#424) Applause (1929)
OR “Kitty Foiled”
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Written by Garrett Fort. Story by Beth Brown.
Class of 2006
The Plot: New York burlesque star Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan) sends her newborn daughter April to a convent in order for her to have a better life. Years later, the now grown-up April (Joan Peers) returns to live with Kitty, only to learn that she is now an alcoholic has-been with an abusive boyfriend named Hitch (Fuller Mellish Jr.). After an attempted assault from Hitch, April roams around the city, and has a whirlwind romance with sailor Tony (Henry Wadsworth). Come for the depressing storyline, stay for the innovative use of camera and sound.
Why It Matters: The NFR applauds “Applause” for its “audacious style”, even citing comparison to “Citizen Kane” for its “cinematic innovation”. The work of Mamoulian and the principal cast are highly praised.
But Does It Really?: “Applause” is by no means a classic, but I get why it’s on the list. At a time when most movies were dipping their toes into what was possible with “talkies”, “Applause” cannonballs into the deep end with overlapping tracks and on-location filming, both of which were considered impossible with this new technology. The appeal of “Applause” may be reserved for die-hard film geeks, but we’ll take it!
Everybody Gets One: Not their only NFR appearance, but shoutouts to director Rouben Mamoulian and star Helen Morgan. Born in Georgia (the country), Mamoulian found success directing for the London stage. He moved to America and directed the 1927 play “Porgy”, as well as its more famous musical version in 1935 (Ironically, he was fired from the subsequent film production). Helen Morgan also had theater roots; her fame as a torch singer in Chicago nightclubs led to the legitimate stage, and ultimately the role of Julie in the original cast of “Show Boat”, a role she reprised for two film versions. Sadly, like her character in “Applause”, Morgan was also an alcoholic, and died at the age of 41 from cirrhosis of the liver.
Wow, That’s Dated: The main dated aspects of “Applause” are its backstage peak at burlesque and its extremely abusive attitude towards women. Also, thanks to one consistent background character, this movie gets a BLACKFACE WARNING. Sorry, this segment doesn’t always get to be the fun one.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Applause” had the misfortune of premiering less than a month after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. This bad timing, mixed with an ad campaign that focused on Helen Morgan’s glamour, led to “Applause” being a flop with critics and audiences. At the 3rd annual Oscars, “Applause” received zero nominations (though the National Board of Review named it one of their top 10 films of the year). Paramount’s Best Picture contender that year was Ernst Lubitsch’s much more lighthearted escapist musical “The Love Parade”.
- In practice, I don’t research these movies in advance so I can come to my own conclusion as to how they made the list. “Applause” told me immediately why it was on here; the film’s usage of its soundtrack – starting with a silent empty street segueing to a marching band and ultimately the raucous crowd at the burlesque house – is downright revolutionary by 1929 standards.
- Also revolutionary for 1929: tracking shots. While commonplace in the silent era, the clunky sound equipment now attached to a camera made tracking shots more awkward to orchestrate. Most early sound films opted to keep their cameras static and their action stage bound, but Mamoulian throws caution to the wind and moves his camera as freely as the silent era.
- Mamoulian proves he’s also a master of visual storytelling. In an early sequence the necklace that young April is playing with fades into the rosary beads of the convent. This is followed later by a wipe from Kitty praising Hitch’s fidelity to Hitch cheating on her with another woman. Rouben knows exactly what he wants and how to get it.
- The train station sequence showcases this film’s other trick to sound: film your sequence with a less cumbersome silent era camera, and synchronize the soundtrack in post.
- Oooh, nice use of undercranking to make the streets of New York a little more hectic.
- Thanks to Hitch, “Applause” is very much the kind of film “Fast Talking High Trousers” is spoofing.
- Where did April pick up that posh accent? Was Katharine Hepburn the mother superior at her convent?
- “There’s only one way to treat [women], and that’s rough!” Oy. I think Hitch talks so fast so you lose track of every sexist thing he says.
- Tony likes April’s name because it “sounds like a name out of a book”. Umm, does he think a calendar is a book? Conversely, Tony doesn’t like his own name because it makes him “sound like a wop bootblack.” Ahem.
- “Applause” was filmed at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in New York, which explains why this film has more on-location shots than your typical Hollywood movie of the time.
- The movie’s ending is particularly dark; this being pre-code and all even the good guys get to die. But the film’s tragic ending is fitting to the previous melodrama, and packs an appropriate punch.
- “Applause” disappeared after its initial run, but was rediscovered in the early ’60s by a new generation. I’m gonna guess TV repeats on the late show had something to do with it.
- Rouben Mamoulian’s film career remained steady throughout the ‘30s and early ‘40s, directing future NFR entries “Love Me Tonight”, “Becky Sharp”, and “The Mark of Zorro”. Although his film career faltered after that, he did find success in the theater, directing the original Broadway productions of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel”.