Director: Rouben Mamoulian. Screenplay: Garrett Fort; from Beth Brown's novel. Cast: Helen Morgan, Joan Peers, Fuller Mellish Jr., Jack Cameron, Henry Wadsworth, Roy Hargrave
Rouben Mamoulian was one of the most talented directors of all time. His early musical Applause proves it.
Applause stars stage legend Helen Morgan (above) as Kitty Darling, a chubby burlesque dancer who can do a high-kick number onstage, then proceed directly to her dressing room and have a baby. Talk about being an accomplished multi-tasker…
Kitty's taste in men, however, is horrible. The baby's father is on death row and her current boyfriend convinces her to put the kid away in a convent. Years later, Kitty's new man forces her to bring the daughter to live with them and be part of their vaudeville act.
Helen Morgan is perfect as the simple-minded stripper, so in love with her no-good man that she doesn't see how much he lusts after her grown daughter, April (Joan Peers). It's not that Kitty is exactly stupid; it's just that she is so naïve she trusts everybody. Compounding matters, she's a bit boozy and blowsy, and is on the verge of becoming a washed-up showgirl.
April has all the common sense in the family. At first the girl suffers cultural shock for having transitioned from a nunnery, where "they cover everything but their noses," to a cheap burlesque theater. Things start looking up after she meets a handsome young sailor who convinces her to go away with him to a farm in Wisconsin and get married.
But first April must save her mother. In the show-must-go-on spirit, she steps in for Kitty and takes over the show for one performance before chucking it all for her sailor-boy. Kitty, on the other hand, isn't so lucky…
Applause shows how cinematic a movie could be in the early stages of talking pictures. Mamoulian's camera is fluid, moving around the theater while revealing the squalor and poverty of that milieu. Even more fascinating is the film's realism. The chorus "girls," for instance, are all a bit fat, geriatric, and slovenly. The men ogle them and lick their lips as they dance and shake their avoirdupois thighs. It's the seediest of seedy vaudeville.
The musical numbers, for their part, are not integrated into the action, unless you count Helen Morgan singing "What Wouldn't I Do for That Man" to the picture of her two-timing boyfriend. Elsewhere, the music is just part of the stage show, as the "girls" prance around on the runway.
Applause was likely much too bleak for Depression-era audiences (the film opened in late 1929; it went into wide release in 1930). The public in those days hungered for the type of escapism that Busby Berkeley would later bring to the screen. Yet, today Applause looks fresh and captivating, proving how innovative an early musical could be.
© Danny Fortune