Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Stage Door (1937)

Director: Gregory La Cava

Many American girls at one time or another dream about being in show business, lavished with fame and fortune, but Stage Door presents what most ladies with such dreams were more so living like while desperately trying to just land a job, in this case, on Broadway. Following the doings of a group of wannabe actresses living in a New York boarding house this picture creates a desperate, comical, yet tragic look at what life is like for such aspiring ladies. Headlined with names like Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou, along with “box office poison” Katharine Hepburn, we see a motion picture with an energized ensemble cast and an entertaining story.

Stage Door is a tale of group of aspiring actresses in a New York boarding house and their lives as they seek out their dreams of breaking through into the big time while simply getting by. New to the boarding house is Terry (Katharine Hepburn), a proper and polished young lady who seems to not fit in with the other more cynical girls in the house, especially her new roommate Jean (Ginger Rogers), a sarcastic and more offhanded dancer. Jean becomes the latest infatuation of theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), but does not get her too far. With the aid of Terry’s father Powell’s leading role in his next play is given to Terry in her father’s hope it will reveal her as a poor actress and end her silly dream of acting.  Originally the lead role was meant for another well liked actress in the boarding house, Kay (Adrea Leeds), crushing her spirit and angering Jean in the process. In deep sadness Kay commits suicide and what was up until then a poor performance in practice from Terry turns into a an emotional and ravely adored performance on opening night. Broken by the loss of their friend the girls grow closer together while Terry’s play with the help of her touching performance becomes a hit on Broadway.

What starts off as a comedy of bickering girls and their cynical views on show business and interactions turns into a emotional climax as a girl with shattered dreams takes her own life somehow helping guide her fellow board mates to find new, happier paths in life. It is an unexpected turn with tragic darkness to it, but at the same time very poetic, for the short time Andrea Leeds in on screen you are drawn to her character. Undoubtedly she would be nominated for best supporting actress for her role as Kay. To match the energy and emotion of the film is well done production quality led by director Gregory La Cava. This ensemble picture would take the best of standing stars, reclaiming a falling star, and help audiences discover new stars all in its entertaining 92 minute window.

Coming off a hugely successful film with My Man Godfrey Gregory La Cava would seem the perfect fit for an ensemble cast comedy leaded with couple major actors. He allowed for quick talking performances and dialogue overlap to create a sense of real life interactions between the female characters. The story and directoral inspirations were inspired by the overheard ramblings of actresses by the playwrights that penned the original stage play. La Cava would encourage ad-libbing in the boarding house, which also enhanced that energy and craziness of the girls and their conditions. He seemed to have his finger on the pulse of comedy and vigor when it came to the pace of this picture, and above that brought the story home with an emotional conclusion. His work here would get him his second consecutive nomination for best director, manifesting a man on the rise for RKO.

If anything hindered the production it would have been the stars of the film. Originally the role of Terry was set for the Margret Sullivan, star of the stage play the film was based on. Unfortunately Sullivan would become pregnant, opening the door for Hepburn to take on the part. Hepburn, then coming off four financial failures and deemed poison at the box office, did not like the idea of Ginger Rogers, the major money making star while working alongside of Fred Astaire, to be named above her in the credits. Hepburn somewhat shared likenesses to her character as she willed herself into acting stardom, allowing her to fit nicely into the part. After much deliberation with the film’s producers and filmmakers she would finally land herself a credit alongside of Rogers.

Regular and aging film star Adolphe Manjou supplies the perfect amount of friction for the girls to fight off of in the role of the theatrical producer that bounces from girl to girl and is swayed by money to cast Terry in the lead role of his next play. He would add class and stability as the primary male role in a picture based completely around women.

Three major actresses of the 20th century: Hepburn, Ball, and Rogers
The feature would also be a launching point for a couple of new girls in Hollywood. Lucille Ball had been working at RKO for some time now desperately waiting for that breakthrough role for this tall, quirky model type. Here in Stage Door she is given her first meaty role as one of the boarding house girls, Judy, who provides many quick verbal jabs, exercising her comedic chops. Years later Ball marked this film as her breakthrough job. Also found in this film is Ann Miller. In a small role as Ginger Rogers’ dancing partner, RKO executives had no idea this tall lanky girl was only 14 years-old. Having lied about her age and procuring a fake ID Miller keeps up with the now dancing legend in Rogers, even if it is only in a small tape dancing numbers. In later years she would become successful and famous in many musicals.

The picture would be a very modest success at the box office, making a meager  profit, but landed four Academy Award nominations including the before mentioned nominations it was up for best screenplay and even best picture. Fans of the stage play would see that the film had very little resemblance to the stage version that inspired it, so much so that original playwrights joked about renaming the film “Screen Door.” Whatever its relationship with the original play, the film proved to be a triumph for RKO and its stars. With the picture’s aid Hepburn would now be considered for comedic roles which would lead to her performance in the classic comedy Bringing Up Baby. In any case Stage Door would be another good find for any audience willing to discover late 1930s comedies.

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