Applause (Rouben Mamoulian / U.S., 1929):

The empty street suddenly filled with saltimbanques is but the first trick out of Rouben Mamoulian’s hat, a pirouetting camera and free-flowing emotionalism keep the razzmatazz going. The burlesque canvas gives you high angles and low angles, the orchestra pit and the line of pudgy chorines where Helen Morgan plays hoochie-coochie queen. Her baby is born backstage, sent away to a convent, and called back into the plot as a pious ingénue (Joan Peers); she tries to stay on the edge of the stage, but the tawdry vigor of vaudeville, "it does something to a girl." There’s a truly kaleidoscopic élan to the way Mamoulian leaves no space unfilled, literally drawing a diagonal line across the screen to split Morgan’s Diva Dolorosa and her two-timing lover (Fuller Mellish Jr.), dollying in and then out for transitions, cutting from face to face like a greasepainted Eisenstein. When Mellish walks off the side of frame during an argument with Morgan, their quarrel continues as shadow play; when she reaches for the poison, it’s a horror-movie rehearsal for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And yet, past the supersonic cacophony of music-hall chatter, honking cars and yapping dogs, there’s the affecting stillness of a mother cradling her daughter in a cavernous room, or of a novice’s shy courtship with a sailor (Henry Wadsworth), virginal glimpses of New York City captured in unbroken takes. And in the middle of the frantic the-show-must-go-on climax lies Morgan’s fallen trouper, sprawled like a detail out of Toulouse-Lautrec. The Warner Bros. musicals flow from here, the subway that separates the couple reappears in Minnelli's The Clock courtesy of cinematographer George Folsey. "See you in show business," a message not lost on the young innovator newly arrived in Hollywood. With Jack Cameron and Roy Hargrave. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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