What a night for burlesque dancer Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan), as while she enjoys a level of popularity amongst audiences for her bright singing and dancing, she is crying on the inside. Also on the inside is her jailbird husband, and as she leaves the stage feeling unwell she receives a telegram saying that he has been denied his appeal and his stay on Death Row will soon be over - because he is going to be executed. The shock of this is enough to put the pregnant Kitty into labour, and soon after her only child is born, who she names April. But will the child follow in her mother's footsteps?
When Rouben Mamoulian was invited to direct a film about the vaudeville scene, he initially wished to turn it down because of the sleazy reputation such entertainment had. He was persuaded to attend one of the theatres providing such distractions, and did he change his mind? Well, no, he didn't, he was sickened by what he saw but it did convince him to make Applause, which is not a celebration of the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, but a damning indictment of the hell that the performers go though simply to provide a show for punters who couldn't care less about them.
With that in mind, there is a strong streak of bitterness running through the film as the script, based on Beth Brown's bestselling novel, puts its characters through humiliation upon indignity, which somewhat hypocritically is presented for our entertainment. Would it have killed them to give us a better musical number? For as well as being a mother and daughter tearjerker this is one of the first backstage musicals, a form that was at its most successful in the thirties, although you can tell Mamoulian hates it from the start when we see a chorus line of overweight, unglamorous and uncoordinated dancers going through their routines.
So if the hoofing and trilling isn't up to much, what can we watch Applause for? If early technical innovations are your bag, then this delivers the goods, as Mamoulian keeps his camera moving in an attempt to disguise a plot that even back then was pretty old hat: tracking shots, shots from above, location filming, it's all here. Among that location shooting is some priceless footage of the actors in New York, whether walking over the Brooklyn Bridge or surveying the panorama of the city from its tallest building, all fascinating stuff from yesteryear.
Alas, what is not so fascinating is that storyline the movie is saddled with, with offputting histrionics about April being packed off to convent school as a kid, learing a life of piety, then being forced to go onto the stage when Kitty's unscrupulous lover Hitch (Fuller Mellish Jr) demands that she stop being given the fees. Now Hitch, knowing that Kitty's days on the stage are numbered because she's not getting any younger, wants to keep his income by making April take her place, both romantically and financially. Can poor April overcome these odds? Well, sort of, but not without a terrible act of self-sacrifice on the part of Kitty. It's all laid on pretty thick, making Applause more interesting from a historical point of view, but Mamoulian was on his way, even if now-forgotten jazz singer Morgan's fate would be as sad as her character's.