At the height of her career, Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan) is a queen of burlesque with dreams of performing on Broadway. Even the birth of her daughter April (Joan Peers) does nothing to slow her down. But as April grows, Kitty realizes that the burlesque world is no place for a child and sends April to school at a convent in Wisconsin. As the years pass, Kitty’s Broadway dreams go unfulfilled and her best burlesque days are behind her. She drinks too much, her looks are fading, and she’s gotten involved with Hitch Nelson (Fuller Mellish, Jr.), who only cares about what little money she has.
When Hitch finds out about April, he demands that Kitty bring April back to New York so she can spend her money on him rather than tuition. April isn’t aware of what kind of performer her mother is and when she finds out, she is horrified. She loves her mother but detests the sleazy environment of the burlesque theater. April certainly has no desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps and Kitty respects that. But with Kitty’s career quickly going downhill, Hitch pressures April into joining the show so she can make more money for them.
April finds some happiness when she meets Tony (Henry Wadsworth), a sailor on leave in New York. Before Tony leaves, they decide to get married and move to Wisconsin. Kitty is thrilled for them, but when April overhears Hitch berating her mother, April decides to stay. While April is off saying goodbye to Tony, Kitty takes an overdose of sleeping pills and goes downstairs to the burlesque theater where she is set to perform. Kitty is in no condition to go on stage and April volunteers to fill in for her, not realizing what her mother has done. When April comes off stage, she finds Tony waiting for her and they decide to carry on with their plans and bring Kitty with them. Little do they know that Kitty has passed away.
Applause marked the directorial debut of Rouben Mamoulian and it is an incredibly ambitious debut at that. Applause was part of the early talkie era, a time when movies were typically very static. Filmmakers were busy enough dealing with the new challenges of working with sound, they weren’t eager to tackle the challenge of trying to move the camera too. But Mamoulian accepted the challenge and with his innovative use of camera movement, camera angles, and montages, the result is a movie that is ahead of its time stylistically. Rouben Mamoulian was clearly a man with a real vision for this movie; his work was truly inspired.
Helen Morgan’s performance as Kitty is also outstanding. Morgan was primarily known for her work on stage and only appeared in a handful of films so she isn’t particularly well remembered today. However, she makes a very strong impression in Applause. Kitty is the type of character who would go on to be exemplified by Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, but Helen Morgan set a very high standard for Stanwyck to follow.