They pretend they aren’t vulnerable, smothering their self-doubt in self-deprecating humor that sometimes manifests itself in a zinger to tear a rival down. But nonetheless these girls love each other, fighting to survive alongside one another. But so difficult it is to keep friendships intact when competition is as prevalent as an exchange of gossip or a cathartic crying session.
We grow to care about the residents of the Footlights Club. There is Jean (Ginger Rogers), a fire-tongued blonde so disillusioned with show business she seems to be better at self-sabotage than performing. There’s also Linda (Gail Patrick), who temporarily thinks she’s about to see her name atop Broadway’s legendary marquee thanks to a newfound “relationship” with wealthy theater producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou). Then there’s Judy (Lucille Ball), who seems to like to nurture her friends more than she does get her kicks in a chorus line, and also Eve (Eve Arden), who wears a white cat like a feather boa and seems superglued to the Footlights Club’s living room couch, spewing out one-liners like nobody’s business. But most affecting is Kay (Andrea Leeds), who delivered a well-received performance in a play a year ago but isn’t getting any offers as of late.
There’s a sort of routine to the highs and lows these women face, and they’ve built a tight rapport. So their world, populated by individuals who came from rags and are trying to slowly but surely get their riches, is rocked when Terry (Katharine Hepburn) arrives from the southeast and decides she wants to be a Broadway legend. Because she comes from affluence — her father is a wheat baron — everyone openly mocks her confidence and her regal diction. She doesn’t make friends easily. But she also doesn’t seem to need to. Her ambition is enough to keep her company.
This cycle has doubtlessly continued in the Footlights Club for decades; aspiring actresses room hoping to be somebody someday, and the majority don’t reach the top of the food chain like they might have hoped when they first arrived. And yet for being such a hysterically funny, linguistically wicked comedy, Stage Door (1937) never feels like a romanticized show biz piece made to see the industry through a rose color lens.
We empathize with these women. More often than the characters we know will hit the big time, we understand the emotional arcs of the less fortunate, what it must have been like for them coming to New York City, thrilled by the life they hoped was waiting for them down the road, only to inch toward the realization that they just don’t have the spark to become a mainstay. The film is incandescently witty, full of great lines and barbed conversational matches. But our guffaws bruise a lot of the time. Almost all these girls use humor to distract themselves from the fact that they are, in fact, terrified.
So many types of actresses, budding or otherwise, are represented here. In Hepburn’s character do we have the natural who’s hardly going to have to sweat to dazzle every producer for whom she’s auditioning. Rogers is the brilliant talent who has to work for years before she gets a taste of fame (partially because she sometimes is too quick to call bullshit). Ball and Arden are the girls who have what it takes but will ever move past the chorus line; Leeds, heartrending in an Oscar nominated performance before she retired in 1939, epitomizes the actress who peaks too soon and all but shrivels up when she comes to understand that her time in the limelight is probably up. Constance Collier portrays an elder performer who simultaneously helps run the house and aids the women in honing their craft, likely having been as big as Leeds’ character was when she caught the attention of audiences only to have become a shell of her former self.
Stage Door was adapted from the stage play of the same name by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, though it is such a loose reconfiguration that Kaufman even remarked that the film counterpart should be called Screen Door. But even with its storyline and its characters changed, the movie remains a stunning examination of the theatrical world. It encapsulates everything magical about the stage — the thrill of performing, the lure of wealth, the attention from audiences and critics — as well as everything destructive, like the reality of rejection or how brief a woman’s career can last. It beautifully captures the mismatch between one’s youthful aspiration and a crushing reality.
Stage Door is nearly perfect, balancing the delicate pairing of entertainment value and realism, the difficult to hone leveling of astounding performances by legendary actors with a storyline and a smattering of dialogue as strong as they are. I can’t get enough, and a movie that features this many crackling sequences in which Rogers and Hepburn play off each other is bound to be a masterpiece. A
Gregory La Cava
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
Stage Door August 10, 2017
nter the Footlights Club, a humble boarding house at the heart of New York City. Here, would-be starlets camp out as they wait for what they hope will be their big break. Some will become the toast of the town; others will not. Most won’t make it at all. But sometimes dreams are worth fighting for, and the young women, so bright-eyed and beautiful, figure that with enough hard work they’ll make it sooner or later.