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Sunday, January 3, 2010

APPLAUSE (1929)


Helmer Rouben Mamoulian was determined that his debut movie would really move. No small thing for an early Talkie made at Paramount’s East Coast studios. Helen Morgan, SHOW BOAT’s original Julie*, stars as a fading burlesque performer whose unsavory new partner forces her almost grown kid to leave convent school and join the act . . . and God knows what else. Mother-love wins out in the end, but at a tragic price. You can still feel the excitement from some of Mamoulian’s visual daring, especially in a few precious scenes shot on real NYC locations, and the tawdry backstage atmosphere is both fascinating & repellent. But the story and perfs are all too one-note all thru the story, it’s wearisome even at a bare 80 minutes. Only Henry Wadsworth, as a charmingly romantic sailor-boy, seems willing to moderate his delivery for the new medium. Technically snazzy as this was for its time, it hardly has the dramatic pull of something like THE LETTER made the same year at the same studio. An unusually fine stage transfer for its time, it's cinematically inert, but dramatically compelling with an eye-popping, unforgettable perf from the tragic Jeanne Eagles. It still has real theatrical power and it holds you. Mamoulian would get things into better balance soon enough.

*Morgan filmed the part in James Whale’s priceless 1936 production which was largely cast with original or touring cast members.

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