Helen Morgan, doomed herself to be the subject of a tearjerking biopic, stars as Kitty Darling, an ambitious performer who goes into labor in the middle of a routine after learning that the father of her unborn child will die at Sing Sing that night. Determined to give her daughter a proper upbringing, Kitty saves money to pay the girl's way through a convent school. But as the years pass Kitty finds herself under pressure from her latest paramour, Hitch, to raise money for a last-chance touring show. To do so, she has to pull her teenaged daughter out of her idyllic school and bring her home.
These shots are as glamorous as Applause gets.
'Kid, you're going out there a nobody, but you've got to come back a floozy!'
While unfamiliarity with Broadway names doomed Applause at the national box office, the scenario I just described wasn't really inconsistent with audience tastes in the Twenties, given the prevalence of pathos in so many surviving silents. Our ancestors had more nuanced sensibilities in some respects than we enjoy today, or so I assume from their apparently not insisting on happy endings in every film and their welcoming of utterly unhappy endings on many occasions. Of course, some may have treated Applause as a grimly cynical joke -- for all I know, Beth Brown herself may have meant it that way -- but that was most likely a minority viewpoint. Or look at it this way: more people in those more deprived times (and this opened before the Depression really hit) may well have seen life as a grimly cynical joke, but that may have made the struggles of the wretched only more pitiable for them. All I know is that there isn't the same market for pathos today, and there hasn't been for a long time. For that reason, Applause is simultaneously as archaic in its sensibility as it is advanced (by historical standards) directorially. And without a historic awareness of its aesthetic significance, the film will probably look 100% archaic. But what's wrong with archaic? If the difference of the past, rather than its resemblance to the present, is what fascinates you, Applause is likely to fascinate you, too -- in its uniquely appalling way.