Saturday, February 25, 2017

Film Review: Stage Door (1937)

I've been sick for the better part of the week. And when I'm sick, I like to watch a lot of movies. It was then very fortunate that I came across the delightful 1937 Stage Door on BBC iPlayer. Starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, the film tells the story of trials and successes of aspiring actresses who all live in a boarding house in New York City. It has it all - sparkling humor, biting wit, Ginger Rogers dancing, the glamour of the stage, the tragedy and poverty backstage, and, of course, the delectable late 1930s fashions.

Plot: Hepburn plays Terry Randall, a rich girl, who wants to see if she has what it takes to become an actress. She is determined, pragmatic and maybe just a little too entitled. All this doesn't sit too well with the other aspiring actresses at the Footlights Club boardinghouse where Terry lodges. She and her new roommate Jean Maitland (Rogers) develop an amusing love/hate relationship that leads to a lot of comedic moments. The other inhabitants of the boardinghouse are the shrewd Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick), the fragile and tragic Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), and the endearingly goofy Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball). Terry gets a part in a new play, but acting turns out to be harder than she had thought. It takes a real tragedy to make her into an actress.

There is a lot of humor in the film, but there's also a lingering sense of doom over the young women in the house. Like All About Eve, one of my all-time favorite films, Stage Door may be glitzy and glamorous, but underneath all this there are some hard questions - will Terry's success last or will she be forgotten by the next season? Are the other girls going to find their big break or will they have to give up and marry? Will they live out the rest of their lives in obscurity and relative poverty?

One of the things I especially love about this film is that it centers on women, their lives and their goals. Unlike other movies about women that are really about men (yes, I'm looking at you The Women 1939), Stage Door does not try to hammer in the point that a woman's best role is that of wife and mother. In fact, marriage seems to be treated as failure and near tragedy, while men are obstacles, rather than heroic saviors. One of the more prominent male parts in the film is the smarmy producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou). He is as close as this film gets to a villain. Even though he is rather pompous and silly, his predatory behavior shows clearly what the women have to put up with to succeed in the theatrical world.  

Hepburn is delightful as Terry. She bring the dry wit and sophistication that this part really needs. Terry does come off as rather entitled and too posh at times. The scenes where she quarrels with the director and the writer of the play she had been cast in are truly cringe-worthy. But she learns her lesson in the end.

Rogers as Jean is fresh, bright and sparkling (sometimes literally). Her comedic timing is impeccable and she delivers some of the funniest lines in the film. But she also has her moments of gravitas as she contemplates her future and the future of the other girls in the boardinghouse.

Miss Luther (Constance Collier) is one of my favorite characters. She is played for laughs as an aging actress who is trying to become an acting coach and insists that the girls need theatrical training. The audience is meant to laugh at her, but she's not wrong. Terry's main problem is that she assumes that acting is somehow innate. The film makes a broader point that the tragedy of show business is that it's more about being liked by powerful men like Anthony Powell rather than having talent. But I'm still with Miss Luther on this one, those girls should at least know a little bit of Shakespeare.

Needless to say, the outfits in the film are wonderful. The costume designer was Muriel King.
The Battle of the Mink Coats. Jean and Linda are deliciously antagonistic.

I just love this polka dot romper. I really need to make this for myself.

This hat gets a lot of hate from the girls at the Footlights Club boardinghouse. But I think the outfit just screams chic Doctor Zhivago.

Oh, that hat! That purse! That coat! That...dress?  Oh, Jean, no!

A lot of the outfits in the film are more stylish day-to-day stuff rather than glamorous gowns. I love Jean's blouse and high waisted trousers combo, but Linda's dress with the half-turban and the sash are delightful in their pretentious sophistication.  

Judy's suit is really fun, but Jean, once again, wins me over with the blouse and high waisted skirt with suspenders. Also, ukulele.   

I'm just really partial to pajamas. Maybe it's becasue I live in a cold climate and therefore find pretty, impractical PJs to be the pinnacle of fashion. I really love Terry's dress, too.    

Here's a better picture of Terry's lovely dress. It's very no-nonsense, just like her, with just a touch of see-through chiffon to show that she has a soft, vulnerable side, too.

In the end, Stage Door is a wonderful movie that you can watch again and again. The acting is great and the dialogue feels authentic and honest. And it's all about girls doing it on their own.

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