APPLAUSE (director: Rouben Mamoulian; screenwriters: from the novel by Beth Brown/Garrett Fort; cinematographer: George Folsey; editor: John Bassler; 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, agent), William S. “Doc” Stephens (Gus Feinbaum); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Monta Bell/Jesse L. Lasky/Walter Wanger; Kino; 1929)
“May be the most innovative film of the early talkie era.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stage director Rouben Mamoulian (“Queen Christina”/”Love Me Tonight”) makes his screen debut a successful one. It’s shot with mostly fresh faces and Broadway actors in Paramount’s Astoria, Queens studio, that may be the most innovative film of the early talkie era. Mamoulian transformed this backstage weepie melodrama into a pleasing cinematic experience by having an all-seeing and fluid camera and by capturing the feel of both old time burlesque and New York City during the 1920s with great nostalgia location shots of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan skyscrapers and in the old Chambers Street subway stop. The film is based on the 1928 best-seller by the youthful writer Beth Brown. It’s based on the world of burlesque, which at that time was a style of lighthearted comedy and song routines (it later developed into striptease). It also features a chorus line, affectionately known as the “beef trust,” made up of chubby gals who would do artless dance routines that excited the men in the audience. Helen Morgan, noted torch singer who was known as the “queen of the speakeasies” and was a former performer in Ziegfeld’s Show Boat, makes her auspicious film debut at age 26. She’s asked to play the unglamorous part of a has-been burlesque star and agreed to put on weight to make her look seedier and middle-age.

The opening scene is set in 1910, and during a burlesque show the performers while doing their dance routine learn by whispering the info down the chorus line that burlesque queen Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan) gave birth in the dressing room to a baby girl shortly after being informed that her husband has been executed. When the comedian on the card Joe King (Jack Cameron) proposes, Kitty refuses but does accept his advice to send 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 her mom is an alcoholic living in sin with the oily gigolo, two-timer and low-life burlesque comic Hitch Nelson (Fuller Mellish Jr.). April is a country girl at heart and only stays because of her love for her self-sacrificing mom (paid the heavy expenses for her education). While there she fights off the sexual advances from Hitch and meets a nice young Wisconsin country boy sailor named Tony (Henry Wadsworth), whom she falls in love with and plans to marry. This angers Hitch who had plans to put Kitty to work on the stage to support him (not to mention having sexual designs on her), but it pleases mom that she met the right man. Realizing that her life is a mess, her talents and popularity have eroded, and that she was being used by the parasitic cad Hitch, Kitty swallows some poison. Mamoulian’s camera follows Kitty swigging the poison while at the same time April sips water in a chop suey joint after telling Tony she can’t marry him. It concludes with April replacing on stage her stricken mom, and Tony returning to ask for her hand in marriage again. It ends with the couple agreeing to tie the knot and leaving the city for the Heartland with April’s mom in tow for a more wholesome life, but they don’t realize that Kitty has just passed away.

The film manages to get past its dreary sentimentality due to the heart-wrenching performance by Morgan (only asked to do a few musical numbers such as “What Wouldn’t I Do For That Man” and “Give Your Little Baby Lots Of Lovin’ “) and the sparkling creative direction by Mamoulian. Though outdated, it still holds its own by giving the modern viewer a sharp-eyed look at the real old burlesque through the realistic portrayal of the performers and by not glamorizing burlesque but showing its corruptible atmosphere.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”