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Long before Anna Magnani in Bellissima (1951) or Eileen Heckart in Heller in Pink Tights (1960) or Rosalind Russell in Gypsy (1962) - not to mention Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Kim Zimmer - Alice Brady was giving the concept of maternal devotion and show business a bad name in Stage Mother, the 1933 backstage drama from MGM. Not only could few of those stage mamas have survived a battle with her, but she ruled one of the most sordid theatre stages ever filmed, complete with lecherous producers, alcoholic comics and one of the most caricatured gay dance teachers ever put on screen. Of course, Brady had an unfair advantage. She got to play her role in the pre-Code days, when Hollywood blatantly ignored the censors.
Most of Stage Mother's tawdry situations came from its source, a novel by Bradford Ropes. MGM bought the screen rights partly because of the success Warner Bros. had had with another of his works, 42nd Street (1933). Warner's had turned the book into tamer fare, which may have contributed to its box office success. The original had nary a sympathetic character in sight. The star of the show-within-a-show is a drunken slut, success turns the young innocent who replaces her into a neurotic diva, the chorus girls are only a time step removed from the streets and the leading man is sleeping with the show's male director. Although the film version had some risqu lines to suggest that not all of the chorus girls got their jobs purely on the basis of musical talents, all that remained of the gay subplot was a vague implication, barely noticed until more recent times, that the director enjoys masculine company when he's feeling lonely -- and it would be easy enough to read that as his need for a good drinking buddy.
At MGM, however, the sky was the limit. Brady's character got to lie, cheat and steal in order to push her daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) to stardom. When she finds out the girl is having an affair with an artist from a wealthy family, she charges the man's parents $10,000 for her daughter's virginity.
She also uses sex in more subtle ways. The girl studies dancing with Mr. Sterling (Jay Eaton), a former chorus boy who epitomizes the stereotyped lisping gay man prominent in films of the era. When Brady wants her daughter to get some help climbing the ladder of success, she gives him a knowing look and says "I can throw a lot of good things your way." When he protests with a lisping, "Mrs. Lorraine!" she responds with her own "Mr. Thterling," offering the clear suggestion that she can fix him up with some of the gay men she knows from the theatre. It was one of the frankest sexual moments for any gay character in a pre-Code film. Early screenplays had cut Mr. Sterling's gayness, so the studio brought in Ropes to beef the role up.
Stage Mother gets some of its authenticity from astute casting. Brady was a stage veteran, the daughter of producer William A. Brady and stepdaughter of star Grace George. She had begun acting as a teenager against her father's wishes, starred in silent films, and gone on to dramatic triumphs, most notably as the leading lady in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. One of the character's husbands was played by Ted Healy, a veteran comic most noted as the creator of the Three Stooges. Initially MGM had publicized that they would also appear in the film, but only Larry Fine turns up, in a one-line bit (some sources claim that Curly and Moe Howard also appear as clowns).
As usual, MGM poured on the production values, with costumes by Adrian and expert cinematography from George Folsey. For O'Sullivan's musical numbers, they had one of their top song-writing teams, Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, provide two songs, one of which, "Beautiful Girl," would later turn up in Singin' in the Rain (1952). They also engaged Broadway veteran Albertina Rasch as choreographer.
Stage Mother also provided a showcase for O'Sullivan, who had already scored as Jane in MGM's Tarzan series. The part gave her the chance to play heavy dramatic scenes coping with her mother's domineering ways along with light comedy with love interest Franchot Tone (though the suggestion that they are spending the night together was cut by local censors). Critics were so enthralled with her acting they forgave her the film's failed attempts to pass her off as a musical star. Her singing of "Dancing on a Rainbow" was dubbed by a belter whose voice bore little resemblance to O'Sullivan's more demure tones, nor did she do a very convincing job of lip-synching. In the dance numbers, the camera cuts from close shots of her trying to figure out how to move to the music to long shots of a trained dancer making the most of Madame Rasch's choreography. None of that stopped O'Sullivan from moving on to even better pictures at MGM, even without a stage mother campaigning for her.
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Director Charles Brabin
Screenplay: John Meehan, Bradford Ropes
Based on Ropes' novel
Cinematography: George Folsey
Art Direction: Stan Rogers
Music: Maurice De Packh, Louis Silvers
Cast: Alice Brady (Kitty Lorraine), Maureen O'Sullivan (Shirley Lorraine), Franchot Tone (Warren Foster), Phillips Holmes (Lord Aylesworth), Ted Healy (Ralph Martin), Russell Hardie (Fred Lorraine), Ben Alexander (Francis Nolan), Jay Eaton (Mr. Sterling), Larry Fine (Music Store Customer).
by Frank Miller