Film Review: Director Rouben Mamoulian, Reconsidered. Starting with “Applause”

Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause is an opportunity to strap in and experience the first leg of the director’s ascent on his Hollywood roller coaster.

Applause, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Screening on August 12 at the Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA

Helen Morgan in Rouben Mamoulian

Helen Morgan in Rouben Mamoulian’s trail-blazing “Applause.” It was banned in Worcester, MA.

By Betsy Sherman

The Harvard Film Archives’ Rouben Mamoulian, Reconsidered — its third retrospective this summer — asks why the émigré director, who achieved such a high level of artistry within the studio system from the dawn of sound to the early 1940s, was so little valued by Hollywood in the post-war years, and why his body of work is not better known today. The series runs from August 12 to September 2. All but one feature will be shown on 35mm film.

An ethnic Armenian born in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia, Mamoulian (1897-1987) had a bank president for a father, and a mother who was director of that city’s Armenian Theater. After Rouben studied in Paris, and earned a law degree from the University of Moscow, Mom’s proclivities won out. While in Moscow, Rouben took night classes at the Moscow Art Theater. By 1922, he was directing plays in London. He was brought to the United States by George Eastman to direct opera in Rochester, and it wasn’t long until he was on Broadway, winning raves for his syncopated treatment of Porgy (he later debuted the musical Porgy and Bess). Paramount Pictures, who during the late-1920s changeover from silent film to sound cycled New York stage talent through their Astoria Studio, snapped up the young director.

Mamoulian not only brought an emphasis on rhythm, camera movement, and new approaches in sound design to the talkies, he insisted that these technical elements be used to layer and enhance the story at hand. Moreover, he drew exceptional performances from a wide range of actors. He flourished during the period before the rigid enforcement of the Production Code (which kicked in during 1934). This was when he could frankly depict the tawdry backstage of a burlesque house in Applause (1929), foreground a girl in dicey moral circumstances in City Streets (1931), draw to the surface the sexual frustration that drives the good doctor towards transformation in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), push playful romantic pursuit beyond coy innuendo in the joyous musical Love Me Tonight (1932), and explore porous gender boundaries through Greta Garbo’s performance in Queen Christina (1933).

With this handful of pre-Codes, Mamoulian would have a solid place in cinema history (he also directed the first Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp). I admit that these are the ones I know and come back to. The director made only 16 films during 30 years, his last being the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse musical, Silk Stockings (1957). Some of those years he spent in the theater, directing the original productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel. But he wasn’t tapped to direct the film adaptations, and he was dropped from some big budget projects. Perhaps these words, written during the 1950s by producer Walter Wanger, who had worked successfully with Mamoulian in the early years, sum up the ambivalence towards him: “[Mamoulian] is a great artist but, also, he is a great individualist — and there is no reason for him to be concerned about Company policy as against personal reputation …”

Harvard Film Archive retrospectives rarely go in chronological order, and they rarely begin with a director’s first movie. The Mamoulian series is an opportunity to strap in and experience the first leg of the director’s ascent on his Hollywood roller coaster.

Applause, which opened just a few weeks ahead of the dark day of the 1929 stock market crash, finds the theater director taking the sound motion picture away from a static, proscenium-arch presentation. Mamoulian wrested the camera from its imprisonment in a soundproof booth, putting it in a carriage with pneumatic tires. He also made innovations in overlapping sound, and shot scenes on location in New York City.

The engrossing, if often cornball, story of mutual sacrifice between a mother and daughter was based on a novel by Beth Brown, adapted by Garrett Fort. Helen Morgan, the torch singer famous for playing Julie in Showboat (she repeated that role on film), gives a tremendously affecting performance as a burlesque star who clings to the pipe dream that her big break in the legit world of Broadway is just around the corner. During the bulk of the film, the not-yet-thirty Morgan incarnates the corpulent, disheveled Kitty Darling in her forties, sneered at as over-the-hill by the men who pay to see her gyrate. Kitty is wrapped around the little finger of Hitch (Fuller Mellish, Jr.), a tough-talking dandy who spends her money, cheats on her with other women in the troupe, and lusts after her teenage daughter, April. The girl has resumed living with Kitty after several years away at a convent school.

