Applause (1929): Rouben Mamoulian’s Stunning Directing Debut Starring Helen Morgan

In 1929, stage director Rouben Mamoulian made an impressive screen directorial debut with “Applause,” the tale of a fading burlesque singing star, wonderfully played by Helen Morgan.

Shot with mostly Broadway actors in the Paramount’s studio at Astoria, Queens, it’s considered by many historians as one of the most innovative film of the early sound era.
Mamoulian transforms this sordid backstage melodrama into a uniquely filmic experience by using a fluid, dynamic camera that captures the feel of burlesque and New York City in the 1920s; you can see in the background the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the old Chambers Street subway stop.
 
Based on the 1928 best-selling novel by Beth Brown, the film stars Helen Morgan, the noted torch singer known as the “queen of the speakeasies” and former performer in Ziegfeld’s “Show Boat,” in a spectacular screen debut at the age of 26. No ego is involved: In the course of the film, playing the unglamorous part of a has-been burlesque star, Morgan ages considerably, putting on weight to make her look worn out and middle-age.
 
As an entertainment form, burlesque was defined by lighthearted comedy and song routines, and in the movie, the chorus line, known as the “beef trust,” is made up of chubby women performing artless routines to a mostly old and sleazy male audience.
 
The opening scene, during a burlesque show the performers doing their dance routine learn by whispering the info down the chorus line that burlesque queen Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan) gave birth in her dressing room to a baby girl.
 
The comedian Joe King (Jack Cameron) proposes but Kitty refuses, though she listens to his advice and sends her daughter to a Wisconsin convent school to keep her away from the sleazy showbiz crowd.
 
Years later, when the 17-year-old daughter April (Joan Peers) returns to live with mom, she’s disillusioned to find out that Kitty is an alcoholic, living with low-life burlesque comic Hitch Nelson (Fuller Mellish Jr.)
 
A country girl at heart, April stays because of her love for her self-sacrificing mom. While there, she fights off the sexual advances of itch and meets a nice young Wisconsin country boy, Tony (Henry Wadsworth). They falls in love and plan to marry, which infuriate Hitch who had plans to put Kitty to work on the stage to support him. Realizing that her talents and popularity have eroded, and that she was exploited by the parasitic cad Hitch, Kitty swallows poison. Mamoulian’s cuts between Kitty swigging the poison while at the same time April sips water in a joint after telling Tony she can’t marry him.
 
The saga concludes with April replacing on stage her stricken mom, and Tony returning to ask for her hand again. The couple then leaves the city for the Heartland with Kitty in tow for a wholesome, healthier life, by which time Kitty has passed away.
 
In the hands of another director, the picture could have been too dreary, a sentimental woman’s melodrama (a “weepie”), but Mamoulian’s touches transform the story into a genuine tragedy, greatly assisted by Helen Morgan’s heart-wrenching performance.
 
Morgan sings a few musical numbers, such as “What Wouldn’t I Do For That Man” and “Give Your Little Baby Lots Of Lovin'”.
 
The creative direction by Mamoulian still holds up well, and his sharp look at burlesque life, on stage and off, through minutia realistic detail that refusing to glamorizing burlesque, is poignant and touching.
 
Cast:
 
Helen Morgan (Kitty Darling)
Joan Peers (April Darling)
Fuller Mellish Jr. (Hitch Nelson)
Jack Cameron (Joe King)
Henry Wadsworth (Tony)
Roy Hargrave (Slim Lamont)
Mack Gray (Eddie Lamont)
Dorothy Cumming (Mother Superior)
Jack Singer (Dave Holt)
William S. “Doc” Stephens (Gus Feinbaum)
 
Credits
 
Produced by Monta Bell (Jesse L. Lasky and Walter Wanher production)
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
Screenplay: Garrett Fort from the novel by Beth Brown.
Cinematographer: George Folsey.
Editor: John Bassler.
 
Running Time: 79 Minutes.