by Allan Fish
(USA 1937 92m) DVD1
Suitable for any occasion
p Pandro S.Berman d Gregory la Cava w Morrie Ryskind, Anthony Veiller, Gregory la Cava (uncredited) play Edna Ferber, George S.Kaufman ph Robert de Grasse ed William Hamilton m Roy Webb art Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark cos Muriel King
Katharine Hepburn (Terry Randall), Ginger Rogers (Jean Maitland), Adolphe Menjou (Anthony Powell), Gail Patrick (Linda Shaw), Constance Collier (Catherine Luther), Andrea Leeds (Kaye Hamilton), Lucille Ball (Judy Canfield), Eve Arden (Eve), Samuel S.Hinds (Henry Sims), Jack Carson (Millbank), Ann Miller (Annie), Margaret Early (Mary Lou), Franklin Pangborn (Harcourt), Jan Wiley (Madeline), Grady Sutton (Butch), Phyllis Kennedy (Hattie), Peggy O’Donnell (Susan), Elizabeth Dunne (Mrs Orcott),
Welcome to New York’s Footlights Club, the venue for the 1937 annual gathering of Wisecrackers Anonymous. Here we have a film that is a product of its time, which cannot help but date in certain ways, which constantly betrays its theatrical origins, and yet it is a secure in its classic status as ever it was. Few people would argue against the calibre of the cast; Leslie Halliwell hit the nail on the head when he said that “the performances alone make it worth preserving” as there certainly have been fewer greater ensembles in history. Even critical doyenne Pauline Kael observed that it was “one of the flashiest, most entertaining comedies of the 30s, even with its tremolos and touches of heartbreak.” One could be cynical and say that Kael herself would not have been out of place tossing around waspish, cutting remarks amongst the guests at the Footlights, but she was right to praise it. It truly is one in a million.
Set in the here and now of the 1930s, Stage Door follows the successes and otherwise of a group of female showbiz wannabes and their lives in and around the Footlights Club boarding house in New York. Into their mix one night comes Terry Randall, a mysteriously self-sufficient young lady with a distinct upper-class personality. The girls laugh at her expectations of the place, but she is determined to make a success of it. Meanwhile, bitchy Linda is about to lose being the current attention of theatrical producer Anthony Powell to her cynical rival Jean, who new arrival Terry shares a room with. In amongst all this, barely noticed, former bright young thing Kay is going without meals in a desperate attempt to get a part.
Though the film does contain the presence of that eternally elegant cynic Menjou, essentially the film is dominated by the Footlights girls. The repartee between them may be largely inherited from the original stage play, but the speed of la Cava’s camera and the actresses’ delivery makes one unaware of this fact. There are truly far too many exchanges and lines to do justice to it, but my favourite occurs when the eternally antagonistic Patrick and Rogers have a go at each other at the bottom of the stairs; “if you were a little more considerate of your elders, maybe Mr Powell would send his car for you someday…I can hardly wait…of course, he would probably take one look at you and send you right back again, but you have to expect that…is that so?…you know I think I could fix you up with Mr Powell’s chauffeur. The chauffeur has a very nice car, too…yes, but I understand Mr Powell’s chauffeur doesn’t go as far in his car as Mr Powell does.” All the performances are right on the money, with Ball and Arden cynical stand-outs in support, Menjou playing the cynical middle-aged roué like only he could, and Leeds very touching as the doomed ingénue. Indeed, the final tragedy, which could have been mawkish as Terry gets the necessary empathy from Kay’s death to go out and give a performance in her memory, adds to the emotional resonance and doesn’t drift into too much pathos as it could easily have done. As for the two leads, one expects near-perfection from Hepburn, but Rogers – in her first serious non-musical role – is in many ways the girl of the match, truly sensational. She even gets my favourite line, waving off Patrick with “if you ever need a good pallbearer, I’m at your service.” And if you ever need a great ninety minutes, stop by at the Footlights, you won’t regret it.