Sometimes the vagaries of a changing personal schedule can provide opportunities for comparisons that wouldn’t be discernible otherwise. Being a bona fide film nerd, I am always catching up films I haven’t seen at all or in a while. Finishing up a rewrite on my thesis on the trio of Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen musicals, I was eager to take a look at some older musicals to fill in my film gaps. Hence, the recording of 1932’s Blonde Venus on TCM and the Netflix choice of 1929’s Applause.
These may be two “early sound musicals,” but my recollection of them put them on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of mood and treatment. Seeing them one after another provides an opportunity to see the differences and appreciate the wildly varying approaches to the material. Yet in some ways, the two films resemble the works of two artists told to paint the same subject and coming up with wildly divergent backstories and visual treatments.
Blonde Venus is Marlene Dietrich right between her early roles as actress and her later ones as poseur (she turned into an actor again later). Directed by her mentor Joseph von Sternberg, she plays Helen, a mother of a young son who becomes the mistress of a rich playboy (played with little heat or credibility by a young Cary Grant) to raise money for her husband’s medical treatment. She is also a cabaret performer whose lifestyle compromises her parenting. The plot is ridiculous, with the kind of jerky structure of many an early talkie that contains one short scene after another with just enough information for us to move from point A to point B without a shred of believability. Dietrich’s scenes with Grant’s character have them standing around looking beautiful (both of them) and bored (Dietrich). Von Sternberg admitted he was far less interested in plot than in how his films were photographed. Blonde Venus is beautiful to look at, a fine example of the director’s German expressionist eye. In this case, the plot is the thinnest wire hanger for a series of gorgeously photographed scenes featuring some high cheekbones and blonde hair in a radiant pool of light.
Applause is in many ways the more interesting film. Stage and film legend Rouben Mamoulian’s first film, it’s got a similar story I would never have noticed if not seeing it back to back with Blonde Venus. Helen Morgan plays a burlesque performer, Kitty Darling, who gives up her daughter to a convent school so she can have a better life, as life on the road, as with Dietrich’s character, isn’t good for the kid. Kitty is a sad, self-deceived, broken, zaftig, just about washed up character who is quick to tell herself that everything will be fine when we all know it won’t, and who heartbreakingly bends to the will of her man, a classic user and what the movies used to call a “heel.”
Kitty is hopeful with no reason to be. She is blowsy, sloppy, unfocused, silly, sad, warm, basically kind, and far too dependent upon men. Dietrich’s Helen is cynical with no reason to be, lean, elegant, well-dressed, uses men, and is cold as ice. But both are supportive mothers who make whatever choices they make for the sake of their children. Both Morgan’s and Dietrich’s scenes with their movie children are the true highlights of the films. As mothers, they connect lovingly and realistically with the children, and while acting styles are different, they both come off as mothers who love their offspring.
Both films were considered musicals, but by the standards of today, they are dramas with music. Dietrich has her numbers, which are performances completely unconnected with the film, and serve only to highlight this unique performer. While I understand her mystique, it’s always a surprise to reacquaint myself with her vocal limitations. Whatever “it” is, she sure had it. But she was never much of a singer, and the comparison with Applause puts that in relief. Helen Morgan wasn’t really called upon to deliver a solo performance within the film. The main number, “What Wouldn’t I Do for My Man,” ended up as a solo that same year in Glorifying the American Girl with Morgan torching it up on her traditional perch on a grand piano. In Applause, Morgan sings it matter-of-factly as part of a small scene that nearly swallows up the number. What is obvious in the film, however, even with Morgan playing such a has-been, is that she has the far superior voice to Dietrich. It would take until 1936 for her Julie in Show Boat to highlight her vocally. If she had the drive and sobriety of Dietrich, it would have been fascinating to see what a long-term career might have looked like.
While Blonde Venus is a series of gorgeous photographs, Applause contains the thrill of breaking down barriers in its filming. Film had just been granted sound and a locked-down camera (see Singin’ in the Rain if you haven’t) a couple of years before; Mamoulian was determined to make a film that sounded like a new, modern sound film with the free and flowing look of a silent. So his camera moved and moved, perhaps too much, but always with a sense of breaking new ground. His moving camera lacks the smoothness of a Steadicam film, but even the bumps and jerks feel exciting and trailblazing. There are overhead shots that presage the work of Busby Berkeley years later, though Mamoulian uses them differently. Nearly every shot feels fresh and new. He’s experimenting all over the place, and most of the time it works.
Part of the thrill of Applause is the setting. Blonde Venus takes place in a hothouse world of cabaret sets, one New York apartment, and few other unrealistic sets. Part of the joy of Applause is the beat-up world of burlesque and the near-documentary setting of New York City just before the Great Depression. Blonde Venus takes one to a fantasy world that only Paramount could create in the 1930’s. Applause is raw and feels like a trip back to a real place and time. It’s as imaginative photographically as Blonde Venus, just substituting movement, realism and a touch of poetry for static Teutonic beauty in both its lead and photographic approach.
Blonde Venus will always be important historically because of its two leads. Applause can get lost because its director doesn’t have a consistent, solid place in film history except for hardcore students of the art (a regrettable fact), because its lead didn’t fulfill her acting promise, and because it’s the opposite of a feel-good film. But it’s the better film.