywood to serve the needs of talkies, he gave talkies an evolutionary kick in the pants to serve his own creative needs. Compare his film to the other musicals of 1929 that endure in memory today -- The Broadway Melody and The Coconuts -- and Applause looks much more modern, at least in its range of camera angles and fluidity of camera movement. Some of his tricks, like a slow-motion wipe that produces a temporary split-screen effect, proved narrative dead-ends. Otherwise, Mamoulian grabs the viewer in a way most of his peers couldn't manage yet -- though given what he shows us, viewers may have wanted to pull themselves loose and run away.

I'd better make clear that Applause is a fine film, and often as visually stunning as its reputation proclaims, but it's also an appalling picture, and probably more so now that time has made it even more of an alien artifact. I should also make clear that Mamoulian's film is not a musical in the way Broadway Melody, Coconuts or even The Great Gabbo are. Applause is a melodrama set in the backstage milieu of lower-rung burlesque. Its musical performances are not "numbers" designed to put over a song or captivate the audience. It's closer to Josef Von Sternburg's The Blue Angel in its overall feel, though even that is far more glamorized than Applause. This adaptation of a novel by Beth Brown is primarily a tearjerker, but of a kind they don't really make anymore. A tearjerker today is a sentimental story about beautiful or wonderful people who die prematurely. Applause is all about abjection and wretchedness. Like many if not most American silent films it is a play for pathos -- the magic word we identify with Charlie Chaplin's work. If the term means anything to people today, it probably means something that makes you laugh and cry, or laugh then cry. Pathos means crying at the woes of a clown, but let's broaden the category a bit as we remember that another major pathos player of the period was Lon Chaney Sr. -- no clown by any standard. He got people to cry at the woes of criminals and monsters, while Chaplin won the same sympathy for a tramp. The subject of pathos, if we can discuss pathos as a genre in its own right, is grotesquerie or wretchedness. For 1920s audiences, it was a treat, I guess, to empathize with or just plain pity grotesque, wretched people as they struggled for a better life, or for love, and failed. The height of pathos came when the grotesque protagonist actually renounced happiness when it seemed within reach. For Chaplin, that meant choosing the road once more. Outside comedy, renunciation meant sacrifice, and usually self-sacrifice. A reformed Chaney might give his life to save someone else's life, for instance, or to spare someone he meant to torment, either way giving up whatever dream of happiness or revenge on humanity he may have treasured. It gave early movie audiences a now-nearly incomprehensible thrill to witness these scenes of renunciation and sacrifice -- the more abject and absolute, presumably, the better. If you accept these premises, you might comprehend why on earth anyone would watch such a spectacle of wretchedness as Applause.

Helen Morgan, doomed herself to be the subject of a tearjerking biopic, stars as Kitty Darling, an ambitious performer who goes into labor in the middle of a routine after learning that the father of her unborn child will die at Sing Sing that night. Determined to give her daughter a proper upbringing, Kitty saves money to pay the girl's way through a convent school. But as the years pass Kitty finds herself under pressure from her latest paramour, Hitch, to raise money for a last-chance touring show. To do so, she has to pull her teenaged daughter out of her idyllic school and bring her home.

April Darling (Joan Peers) only has dim infant memories of her glamorous mom. Her first exposure to Kitty's present state is a rude awakening. It was pretty bad for us the first time around. Mamoulian builds up anticipation by showing us an empty street, handbills blowing in the wind, with a faint drumbeat the only sound. Finally we see a parade announcing the arrival of Kitty's show, which we see in scenes that look like they were filmed in a real theater. If Kitty is the highlight of this bill -- this is the initial sequence, when she's at the presumed height of her presumed powers -- it's only because most of her castmates are aggressively repulsive. I understand perfectly well that standards of beauty differed a century ago, but my understanding is also that 1929 audiences found the chorus lines of Applause nearly as repulsive as I did. It's hard to believe that any of them passed for beautiful 100 years ago, and I don't think that Mamoulian is trying to convince us otherwise. One reason Applause isn't a musical is that Mamoulian adamantly resists any attempt to glamorize his show world. This is supposed to be bad burlesque, in past and present -- and if the women are somewhat shapelier in the modern scenes, Mamoulian makes up for that with gruesome close-ups of the dancers' leering, stupid faces, each one mirrored by a stupid, leering face in the audience. When he cuts to a proto-Berkeleyan view from the ceiling, the effect is more clinical than aesthetic. Just about everything in Applause is ugly -- Morgan is deglamorized in a way that belied Paramount's advertising, which featured the chic, un-frightwigged singer Broadway knew, while the movie presents Morgan as a prophecy of Shelley Winters. Joan Peers is passable by comparison, but that only makes April the object of Hitch's betraying lust.

These shots are as glamorous as Applause gets.

Hitch pressures Kitty to put April to work in the show, while pressuring April to put out. Meanwhile, April meets a simple goodhearted sailor (Henry Wadsworth), who rescues her from a street mauling. She and Tony enjoy a whirlwind courtship that culminates in his proposal of marriage atop a skyscraper as an aeroplane flies picturesquely above. April initially accepts, but once persuaded by Hitch that she's the only hope of saving the show and salvaging her mother's future, she spurns the sailor. Meanwhile, Kitty has become convinced that she's hopelessly washed up, and is more convinced than ever that April shouldn't share this life with her. What could generate more pathos than suicide? How about pointless suicide? Mamoulian crosscuts between April's breakup with Tony and Kitty's ingestion of a bottle of pills and her restless waiting for death. It comes oh so slowly, until it's nearly showtime and Kitty staggers deliriously into her dressing room, only to be berated by Hitch and the management as she swoons. April arrives fresh from her renunciation, sees her mom passed out (drunk, April assumes), and waxes indignant at the men cursing Kitty. If the star can't do her big number, April will, having chosen this career over love, her audience-wowing brazenness fueled by her loathing for everyone and everything involved with show business. Miraculously, Tony appears at the theater; he'd suspected already that April's blowoff wasn't sincere. At the sight of him her resolve is forgotten. She begs to be taken away from this wretched life and finally explains that she'd only spurned him for her mother's sake. Tony is all forgiveness. In fact, he invites April to bring her mother to live with them on Tony's Wisconsin farm. Of course Kitty would be welcome to enjoy life with them! Of course!...

'Kid, you're going out there a nobody, but you've got to come back a floozy!'

While unfamiliarity with Broadway names doomed Applause at the national box office, the scenario I just described wasn't really inconsistent with audience tastes in the Twenties, given the prevalence of pathos in so many surviving silents. Our ancestors had more nuanced sensibilities in some respects than we enjoy today, or so I assume from their apparently not insisting on happy endings in every film and their welcoming of utterly unhappy endings on many occasions. Of course, some may have treated Applause as a grimly cynical joke -- for all I know, Beth Brown herself may have meant it that way -- but that was most likely a minority viewpoint. Or look at it this way: more people in those more deprived times (and this opened before the Depression really hit) may well have seen life as a grimly cynical joke, but that may have made the struggles of the wretched only more pitiable for them. All I know is that there isn't the same market for pathos today, and there hasn't been for a long time. For that reason, Applause is simultaneously as archaic in its sensibility as it is advanced (by historical standards) directorially. And without a historic awareness of its aesthetic significance, the film will probably look 100% archaic. But what's wrong with archaic? If the difference of the past, rather than its resemblance to the present, is what fascinates you, Applause is likely to fascinate you, too -- in its uniquely appalling way.

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