HAPPY 200 POSTS!
Welcome to another Film Friday, and our special 200th post! Thanks to all the readers and well-wishers for making every single post a treat to write and share. Here’s to the next 200! Now, on with our regularly scheduled programming…
Today we’re continuing our coverage of films released in 1929! In the title, I refer to 1929 as a year of firsts and lasts. I’m primarily speaking of the transition to sound, which went into full swing by 1929, and had every major studio technologically converted to the process — most notably M-G-M. Stars we’ve covered here like Norma Shearer and Joan Craford made their sound debuts. But the year wasn’t completely all-talking just yet — 1929 also saw the slow burning off of the silent films, which essentially ceased production by the time the year was over. The few films I’ll be featuring here (both talkies and silents) show an industry on the cusp of the biggest turning point in cinema history. So how do the films of 1929 stack up? I’m just as curious as you are to find out! So far we’ve looked at Pandora’s Box and Their Own Desire. Today, we’re shifting our gaze to Applause…
This early example of the “backstage” musical genre tells the story of Kitty Darling, a fading burlesque star who tries to save her convent-educated daughter April from following in Mom’s footsteps. Starring Helen Morgan, Joan Peers, Fuller Mellish Jr., Jack Cameron, and Henry Wadsworth. Based on the novel by Beth Brown. Adaptation by Garrett Fort. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
This fascinating film tells the story of a burlesque babe who — through a couple of bad breaks (most of them concerning a leech of a love interest) — meets destruction while trying to keep her innocent daughter from facing a similar fate. The story, while moderately engrossing, never really reaches the momentum that the picture requires. What makes this film worthwhile is the direction and its star. But, first, for curious parties, here is the synopsis as provided by TCM…
“Burlesque queen Kitty Darling gives birth to a baby girl shortly after learning that her husband has been executed. A few years later, Kitty refuses the marriage proposal of her friend, comic Joe King, because she dreams of “making it big” on Broadway, but takes Joe’s suggestion to send her beloved April to a convent school. Years later, Kitty is an alcoholic who still dreams of Broadway. Her current lover, Hitch Nelson, is a two-timing gigolo who demands that Kitty send for the now seventeen year-old April when he learns that Kitty has been paying for the girl’s education. April is disgusted by New York’s seedy burlesque environment, but her love for Kitty makes her stay. When she meets Tony, a young sailor, they fall in love and want to marry, delighting Kitty but infuriating Hitch, who wants April to go on stage to support him now that Kitty is a has-been. Realizing that her career is over and Hitch has only been using her, Kitty sends April to Tony, then takes an overdose of sleeping pills. April returns to her mother after telling Tony that she won’t marry him, then goes on stage when Kitty is too weak to perform. April is a success, but rushes offstage crying. Tony arrives, knowing that April didn’t mean what she said earlier, and unaware that Kitty has just died, they decide to take her with them to Wisconsin.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
My qualms with the story concern the ways and means in which Kitty’s character reaches her dramatic finish. It seems like the majority of her “hard knock” life — as we see it in the film — concerns a poor choice of love interest. The choice to make Kitty’s drama an external force requires that it be stronger. Instead, he’s merely a financial leech who resents the daughter and demands that she fulfill her mother’s place as a burlesque queen. While that has the potential for powerful drama, there’s not enough emphasis on Kitty. We see when she becomes a has-been, but we hardly get to see enough of how she became this way. (That’s where the drama is!) Essentially, I feel that more of the picture should be spent on the internal forces that lead to her inevitable demise. While we know she’s an alcoholic, the script (oddly) doesn’t dwell enough on it. The drama would thrive much more organically if the majority of Kitty’s bad breaks were the result of her decision making. Instead, the picture paints Kitty in the role of bystander and her lover as the villain. It’s a weaker choice, but not totally invalid. The problem is, though he’s unlikable, he simply isn’t the force that the conflict requires.
We could also argue that equally villainous is the setting in which Kitty dwells — the filthy underbelly of American entertainment — burlesque. It’s a clash of morality, harnessed between the showgirl Kitty and her convent-educated daughter that, ON THE PAGE, seems like enough to give supreme conflict. But since Kitty is relegated to bystander, we never get the intense drama between the two characters that we need. (One thing in regard to the daughter — though I thought the sequence between April and her love interest was overlong, I appreciated that the film allowed us to see 1929 New York, and also gave a little more space to develop their relationship.) But again, the character of Kitty either needs to be stronger, or needs stronger forces against which she can fight.
Though the script doesn’t address the need for strong opposing forces in its characters, Mamoulian’s direction is expert and helps fill out the lacking essentials. The direction does a phenomenal job of capturing the slimy, unglamourized world in which Kitty resides. Most invigorating are the snippets of the performances — low-class, rotten, and probably more accurate than films had yet seen. Additionally, there’s all this wonderful noise in the background that contributes to the seediness and destitution (or prostitution, as April might feel) of the burlesque stage and of Kitty’s life. Mamoulian’s touch is most obvious in his usage of the camera — though most of the takes are long (as was common for 1929 films), the frame is rarely stationary. It always seems to be moving, bringing the audience in tighter on the action. This, coupled with several unique experimental shots, contributes to the picture’s almost contemporary feel. Well, contemporary is a stretch, but I can tell you honestly — this is completely unlike other films of 1929 (or 1930 and 1931, for that matter) in its visual design. It’s alive, it’s fresh, it’s marvelous!
Mamoulian’s directorial brilliance is matched by Morgan’s humane brilliance. Though donned in a ridiculous blonde wig, Morgan is 100% honest in her acting choices — every inflection in her voice, every move of her body, and every shift in her face is done sincerely. She’s a performer who truly creates a separate living, breathing, human being. Though she was known for playing torch singing tragic heroines, her ability to take this mediocre script and elevate it to a plain of reality is outstanding. Her performance alone makes this 80-mintue picture worthwhile. So: fans of Morgan or fans of Mamoulian, you must see this picture. Classic cinema fans, this film is incredibly worthwhile for its style and visual superiority. Applause is not a storytelling success, but it’s a cinematic victory.
Come back next Friday for another 1929 film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!