The playful opening frames find Kitty at the peak of her success. A poster for her show, “Kitty Darling, Queen of Hearts, and her Gaiety Girls” is blown down the street and nibbled at by a dog. Children run towards a parade featuring the town’s marching band ballyhooing Kitty, who waves from a car. A dissolve punctures the illusion of family entertainment. The camera tracks to the right across the orchestra pit in which sweaty musicians play sleazy music, then to the left, revealing the legs of the zaftig “girls” in drooping stockings, doing haphazard kicks (ironically, this town is called Zenith).


The ‘beef trust” chorus line in action in a scene from “Applause.”

These choruses used to be known as the “beef trust.” Mamoulian, in the cause of authenticity, cast several retired burlesque dancers, each weighing around 200 lbs. In an on-the-set interview, he praised their eagerness to get back to work: “They were like old cavalry horses who hear the sound of a bugle.”

The movie’s next sequence grows into a pictorial tour de force. Never mind that Kitty is corseted into an hourglass figure — she’s on the verge of popping out a baby (she has a husband, but he’s about to be executed by the state). The star exits the stage and gives birth in the dressing room. A close-up shows the blissful, exhausted Kitty with her blonde hair fanned out, mascara running in her tears. The sweet, garishly made-up chorines shuffle in and surround her, murmuring. There’s an overhead shot of this procession, then one from Kitty’s point of view — a ring of faces above her.

When April is five, a friend convinces Kitty to send her away, to keep her at a distance from their sordid business. A necklace in the little girl’s hands dissolves into the rosary beads of a nun who welcomes her. A passage contrasting the elegance and symmetry of April’s new home versus Kitty’s bump-and-grind world bears the influence of German Expressionist cinema. What makes it feel fresh is the suggestion that the nuns engage in performance as well. This montage, and a later one with a grotesque mix of close-ups of leering burlesque patrons and lacquered dancers, expose the low-class milieu, but don’t categorically condemn it. This is due to Kitty’s conviction behind her signature line, which she speaks in order to reassure April: “It ain’t what ya do so much, it’s what ya are.”

Joan Peers plays April, around age 17, who is pulled out of school to return to her mother. Hitch eyes April as raw material that he could manage to stardom, and as a squeeze on the side. Mother and daughter’s loyalty to each other is strong, but Hitch’s interference propels the story towards tragedy. The movie ends with a different poster of Kitty, and by this time she has emerged from a figure of fun to a fully realized human being.

Morgan isn’t showcased as a singer in Applause, but does warble a capella. “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man” is strictly the blues, but another tune is given complementary treatments. On stage, “Give Your Little Baby Lots of Lovin’” is a bawdy teaser; later, as she sings it to the traumatized (after seeing her mother’s act) April on her first night away from the convent, it’s a tender lullaby. This scene represents one of Mamoulian’s legendary fights with the “experts”: he had one microphone for Morgan as Kitty, another under Peers’ pillow, so that the mother’s song and the daughter’s prayers could be heard simultaneously. He had been told this would be impossible.

While Applause had to have seemed advanced in its time, and Morgan’s performance feels timeless, the movie does have its faults. Mellish’s performance is sufficiently villainous that it didn’t require giving him a looming Satanic shadow. Peers, on the other hand, is fussy and superficial as the teen April, giving us a chance to wonder, did the convent issue her that Julie Andrews British accent? Puzzlingly, the film was a financial flop, and it ran into trouble with local censorship boards, mostly for the backstage flesh (it was banned in Worcester!). It received no Academy Award nominations.

This auspicious debut proves that it’s the right time to reconsider Mamoulian, or to consider him for the first time ‘round. The roller coaster is all set to be boarded.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

1 Comment

  1. tim jackson on August 11, 2016 at 6:25 pm

    Wonderful background information! I bought a copy of the film years ago after studying about early experiments in sound motion pictures. This review is great context for a pretty remarkable movie. It’s a good start to another great series. I have to admit being unfamiliar with the term “beef trust,” however! Nice.

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