Stage Door (1937)

“Isn’t there enough heartache in the theater without our hating each other?”

Stage Door Poster

Synopsis:
In a theatrical boarding house, a bevy of aspiring stars — including Jean (Ginger Rogers), Eve (Eve Arden), Judy (Lucille Ball), Linda (Gail Patrick), Annie (Ann Miller), and Kay (Andrea Leeds) — hope for their big break. When wealthy heiress Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) shows up hoping to try her hand at acting, unexpected consequences ensue.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Critical opinion seems to be split on this classic RKO ensemble tale, starring Ginger Rogers in her first major “non-dancing” role, Katharine Hepburn in a performance meant to break her designation as “box office poison”, Lucille Ball in her self-described “breakthrough role”, and many other familiar female faces. Peary is among the film’s fans, calling it “one of the best films of the thirties”, and noting that it contains “some of the snappiest insult-laden dialogue found in thirties movies”. Others, such as DVD Savant (see review link below), argue that “almost everyone concerned with this movie did better work elsewhere”, that the film “became a classic without being a really great show”, and that the “dialogue isn’t quite as witty as it wants to be”.

My opinion lies somewhere in between these two extremes. I find the film (noticeably different from the original play) to be a somewhat dated yet mostly enjoyable outing, primarily due to plenty of refreshing rapport between the young women, and the welcome absence of a distracting romantic subplot. The acting is noteworthy as well: Hepburn is strong and compelling as the nominal lead, Menjou is appropriately suave and slimy, and Rogers clearly shows her talent as a sassy comedic actress.

On the other hand, several plot elements seriously detract from the film’s authenticity and power: the pivotal character of Kay, for instance (played by an overly maudlin Andrea Leeds, who was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar), is too much of a goody-two-shoes martyr to care about; and Hepburn’s transformation from an AWFUL actress (her rehearsal scene — “The calla lilies are in bloom…” — is literally painful) to a talented Broadway star is truly beyond belief. Nonetheless, film fanatics will certainly want to check out this Oscar-nominated melodrama at least once, and decide for themselves whether it’s an enduring classic, a dated disappointment, or a bit of both.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ginger Rogers’ sassy performance as Jean
    Rogersw
  • Katharine Hepburn as Terry
    Hepburn
  • Adolph Menjou as slimy manager Powell
    Menjou
  • Terry and Jean’s ongoing sparring
    Sparring

  • Menjou’s reaction to Rogers’ drunken monologue
  • Reaction

  • Many fine supporting performances — especially those by Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, and Constance Collier
    Ensemble
  • Plenty of witty, caustic one-liners:
    Terry: It would be a terrific innovation if you could get your minds to stretch a little further than the next wisecrack.
    Eve: You know, I tried that once, but it didn’t snap back into place.

Must See?
Yes. While it hasn’t held up as well as one might hope, it remains must-see viewing for its noteworthy ensemble cast. Chosen as the best film of the year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book.

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One Response to “Stage Door (1937)”

  1. An absolute must!

    Gee, you’d think the DVD Savant critic was talkin’ about – oh, I don’t know, ‘Dinner at Eight’ maybe.

    ‘Stage Door’ is a movie I’ve seen waaaay too many times – and, in this case, that remains high praise. Of course, theater people are bound to love it most. But I do find it consistently amusing (many of the jokes still work today), briskly paced and uniquely structured: it starts out rather bubbly, segues to mild drama, switches to tragedy, and lets you go with a cyclical coda.

    Of particular note, for me anyway, is the fact that the screenplay’s co-writer was Anthony Veiller – who would later work on a number of interesting films, several in collaboration with my fave director John Huston (inc. his final work on ‘The Night of the Iguana’).

    I wouldn’t say that the film is dated; that implies that it doesn’t really speak to us today. I would, instead, say that, on the surface, it’s very much of its time. Breaking through as an actor hasn’t changed all that much. Those in that climb still go through a process similar to what these ladies experience. The particulars of Hepburn’s character strain credulity, it’s true – but, then, many of us have seen major Broadway productions starring people who simply did not belong there and who could only have gotten there through much-less-than-legit ways.

    Hepburn’s performance is somewhat problematic: she’s not nearly the comic marvel she would be a year later in ‘Bringing Up Baby’. However, her character constantly talks about the importance of using her intelligence to be an actress…and nothing else. Of course, that produces disastrous results. Until things turn around. And then Hepburn is surprisingly effective.

    Leeds is also a problem. Anyone (like me) who has majored in theater in college has met ‘this person’. The character is beyond pathetic. Leeds does the best she can with a blank-slate role.

    A number of the other ladies shine throughout – and Rogers seems to get the best jokes. But there are many memorable lines in the screenplay – too many to quote; but I do have some faves:

    Menjou (to Miller and Rogers, practicing a dance routine): Are you girls rehearsing for a musical?
    Rogers (still dancing): No, we’re just getting over the DTs.

    Arden (looking around the ‘appointment-only’ agency): Imagine, opening a great big office like this just NOT to see people…

    Patrick (lilting): May I come in?
    Rogers (same): Oh, sure. I guess you’ll be safe. The exterminators won’t be here til tomorrow.
    Patrick (same): How did they miss you on their last visit?

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