Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Stage Door

Film: Stage Door
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

When I set up my NetFlix queue, I frontload it with all of the movies that have a long (or longer) wait time. This sometimes means that I end up with the film I had 30th on the queue, but sometimes it means that one of these rare films suddenly appears. Such was the case with Stage Door, a film that I fully expected would take months to finally show up on my doorstep. I went into this cold, knowing only that it was nominated for a couple of Oscars and that it starred Katherine Hepburn. What I discovered was something of an unexpected treat.

Most of our action takes place in a boarding house for young actresses in New York. All of the girls are struggling, most are between jobs, and all of them are particularly catty when the situation calls for it. There are a few of primary interest to us. First is Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), who would like to make it as a dancer. Jean has a particular animosity for Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick), mostly because Linda is dating the evidently married producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou). Also in the mix is the acid-tongued Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball), the aged Catherine (Constance Collier), and the talented but out of work Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), who is the tragic part of our lighthearted collection. Into this mixture comes Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn).

Terry is completely out of place in the fairly bawdy and rough-and-tumble world of the boarding house. For her, arriving in New York and living for $13/week is a something of a grand adventure. This is because Terry is the child of extremely wealthy Midwestern parents who do not approve of her desired life on the stage and have determined to do everything they can to curtail her efforts of being an actress. Things are tense initially when Jean takes an instant dislike to the haughty and cocky Terry, especially when the two end up as roommates.

What follows is sort of a genius confluence of events. Anthony Powell gets a good look at Jean and decides that he’d like to upgrade from Linda. Jean isn’t keen at first, but money and fancy dinners have a way of swaying her. Around the same time, Kay attempts to audition for Tony Powell but is rebuffed, and she faints in his office from fatigue and malnutrition. Terry arrives at this moment and dresses the producer down as thoroughly as she can, which increases her stock at the boarding house. Kay is convinced that she is perfect for Powell’s new play, but there are other forces at work. Hoping to convince her to return home, Terry’s father backs the play, but only if Terry gets the lead role, the one Kay wants. The hope is that Terry will be so terrible that she’ll be forced to return home.

I’m not going to describe the last half hour except to say that Stage Door takes a very dark and serious turn. This doesn’t sour the drama at all, but it does effectively change the tone of the film from what has been a dark and sardonic comedy into the realm of serious drama. The ending, though, is the real weak point of the film. It’s part and parcel for when the film was made, allowing for something like a triumph out of the ashes of despair, and it does so in a way that is pure 1930s Hollywood in that it’s completely unrealistic.

It’s almost certainly the dramatic turn in the third act that made Stage Door a Best Picture nominee and got director Gregory La Cava his nod as well, but for me, this is the weakest part of what had been a perfectly entertaining little show biz comedy. The wisecracks and insults between the women in the boarding house are a lot of fun, and the pace of the remarks is almost difficult to keep up with. Both Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball are nearly perfect in their timing and their delivery, and Katherine Hepburn is easy to dislike as a snobbish child of privilege. This, keeping things moving and fun, is where Stage Door really succeeds.

It’s worth noting that evidently Stage Door has very little to do with the play on which it was based. Many of the character names are the same and much of the action takes place in a women’s boarding house, but most of the actual plot is a complete fabrication for this film. As someone not really up on the stage dramas of the age, this didn’t bother me a whole lot, but I could see that easily becoming a problem for any purist in the audience.

One the whole, I was pretty pleased with what I got here. Stage Door, while it finishes at a pace and quality below where it starts, is well-acted and entertaining all the way through. If you’re interested in films of this era, you could do a lot worse than queuing this one up at the top of your NetFlix list and seeing it when it eventually rolls in.

Why to watch Stage Door: Great dialogue and a surprisingly engaging plot.
Why not to watch: Evidently, it has about as much to do with its source material as I do.


  1. I'm with you all the way on this one. I love the repartee among the women but it bogs down with poor Kay's saga near the end. The Gail Patrick-Ginger Rogers duo is probably my favorite in the film though Rogers and Hepburn trade some good zingers too. Ann Miller who is the other girl in Rogers's dance team was only 14 years old at the time!

  2. I liked this one, too. Like you said, the interactions of the women are a lot of fun. This is the best of the movie roles for Lucille Ball that I've seen. I remember recognizing one of the actresses and it bugging me for a while not being able to figure out where I knew her from. She finally said something in a particular way and I realized she was Eve Arden who had played the principal in the 1978 film Grease 40 years later. And I never realized Ann Miller was only 14 when she did this film. I found out afterwards.

    For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure I saw this because it was on AFI's lists. I know you're not actively working on them, but you may want to check them off as you go along. A lot of the Oscar-nominated films also showed up on AFI's lists. Without even trying you may find yourself completing a lot of those, too.

    1. @Marie--those two trade a lot of rapid-fire insults throughout. As with a lot of films like this, it's clear we're supposed to think that they hate each other, but I think it's equally clear that the actresses were having a load of fun with it.

      @Chip--I didn't recognize Lucille Ball at first, but once she started talking, that voice is unmistakable. I had a similar experience in this film, although not with Eve Arden. The actress I couldn't place was Phyllis Kennedy, the round-faced and mildly bug-eyed Hattie. I've seen her in a bunch of stuff, usually as a comic sidekick. She's a lot of fun to watch.

      I'm guessing I'll be knocking off a lot of the AFI list (and the IMDB top-250) as I go, so if and when I finish Oscar, I'll go there for a quick end to those lists.

  3. I'm glad you liked it, even if the ending went cold for you. I'd love to know what you think of my analysis of the film. It might make you fell more comfortable with the ending.

    1. The actual climax (the emotional climax at least) of the film goes cold for me only because I think it's unrealistic.

      I get the feminist perspective here, and what you have to say about it makes a great deal of sense. It's interesting that I don't think a film like this could have been made with a male cast, and a lot of that comes from the necessary community aspects that you bring up.

    2. Yes, I think men have a lot of film genres (sports, military, business) but none of them really capture the pathetic the way a group of struggling professional women does. Because men don't need to band together to struggle professionally, do they. Hm. It's an interesting sort of gender dynamic that this film highlights better than any other.

    3. Agreed. Even an all-male military/training camp film has a different social dynamic than this film does.

      I wonder how much of this comes from the idea that men are--stereotypically, at least--more competitive and women are seen as more cooperative.