Hollywood Century, 1929: In which the learning curve of early sound cinema does not preclude clever filmmakers from producing real art
The popular idea of what early sound cinema is like - as pinned down and immortalised by Singin' in the Rain, which I suspect is where most of us picked up the notion - is broadly correct. Static wide shots that show the entire cast peculiarly clustered around a conspicuous vase, into which the inexplicably deliver all of their lines; silent-trained actors over-stressing and over-enunciating; audio that wavers and drops off as people move too quickly or look the wrong way; these all exist in the first batch of sound films, the ones produced from 1928 till 1931 or '32. By no means do all early sound films suffer from this kind of intense stiffness, and certain studios had considerably more ingenious sound departments than others. But if your conception of first-generation talkies is of aesthetic aridity and unlovely blockiness, you're not miles off of the truth.
There are a handful of productions that absolutely confound this state of being, with cunning filmmaking technique and sophisticated incorporation of even the primitive sound available in those days. The best-known today, undoubtedly, is the 1930 war movie All Quiet on the Western Front, which puts in a strong bid as the first movie to effectively use sound as a storytelling device. But as far as incorporating sound with truly fantastic and complex visuals, I think that an even more impressive achievement came out the year prior to that film: I have in mind the Paramount release Applause, from October of 1929, which behaves according to absolutely none of the rules that we've been told all movies from that year had to follow without the slightest deviation. The camera slides around like a snake, with dialogue happening all throughout the entire length of tracking shots; acute camera angles from extreme high and low positions, pointing up, down, and sideways abound. Given my decent but incomplete knowledge of filmmaking technology at the time, there are shots which I literally cannot explain: one that leaps to mind is a lateral tracking shot along a chorus line, with each girl speaking as the camera passes by her. It sounds barbarically simple by modern standards, but in 1929, that sort of thing was going on nowhere else in the world.
How they managed to do all they did in Applause, I cannot say; probably just by not giving a damn that they technically couldn't. It is a great work of medium-bending, and while we undoubtedly cannot credit any one person for all that went on here, I can't help but notice that it looks forward to everything that would continue to be masterful and world-beating in the career of Russian-born Armenian stage director Rouben Mamoulian, who can I think readily be called the first great sound cinema director. Not because he made the first great sound film (that's debatable, and difficult to argue given the loss of so many early talkies), but because he was the first great director to work exclusively in sound cinema without any background in silents: astoundingly, Applause was his debut feature. Mamoulian couldn't keep up the pace of being a genius, unfortunately, and of the 16 films that are solely his work, two-thirds range from barely adequate to very good (his theater work in the same period was of a much higher level overall). Still, he kicked things off with a run of four movies - Applause was followed by the crime thriller City Streets, the horror film Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (the one with Fredric March), and the musical romantic comedy Love Me Tonight - that are all technically audacious, dramatically captivating, and close to flawless.
Applause, itself, is a backstage melodrama with a good assortment of musical numbers (which makes sense here, but it's amazing how many places they were able to stuff a musical number back when sound was a novelty), telling the lamentable tale of Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan), a burelesque star in a crappy theater (the sound here is pointedly out of sync, I think to underline the junkiness of the theatrical production) whose husband is on death row, and upon receiving a telegram from him briskly informing her that the governor has decided not intercede and this means goodbye, she faints - not just from shock, but from pregnancy. Horrified at having to raise a child in the slimy, sordid world of burlesque, Kitty sends her young daughter to live in a convent, which she pays for using all the money she's able to scrape up in the demeaning world of shaking her mostly-naked body for roaring customers.
Cut to several years later: Kitty's daughter April (Joan Peers) has left the convent, and Kitty lives under the thumb of a brutish lover, Hitch Nelson (Fuller Mellish, Jr.), who doubles as her abusive manager. Haggard, middle-aged and addicted to alcohol, Kitty wants one thing only in the whole world: to keep April the hell away from the squalid life she lives in herself. Unfortunately, Hitch gets a look at the girl, and instantly sees the potential for exploiting her fresh good looks and delicacy as a hot new burlesque act. April, wandering about the streets of New York, crosses paths with a sailor, Tony (Henry Wadsworth), who falls for her instantly and wants to take her away from everything; but April's fierce loyalty to Kitty gets in the way, as the young woman understands that her mother will descend into penury without the money that a bright new burlesque star might provide. And this is a fate Kitty devoutly wishes to avoid for her daughter; so devoutly that she'd rather kill herself than stand in the way of April's hopeful future.
