Applause movie review: Early musical shows why Rouben Mamoulian remains one of cinema’s greatest directors
Rouben Mamoulian, whose credits include the classic 1932 musical Love Me Tonight and the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro, was one of the most talented directors of all time. His 1929 musical Applause proves it.
Adapted by Garrett Fort (Dracula, Frankenstein) from a 1928 novel by Beth Brown and shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in New York, Applause stars stage legend Helen Morgan as chubby burlesque dancer Kitty Darling, who can do a high-kick number onstage and then proceed directly to her dressing room and have a baby. Talk about being an accomplished multitasker.
Kitty’s taste in men, however, is horrible. The baby’s father is on death row, so her current boyfriend (Jack Cameron) convinces her to put the kid away in a convent.
Years later, Kitty’s new man (Fuller Mellish Jr.) forces her to bring the now-grown daughter, April (Joan Peers), to live with them and become part of their vaudeville act.
Perfect Helen Morgan
Helen Morgan (whose life is somewhat foreshadowed in the film) 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 daughter.
It’s not that Kitty is exactly stupid; she’s just otherworldly naïve, thus trusting everybody. Compounding matters, she’s a bit blowsy and boozy, teetering on the verge of has-beendom.
April, for her part, 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 (Henry Wadsworth) who convinces her to go away with him to a farm in Wisconsin and get married.
Before skipping town, however, 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 isn’t so lucky.
Fluid + realistic early talkie
Applause shows how cinematic a movie could be in the early, logistically impaired stages of talking pictures.
With the assistance of cinematographer George J. Folsey (also in 1929: The Letter and The Cocoanuts), Rouben Mamoulian allows his camera to move around the theater while realistically depicting the squalor and dinginess of that milieu.
Just as fascinating is the genuine portrayal of the people in the business. The chorus “girls,” for instance, are all not only a bit fat and slovenly but also geriatric. Even so, the men ogle them and lick their lips as they dance and shake their avoirdupois thighs. The setting is the seediest of all seedy vaudeville houses.
Also of note, the musical numbers aren’t integrated into the action; that is, with the exception of 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, which opened in late 1929 and went into wide release in 1930, was likely much too bleak for Depression Era audiences. Generally speaking, the public in those days hungered for the type of escapism that Busby Berkeley would later bring to the screen.
Besides, some critics gave the film a less than euphoric reception.
Yet, nearly eight decades later Applause looks fresh and captivating, showing how innovative talking pictures – and musicals in particular – could be.
Director: Rouben Mamoulian.
Screenplay: Garrett Fort.
From Beth Brown’s 1928 novel.
Cast: Helen Morgan. Joan Peers. Henry Wadsworth. Fuller Mellish Jr. Jack Cameron. Dorothy Cumming.
“Applause Definition: Revolutionary Early Talkie Is Helen Morgan Showcase” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Applause (1929) Movie Review” endnotes
The other Applause
Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s 1970 Broadway musical Applause is unrelated to Rouben Mamoulian’s 1929 movie.
Helen Morgan – as herself – also gets to sing “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man” in another 1929 release, Millard Webb’s Glorifying the American Girl.
Helen Morgan Applause movie: Paramount Pictures.
“Applause Movie: Revolutionary Early Talkie Is Helen Morgan Showcase” last updated in October 2021.