Sunday, September 01, 2013

From A to B

Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Eve Arden in Stage Door

I've owned a copy of Stage Door (1937, directed by Gregory La Cava) for years. I have it as part of the old Warner Brothers Classic Comedy box, which I originally bought for cheap and for the other movies. I was also laboring under the misapprehension that I've seen Stage Door before, which turns out to be not the case (I was mistaking it for another movie entirely). It's the sort of movie that I might have watched with my mom when I was younger. She loved this kind of stuff, and she loved Katharine Hepburn. I've been reordering my DVD shelves this weekend and I decided to watch it when I was reshuffling my box sets. It was a genuine surprise.

Stage Door is set in a boarding house for aspiring actresses. It's the middle of the depression, so there's not much work to go around for the inmates, so they sit around, complain about the food, scheme to find datable men, and generally issue forth a steady stream of hard-boiled snark. The queen of the snark is Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), a dancer who has no used for anyone else putting on airs. She'll cut anyone to the quick with a hard remark. The usual target of her wit is Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick), who is stepping out with a famed theatrical producer, but apparently not as prospective actress. Also in the mix are Judith (who is wrangling a Seattle timber magnate), Kay (who had a spectacular run a year before and who is desperate for another part), Annie, Jean's fellow dancer, and Eve, another sardonic wit. Into this house comes Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), whose circumstances are obviously not as dire as everyone elses'. She sweeps in with trunks full of nice clothing and an air of Yankee aristocracy. Terry is secretly an heiress to a mid-western wheat tycoon, but she wants to make it on her own as an actress. Hence, her arrival at the Footlight Club boarding house. Jean and Ann get a gig dancing at a night club where Linda's sugar daddy, Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), takes an interest in Jean. Soon, he's cast Linda aside as he attempts to canoodle with Jean, fanning the flames of Jean and Linda's rivalry. Terry, who likes Jean in spite of Jean's disdain for her, decides to interfere, but in the process, winds up cast in the lead role new play that Kay was hoping to land. Kay, for her part, cracks. This puts Terry on the outs, especially given that she's an amateur actress who is demonstrably bad in the rehearsals. She acts too much with her brain and not at all with her heart--until opening night, that is, when tragedy uncorks her latent emotions...

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door

The thing that rattled around my head for a half hour or so after I finished the film was that it acts as a kind of response and rebuke to Dorothy Parker's famous quip about Katharine Hepburn. "We might as well go back," Parker reportedly said during an intermission of The Lake in 1934, "and watch Katharine Hepburn run the gamut of emotions from A to B." I'm sure that must have stung. Hepburn had her revenge, I suppose, and the opening lines of the play within a movie are taken from The Lake. Hepburn's role in this movie is smaller than you might expect, given her billing--but then this is an ensemble piece. This film was made during her "box office poison" years, and the suits at RKO were penurious with roles for her. It seems incredible to me that her box office poison includes this film, Bringing Up Baby, and Holiday, which goes to show that audiences in the late 1930s, much as they are now, were a bunch of chumps. Hepburn was specializing in spoiled heiresses during this period, and this film is typical. In the mood of her performance here, this lies somewhere between the lunacy of Bringing up Baby and the melancholy of Holiday.

Ginger Rogers in Stage Door

Ginger Rogers gets to dance in the night club scenes, but this isn't one of her dance pictures and her number is short and indifferent. Rogers was a first class wiseacre in this film, speaking mostly improvised snark in the boarding house scenes. The lions' share of the dialogue among the inhabitants of this film's boarding house was improvised, much to the annoyance of playwright George S. Kaufman (upon whose play this film is nominally based), but the movie has it right. Rogers, Lucille Ball, and Eve Arden are at their best when given their heads and director Gregory La Cava knew it. Lucille Ball often cited this film as her break in the business; it's easy to see why. Ann Miller was fourteen when she made this movie, playing an adult and holding her own next to Ginger Rogers as a dancer. This is a movie with formidable talent in front of the camera.

Lucille Ball and Eve Arden in Stage Door

As an example of film style, Stage Door is functional at best. In the best tradition of Hollywood studio filmmaking, this is mostly a showcase for movie stars first, actors second, and screenwriters third. The best thing about the way this is staged and directed is the way it provides a distaff response to Howard Hawks, whose film frame often constructed communities out of group shots of (usually) male professionals. This film does the same thing, composing a community out its characters in its shot framings. Like this shot, for instance, in which Lucille Ball and Eve Arden hold court:

Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, and Ann Miller in Stage Door

This is a film that veers wildly from comedy of manners to melodrama. It ends with a wedding, so in a traditional sense, it's definitely a comedy, but like many of the films produced in the first decade of talkies, Stage Door throws a lot against the wall. The fate of Kay is grim for a movie billed as a comedy, and the performance of the play is soaked in bathos. This is a common characteristic among emerging cinemas (and Hollywood was still in that category in 1937, though events in Europe were snuffing out Hollywood's main competition).

Perhaps the most striking thing about Stage Door to a contemporary viewer in the early two thousand teens is how feminine it is. This is a movie about women. What men there are are weak, or weasels, or rubes. The sheer number and variety of indelible women's parts in this movie is head-turning. This is something that has been lost in the modern cinema, to its sorrow. More than that, it has an expansive idea of what constitutes femininity within a classic, heteronormative, conception of what is appropriately feminine. Jean's hard boiled patois, for instance, is the equal of any contemporaneous male gunsel, while Terry's defiant desire to make it on her own merits is Hepburn's apotheosis as the previous decade's "new woman." Watching Terry fence with Powell is one of the film's signature pleasures, given that Powell is the era's archetypical man on the make, and he's thoroughly outclassed. The essential femininity of this film gives it a license to indulge in fanciful flights of fashion, too, which is something you never see in the cinema eighty years later. Don't get me wrong. I don't live in the past. I like contemporary cinema. But when I look at the movies from the classic era, I marvel at the things that the cinema has lost over the years. Gender equity is first among these.

The gender equity in this film is surprising in one other way, too: this is a film made during the Production Code era and the Code was notoriously retrograde when it came to womens' role in the cinema (I've suggested in the past that The Code was as much an instrument of conservative social engineering--especially when it came to women--as it was an expression of moral outrage). Stage Door seems like a lingering straggler from the pre-Code era. Certainly, the hints of prostitution in the relationship between Linda and Powell are salacious enough, even smothered under the Code's propriety. This film is a deft smuggler, couching what would have been more explicit three years earlier in deeper levels of innuendo and subtext. Is the film stronger for it, as some of the Code's apologists might have you think? Who's to say? I know that I'd prefer this to be more bawdy, but that's mostly because I have a dirty mind.


Laura said...

I need to see this one again, it's been too many years. These ensemble, character-driven pieces tend to present such an odd mixture of genres: in this case, hardboiled comedy and high melodrama. I love it.

Great write-up!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Laura. Yeah. This picks and chooses genres like a dilettante. And somehow, it all works! I almost wish there were an extra half hour for a couple of dance numbers. I mean, come ON! You have Ann Miller AND Ginger Rogers and you can't work in better dance numbers? Weak.