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Stage Door

Stage Door(1937)

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Almost everyone concerned with this movie did better work elsewhere, and Stage Door was nominated for Best Picture and became a classic without being a really great show. The fun is watching its ensemble cast of female stars, those on top and the ones on their way up. The dialogue isn't quite as witty as it wants to be and one can cut the "soulful" backstage dramatics with a rusty knife, but the picture hits the spot when it needs to. And of course, it has the immortal Katharine Hepburn line, the one about "Calla lilies being in bloom again." Unlike the endless parodies of that speech, there's nothing at all wrong with the way Hepburn delivers it.

Synopsis: The Footlite Club is a cheap rooming house for aspiring actresses. Jean Maitland and Linda Shaw (Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick) trade catty insults while Judy Canfield and Eve (Lucille Ball and Eve Arden) chime in with more smart talk. Annie (Ann Miller) is a sweetheart and aged dame Catherine Luther (Constance Collier) is mostly a nuisance. Into this stew of frustrated thespians comes Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn). She's a Midwestern wheat heiress with no experience but a yen to be an actress. Terry initially rubs most of her housemates the wrong way but takes a liking to Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), one of the few girls with solid acting experience. A trick of fate gives Terry the role Kay was desperately counting on ... even though Terry hasn't a hint of Kay's intuitive connection to the spirit of the character.

The Warners Golddiggers musical series was pretty much dried up by '37, and this non-musical backstage piece is much more serious at heart. The Footlite Club isn't just a rooming house, it's a way of life constantly being renewed, one of those cyclical structures favored by Edna Ferber, one of the authors of the original play. Girls come and go, the talented and sincere along with the snooty and thick-headed. Only a few get a shot at a real part in a real play, that all-important brass ring that has brought them to New York.

Many of the incidentals aren't that much different from situations in the Golddiggers movies. Unemployed actresses flaunting new fur coats and flashy rings are assumed to be the kept pets of rich men, and in this case producer promoter Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou) is the Park Avenue heel who seems to be on his third conquest among the girls we know. Jean Maitland is upset to find that her new nightclub job with Annie stems from the intervention of Powell, and she soon takes Linda Shaw's place as Powell's midnight champagne partner in his penthouse apartment.

In fact, the movie is honest enough to show none of the girls getting theatrical work by virtue of their talent. With 50,000 hopefuls to choose from, the slimy Powell seems to pick and choose on the basis of who's available for late-night get-togethers. Katharine Hepburn's Terry barges into Powell's office and tells him off (we're meant to accept it as a selfless gesture for another girl), a grandstanding "performance" that lands her the big part. Then we discover that her rich father (Samuel S. Hinds) has underwritten the show to hasten Terry's awareness that she's not a real actress, in the hope that she'll come home all the more sooner.

The big twist isn't quite as corny as one actress breaking a leg so another can go on and be a star, but it comes close. The soulful Kay has her heart set on the role that Terry gets without even trying, yet manages to inspire Terry through an extreme act - a transference of talent through tragedy. Terry comes onstage with a reading of the "Calla lilies" line that would melt an iceberg, and theatrical history is made. Even the old cow of a has-been played by Constance Collier steps into line to do what's right for "the thee-ah-tah," and rivalries are forgotten. It's one of those emotional miracles of the theater worshiped by stage-struck Eve Harrington types.

Stage Door is the most fun when its various actresses are sparring or showing off in their little vignettes. Ginger Rogers' part is actually bigger than Hepburn's, but the sassy lines she trades with Gail Patrick aren't all that snappy. The material for natural hams Eve Arden and Lucille Ball (neither quite yet in touch with their full potentialities) is also a bit forced, yet they overcome all obstacles. Still showing signs of baby fat, Ann Miller is on the un-formed side, and isn't given much chance to show off her dancing. It's far too obvious that Andrea Leeds is heading toward disaster for her character to work as intended. But chances are that movie fans in the mood to make use of their Kleenex boxes will find the emotional kicks they seek. At any rate, the dialogue is at least as good the faux-sophisticated catfight lines everyone seems to like so much in the play/film of The Women. The original play of Stage Door was apparently also originally written for an almost all-woman cast.

Stage Door is such a perfect vehicle for a drama department over-weighted with budding actresses that I'm surprised it isn't revived more often, even in parody. When it's revealed that Terry's play is a smash success, one would think that she'd produce her own show, and hire all of her housemates. Now that would have been a good sequel idea.

Franklin Pangborn plays a prissy butler (surprise) who doubles as an escort to wrangle starlets for Adolphe Menjou. Frank Reicher, the boat captain of King Kong is the stage director, which helps us think that the play will be flop. Both Grady Sutton and Jack Carson have bits as yahoo supper dates for various Footlite Club residents.

Warners' DVD of Stage Door is another good transfer of an RKO film that's a bit grainy but otherwise in fine shape. The first couple of scenes have a few scratches but they either disappear or the film gets so good we don't notice them any more. For extras, there's a 1939 Lux radio presentation of the play with Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell, and a cute musical short subject with an impossibly young, platinum blonde June Allyson. It's called Ups and Downs and also features a young Phil Silvers, with a full head of hair. Saul Chaplin worked music for the short; according to Chaplin's autobiography he and Silvers were buddies and would get each other jobs on films like these.

There's also a reissue trailer.

For more information about Stage Door, visit Warner Video. To order Stage Door, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson