Review by Jack Gardner
Posted on 15 May 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
Among the many unverifiable firsts in movies is the possibility that Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause is the first “grown up” talking picture. Unlike many of its peers, Applause has a mature subject matter and does not feel stilted or overly theatrical. The camera flows along with a grace that a lot of other contemporary talking pictures lacked, and it possessed themes deemed controversial at the time. In comparison to other, more successful 1929 pictures, such as The Broadway Melody and Glorifying the American Girl — both lighthearted musical reviews — perhaps it is understandable that, in an America recently devastated by the Depression, a back stage drama without a happy ending or a glamorous and beautiful leading lady would flop.
The film opens with an empty street, littered with posters blowing in the wind, which then fills up as a parade passes by promoting a vaudeville show starring Kitty Darling. It is 1910; Kitty is in the prime of her youth. The next scene moves us into the theater where, after performing, Kitty comes offstage to receive a telegram from her husband, who is on death row, informing her that his appeal has been denied. She faints and is carried to her room by other cast members of the show. They ask the audience for a doctor to come backstage, and we soon learn that Kitty has just given birth to a baby daughter. The story line skips ahead 7 years, and under the advice of a friend, Kitty decides to send her daughter to be schooled and raised in a convent. Ten years afterward, Kitty sends for April to come home because Hitch, Kitty’s philandering boyfriend, wants Kitty to stop spending her money on April’s schooling. It is never spoken, but we presume that it’s so she can spend the money on him. In the course of events April, even though she is repulsed by her mother’s profession, joins the chorus of the burlesque show. Hitch, sensing fresh meat, makes several passes at April which she rejects. While heading home from the show one evening April meets Tony, a sailor on leave, and very quickly they fall in love and he proposes marriage. Kitty is very pleased that her daughter is planning to get married but Hitch, seeing the young girl slipping out of his grasp, gets angry and demands that Kitty put a stop to it. Kitty tells him no and he tells her he’s leaving and that her career is through in Burlesque because she is too old. After making a few phone calls and finding out that Hitch was telling her the truth, Kitty decides to do what she must to get April out of show business and into a better life, which, in this case, means committing suicide.
Applause was the first starring role for Broadway legend Helen Morgan, and she gives a heartfelt performance as Kitty Darling, a washed up burlesque queen dreaming of only two things: taking care of her daughter, and making it on Broadway. Her characterization of Kitty Darling is magnificently fragile, one expects to see her burst into tears with every line, and as she sits looking through old photographs singing “What Wouldn’t I Do For That Man,” it is the perfect picture of a woman blinded by a false love. On the stage, Morgan was known for playing tragic, lovelorn women sitting on top of pianos, warbling away about how much they love their rotten men, and Kitty Darling was not a far departure from that pattern. The striking difference is that, in her film debut, Morgan allowed herself to be made up to look 20 years older than she was at the time and to remove all the glamour from her persona. Kitty Darling is not a high class lady by any means; she’s the lowest of the low burlesque performers, just one step short from being a hooker, yet Morgan’s performance makes you feel for the character as she struggles to provide a better life for her daughter.
At the time of its release, this film suffered from censorship problems. State censorship boards would frequently cut objectionable sequences out of films and in the case of Applause, many states made heavy cuts in the picture. There were several states where it was banned entirely. In some areas of the country the film was issued as a silent picture due to the lack of sound equipment in most theaters in smaller towns. The critics of the time were very favorable towards the picture, but the public stayed away—perhaps because of the bleak subject matter, or perhaps because Helen Morgan at the time was not really well known outside of New York and Broadway. Paramount, who upon seeing the initial director’s cut expected to have a smash hit on their hands, ended up with a very expensive dud at a most inopportune time.
Regardless of its lack of popularity, Applause is a remarkable achievement for a motion picture made in 1929. The advent of sound trapped the motion picture camera into a sound-proof box and limited its movement. Through his innovations, Mamoulian enabled the camera to move in ways reminiscent of the silent film era that was now coming to a close. The scenes flow smoothly with close-ups, unusual camera angles and lighting effects that would not really appear in most other big budget features until the innovations of Busby Berkeley in 1933.
Applause is also a visual hallmark in comparison to other talking films of the year. Mamoulian sets his scenes up to be both dramatically and visually striking, sometimes filming from overhead, and very frequently in this movie only filming from the knees down. Every scene is uniquely shot to bring the audience a feel of the world of Kitty and April Darling inhabit. Frightening close-ups of rather unattractive burlesque performers and patrons make the audience uneasy—as uneasy as April must have felt when, fresh from the convent, she first set foot in the burlesque theater. We are given a chance to feel the unrest and tension that April is feeling as she comes in to her mother’s home: April is lying in bed—on the wall are the silhouettes of Kitty and Hitch, and she can hear their voices in argument while tears stream down April’s face.
Helen Morgan gives the best performance of her short motion picture career in Applause. She creates a woman 20 years her senior, torn between love for her daughter and love for a worthless man, with heartfelt accuracy. She is given the opportunity to sing only on occasion in the film; there is never a true production number that features her singing, however the song “What Wouldn’t I Do For That Man,” written for this film, would become her signature tune. In a strange case of life mimicking art, Morgan would die in 1941 at age 39, her career in shambles due to progressed alcoholism.
In the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, Hollywood studios had no intention of creating art — if they did happen to create a masterpiece, it was purely by accident — movies were just mass entertainment here for the day with no thought of preservation or usefulness beyond the immediate future. Looking at Applause from a contemporary perspective, it is indeed an early masterpiece, rough and crude yet strikingly sophisticated, realistic and moving. Mamoulian and Morgan teamed up to make this tawdry tale of burlesque life in the early part of the 20th century and, while it is fictionalized drama, it shows us a piece of American theatrical life featuring some of the people who actually lived it.