These notes accompany screenings of Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause, July 7, 8, and 9 in Theater 3.
Rouben Mamoulian’s (1898–1987) career as a film director showed potential for five years, before limping into a disappointing second act and then virtually disappearing. He was a promising newcomer like George Cukor—another of the many imports from the Broadway stage who turned to film around the advent of sound technology—but unlike Cukor, whose career lasted more than a half-century, Mamoulian never quite figured out how to survive and thrive within the Hollywood system. The great success of his stage production of Porgy in New York made him and everyone else think he was notably inventive, but his cinematic gifts proved limited and transitory.
Applause was filmed mostly in Paramount’s Astoria studio (now the home of the American Museum of the Moving Image), and having Manhattan just across the river afforded Mamoulian the opportunity to exploit the sights and especially the sounds of the city as nobody had yet done. Much of his innovation derives from his capturing the ambient sounds of New York’s streets and subways—banal to us residents who tend to disregard them, but, no doubt, fascinating to folks out in the country. There is a genuine fluidity to Mamoulian’s camerawork, but unlike F. W. Murnau or later practitioners like Kenji Mizoguchi and Max Ophuls, his camera movements often seem to serve no artistic purpose other than asserting the supremacy of the image in the face of the tyrannical sound engineers of the era. Mamoulian also, like so many directors of the time, pays lip service to Eisensteinian montage in an early scene, in which Helen Morgan steps off the chorus line and has her baby. (Refugees from Russia like Mamoulian and Lewis Milestone were particularly prone to this approach for some reason). Ultimately, Applause was probably the best of the countless backstage musicals of the era that Al Jolson had wrought—tawdry but tongue-in-cheek. It would not have been too surprising if everyone in the chorus line of pathetic, unattractive, and zaftig women had also been pregnant.
At the heart (or bosom) of Applause is a deeply felt performance by the great Helen Morgan (1900–1941), then only twenty-eight. Mostly known as a cabaret singer, Morgan would go on to play the mixed-race Julie in James Whale’s Show Boat (1936) before succumbing to youthful alcoholism. Her performance in Applause may seem a little overwrought, but there were no 101 courses on how to play this kind of role in a talking picture. She is torn between the demands of sexual vulnerability and motherhood in a no-woman’s land, a turf later trod by Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina (1935) and Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937).
Mamoulian was a hot commodity for a while, with a run of several successful films culminating in Queen Christina (1933) and its iconic Garbo performance. He had tried to do something similar that same year with Marlene Dietrich (who was on a break from Josef von Sternberg) with Song of Songs, but this fell flat, as did most of the rest of the director’s career. He would complete only one film after he turned fifty, in 1948, but his star did rise again on Broadway, where he directed the original productions of Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma, Carousel, and Lost in the Stars. No one survived the Hollywood wars with more success.
A programming note: this not-very-good print of Applause replaces an even less viable print of Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, another tawdry but more masterful study of the backstage milieu. The Blue Angel, together with several other films that frankly belong in this series (Nosferatu, The Golem, Dr. Mabuse, Kameradschaft, M, etc.) will be shown in November as part of MoMA’s Weimar Cinema exhibition.