STAGE DOOR (director: Gregory La Cava; screenwriter: from the play Stage Door by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman/Morrie Ryskind/Anthony Veiller; cinematographer: Robert de Grasse; editor: Willaim Hamilton; music: Roy Webb; cast: Katharine Hepburn (Terry Randall), Ginger Rogers (Jean Maitland), Adolphe Menjou (Anthony Powell), Gail Patrick (Linda Shaw), Constance Collier (Catherine Luther), Andrea Leeds (Kay Hamilton), Franklin Pangborn (Harcourt), Lucille Ball (Judy Canfield), Eve Arden (Eve), Ann Miller (Annie), Grady Sutton (Butcher), William Corson (Bill), Samuel S. Hinds (Henry Sims, Terry’s father), Andrea Leeds (Kaye Hamilton), Phyllis Kennedy (Hattie, the maid), Elizabeth Dunne (Mrs. Orcutt, proprietress), Norma Drury (Olga Brent), Pierre Watkin (Richard Carmichael); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pandro S. Berman; RKO Radio Pictures; 1937)
“La Cava keeps it always fascinating, the pace lively, the dialogue sharp and the ensemble cast all chip in with first-class performances.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A wonderfully bitchy comedy-drama set during the Depression in a NYC boarding house called the Footlights Club for struggling actresses (in the sitting room there’s a chair the great Sarah Bernhardt used), most of whom are high-strung, loud and playfully badgering. It’s expertly directed by the underappreciated Gregory La Cava (“My Man Godfrey”); it’s based on the anti-Hollywood pro Broadway hit play Stage Door by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman; it’s written by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller, who take out the anti-Hollywood slurs and actually improve the Broadway version with their witty script. La Cava keeps it always fascinating, the pace lively, the dialogue sharp and the ensemble cast all chip in with first-class performances. The cast includes the always capable Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers (engaging in her first serious dramatic role without Astaire, as she carries the film till Kate takes over in the second half), and a marvelously dissolute Adolphe Menjou; and in the early days of their fruitful careers in bit roles Jack Carson, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller (who was 17). It’s right up there with the best comedies of the 1930s, even effectively touching on melodrama and weepy emotional sentiments.
It opens with feisty, pseudo-tough (has a heart of gold) blonde Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) taking the hosiery off sharpy Linda Shaw’s (Gail Patrick) legs, claiming it was stolen from her. Then the haughty stage-struck obnoxious Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) arrives in the boarding house from the Midwest, and it turns out she’s the socialite daughter of a wealthy ‘wheat king’ who is determined to make it on her own as a Broadway actress even if she has to go slumming. The aristocratic wordsmith Terry rooms with the pragmatic wisecracking girl-next-door type Jean, and they get off to a bad start with Jean doing a number dissing her. The most talented actress in the boarding house is the fragile, oversensitive Kaye Hamilton (Andrea Leeds, who would soon marry into money and retire from the screen), who hasn’t worked for a year, misses meals, doesn’t have the dough to pay the rent and faints in the producer’s waiting room when he doesn’t see her. Kaye is trying to get a part she believes is made only for her in rakish producer Anthony Powell’s (Adolphe Menjou) new play Enchanted April (amusingly the famous corny lines in the film about “calla lilies” were lifted from Hepburn’s 1933 Broadway bomb The Lake), who produced a play a year ago where she got rave reviews. Linda is dating Powell and is trying to snare a sugardaddy rather than a part. The lecherous married Powell has eyes for Jean and puts her dancing act with fellow lodger Annie (Ann Miller) in a nightclub where he’s part owner. Jean goes out with the wolf because the girls need the job and she gets off sticking it to her rival Linda. When Powell needs an angel to put on the show, attorney Carmichael (Pierre Watkin) brings him an anonymous backer, Mr. Sims (Samuel S. Hinds), who insists that Terry Randall be given the starring role. Sims is Terry’s dad and doesn’t want her to be an actress, and is convinced the show will flop and his daughter will return home. The inexperienced Terry gets the part she doesn’t deserve and is coached by the aging actress Catherine Luther (Constance Collier), and in an unselfish gesture Kaye helps. But before the show opens Kaye hears voices in her head and commits suicide by leaping out of the dorm. Kaye’s death moves Terry and she surprisingly gives a winning performance and gives recognition to Kaye for her success as a star. This warm gesture wins the unfriendly dorm girls over and she remains in the boarding house even though her show has been running on Broadway for four months.
There are many twists and turns in the narrative that result in some happy and some tragic endings, as the girls have the burning drive to fight to get their showbiz dreams despite the hardships and the slim chance of them succeeding. Everything looks authentic thanks to the great sets and the beautiful camera work by Robert de Grasse, and the smart and sassy dialogue never lets up. For my money, it’s more fun and realistic than the highly regarded backstage film of 1950 All About Eve and deeper and more cutting than the feminist film of 1939 The Women, films it’s often compared to.
REVIEWED ON 3/16/2006 GRADE: A+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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