It is, clearly, fucking tawdry - adapted by Garrett Fort from a novel by Beth Brown, Applause is positively ecstatic to spend all of its energy wallowing in the most barbaric corners of New York, watching the most depressed and pathetic figures eke out their lives. But it's scintillating and wonderfully alive, a story of humans treated with considerable sympathy and affection (it helps to keep in mind that in 1929, this sort of scenario wasn't nearly as hackneyed as it would be even five years later). The filmmaking certainly aids in this impression a great deal, with deeply expressive camerawork (the cinematographer was George Folsey, who had several more bona fide classics to come in his career), and multi-layered, organically chaotic soundscapes (the sound recording was by Ernest Zatorsky) that draw us deep into the seedy milieu. But really, for all that I'd love to lay all the credit for everything at Mamoulian's feet, and thus burnish my auteurist credentials, you'd have to be a madman not to recognise that Applause relies to a considerable degree on 28-year old Morgan, a torch singer and Broadway star who created the role of Julie in the groundbreaking stage musical Show Boat, and whose life was just as tragic and mournful as her roles there and here, and the heavy singing voice that made her name. Dead of alcoholism at 41, Morgan lived a consistently tumultuous life, and you can readily see the actress drawing on that to inform her worn-out shell of a former celebrity turned brittle and weary from a life of hard living and no dignity. The raspy, hard whine of her voice is a feat of acting all by itself, and coupled with Morgan's commitment to making herself as ramshackle and ugly as American movies were willing to go in '29, we have a vivid and deep understanding of Kitty that's shot through with incredible sympathy for how much damage she's withstood, all in the name of giving her daughter a chance at a halfway decent life. It's one of the best performance in early sound cinema, period. And while her co-stars are all fine, they're all shades next to her, stuck to some degree in the grandiose, highly performative style of reciting and body language that the movies would largely escape from within just a couple of years. Morgan, in contrast, is a life force, an avatar of rough living who burns right off the screen.
The film's style, meanwhile, is incandescent. Mamoulian and Folsey indulge in jarring camera perspectives that would be easy to call Expressionist if the lighting weren't so fixedly realistic, using unconventional, hugely ambitious angles which seem to willfully defy the physical limits of 1920s sound filmmaking technique, and which by their very intensity and oddness call more attention to the places they depict and the people within those places. The collision between limited third-person perspective (and even a few moments of first-person, something Mamoulian would explore much further in his Jekyll & Hyde) and a more godlike series of images - the film shows top-down dance numbers in geometric patterns, a year before Busby Berkeley arrived in the movies - further draws attention to the gap between the physical places and the emotional territory of the characters: Applause is, to no small degree, about the absolute wrongness of these people being stuck in the divey holes where they live and work, and the oscillation between intimate visuals and broad, objective visuals maximize the disconnect there.
Meanwhile, almost as impressive as the frames and the sinewy movements through space, the editing, by John Bassler, gives the already brief film (79 minutes is all) a headlong, rushing pace: there are dissolves aplenty, frequently dissolves that double as graphic matches to further yoke the scenes together and give the film a sense that it's racing, hellbent, towards doom (a particular favorite moment: a dissolve from Kitty playing with her necklace to a nun handling a rosary in the convent where April is sent to be saved). Both the cinematography and editing are frighteningly fluid, heavy with momentum and energy that suggests, when all is said and done, that Kitty's fate was sealed the moment she started in burlesque, and she can only work for her daughter's redemption, not her own. It's a rough, bleak story of rough, bleak corners of New York (playing itself in some excellent location photography), given a beating human heart from its leading lady and the focus with which the director connects to her visually. Mamoulian would make better films almost immediately, but Applause is still a freakishly accomplished and confident work of cinema that betrays only fleeting moments of the primitivism that was supposed to lay over 1929 like a plague.
And it has, as far as I know, the first appearance of swearing in a talkie - "everybody in the whole damn house" and "godforsaken farm". Tarantino it ain't, but there's always something thrilling about watching an old movie and seeing them get away with something you didn't think they could, don't you think?
Elsewhere in American cinema in 1929
-The first awards presentation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - known to later generations as the Oscars - is held
-The first full movie musical, The Broadway Melody, is released by MGM
-Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks appear in the dreadful The Taming of the Shrew, the first sound adaptation of a Shakespeare play
Elsewhere in world cinema in 1929
-Alfred Hitchock's first all-talking feature is also the first talkie shot in Britain, Blackmail
-Director G.W. Pabst and actor Louise Brooks collaborate on Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora's Box in Germany
-Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali co-direct the legendary Surrealist art film Un chien andalou