Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Unlocking an Early Feminist Classic with "Stage Door"

Anytime a young actress gives an interview these days and talks about how roles for women have allegedly improved from "the old days," I wonder if she ever saw "Stage Door" (1937), the classic early-feminist comedy/drama directed by Gregory La Cava.  Filmed during the Depression, the women in "Stage Door" are a motley assortment of characters who represent a broad cross section of society.  Less cynical than George Cukor's "The Women" (1939), and less idealistic than Diane English's misguided remake of Cukor's film in 2008, "Stage Door" effectively demonstrates the rivalries, competitiveness and friendship that can exist between women.  It doesn't give in to the sexist stereotype that women are natural enemies with each other, nor does it naively assume that all women are automatically inherent friends with each other out of a purported sense of "sisterhood."  Instead, "Stage Door" acknowledges how women have the capacity to dislike one another like men do and yet, at the same time, they are able to still look out for each other when the going gets tough.  This is not necessarily because they're women but because they are able to retain their innate ability to care for other human beings in need.

"Stage Door" is the story of the aspiring actresses who live in the theatrical boarding house in New York City called "The Footlights Club."  Newcomer Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), an elitist and self-satisfied young woman from a wealthy mid-western family, moves into the club with the intention of pursuing a career as an actress despite the disapproval of her father Henry Sims (Samuel S. Hinds).  Terry's new roommate is sarcastic and quick-witted dancer Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) who is immediately antagonistic with Terry because of her smug attitude and apparent wealth.  Most of the other women in the club are also wary of Terry's high-brow airs, as they've been struggling to make it as actresses for quite some time, among them Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball) and Eve (Eve Arden) who, along with Jean, trade frequent barbs with Terry.  The only person in the Footlights Club who Jean hates more than Terry is Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick), the mistress of theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolph Menjou).

The one character everyone likes in the club is sensitive actress Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), a gifted thespian who had success in a Broadway play the year before, but has since fallen on hard times and is unable to land another role to follow-up her success.  Kay is unable to pay her room and board and faints due to malnutrition in Powell's outer office when she learns he has cancelled her audition for his new play, "Enchanted April."  An outraged Terry storms into Powell's office and tells him off for cancelling Kay's audition, and secretly pays for Kay's room and board.  Jean and her friend Annie (Ann Miller) land jobs performing in a nightclub due to the influence of Powell, who is romantically interested in Jean.  He temporarily loses interest in Linda and starts dating Jean, which concerns Terry who openly questions Powell's true intentions with Jean.  Terry allows Jean to believe that Powell has suddenly become romantically involved with her, with the intention of showing Jean the unscrupulous kind of man he is, which causes Jean to dislike her even more.

Meanwhile, the desperate Kay is devastated when Powell casts the inexperienced Terry in the leading female role for "Enchanted April."  Powell cast Terry over Kay due to the influence of Terry's father, who is secretly backing the play in the hopes that Terry will be a spectacular failure as an actress and come home.  On the opening night of "Enchanted April," a mentally unbalanced Kay commits suicide by throwing herself out the top story window of the club, right after giving a nervous Terry advice on how to play the opening scene.  An angry Jean berates Terry backstage before the curtain goes up, blaming her for purportedly stealing the role from Kay and, in-turn, causing her death.  A grief-stricken Terry takes the stage and gives an extraordinary performance that moves the entire audience.  At the end of the performance, during her curtain call, Terry pays tribute to Kay, which deeply moves Jean, who comes backstage to make amends with Terry.  Despite her success with "Enchanted April," Terry remains a resident at the Footlights Club as she and Jean become good friends.  Along with the other residents of the club, they bid Judy a fond farewell as she moves West to get married, just as another star struck actress shows up at the club seeking accommodations.

One of the funniest movies from the classic era of Hollywood, "Stage Door" ranks as the most likeable performance Katharine Hepburn ever gave.  In most of Hepburn's movies, her characters are keen about demonstrating their superiority over all the other people in the movie.  However, in "Stage Door," Hepburn's Terry Randall bends over backwards to show the other girls in the Footlights Club that she isn't better than they are--she's just the same as everyone else living there.  Terry express her frustration at not being accepted in the club when she tells Kay, "I'm beginning to feel that there's something definitely wrong with me...Well now why (am I different)?  I eat the same food, I sleep in the same kind of bed, I've even got a crease across my back from that lumpy mattress and I'm doing my best to pick up their slang, though I'm not so hot.  How's that?  'Not so hot.'"  Even though Terry can't help but come off as haughty and entitled, because of her background and breeding, she proves to be a real friend to all the women in the club.  She tells Powell off after Kay faints in his outer office when he cancels her audition, secretly pays for Kay's room and board, and allows Jean to temporarily hate her by appearing to steal Powell away from Jean, in order to show her roommate what an unscrupulous womanizer he is.  Terry is a good-hearted person who has the capacity to overlook the ostracism of the other girls in order to prove her value as a human being to them.

If Terry has any inherent flaw to her character, it's that she initially has the inability to understand the cynicism of the other girls in the club, who are frustrated that their efforts to become actresses have not met with much success yet.  The wealthy Terry, who has never had to worry about money or work a day in her life, lectures the other aspiring actresses--who are all struggling, working class individuals--about how the pioneers who helped build the United States never suffered from self-doubt or self-pity.  At one point, she smugly tells them, "You all talk as though the world owed you a living.  Maybe if you tried to do something for the theatre, the theatre would do something for you."  This unintentional act of condescension further estranges her from her housemates.  Because she's never had to do without in her life, she also romanticizes their poverty, a trait which understandably annoys her roommate Jean.  In witnessing Kay's struggles to succeed as an actress, however, Terry becomes humbled and realizes that success is not always a reflection of hard work and initiative, it also reflects luck and timing.  When Terry scolds Powell for cancelling Kay's audition, she says "By what right do you barricade yourself behind closed doors and refuse to see people?!...Do you know a girl just fainted in your outer office because you broke an appointment with her?!...As long as you keep that door closed, you'll never know anything!  You're a producer, you ought to see people!  Why, the greatest actress in the world might be living out there fifteen feet away from you and you'd never even give her a chance!...Never mind about me, I don't need you, but those other girls do!  They sweat and slave and go without food and decent clothes in the hope that someday someone like you will come out of his office and notice them!...You haven't even the common courtesy to go out there and say no to them!  At least that would give them some contact with the theatre!....You're very smug, Mr. Powell, very smug."  Terry eventually comes to understand her housemates better, just as they come to understand her, so that she stops judging them and learns to be more empathetic with their struggles.  Because Hepburn, for once, drops her normally elitist and entitled attitude in "Stage Door," she is as sympathetic and appealing as she has ever been in a movie.

Meanwhile, Terry's roommate Jean might appear earthier and more likeable than Terry, but she is also a wonderfully flawed human being.  Sarcastic and quick-witted, Jean dislikes Terry on-sight for no legitimate reason and absolutely hates the sophisticated Linda Shaw for reasons we never really learn in the movie.  In other films, Linda Shaw might come off as the villain and "heavy" of the piece simply by nature of being rivals with the main protagonist.  We normally assume that any character that the protagonist hates has to be a bad person.  However, director La Cava plays fair with Linda's character and demonstrates how, despite being Powell's mistress, she easily reintegrates back into the camaraderie and ensemble at the Footlights Club when Powell temporarily loses interest in her in favor of Jean.  Linda gets along with the other girls well and, as we see at Kay's surprise birthday party, she respects and likes the sensitive Kay very much.  Like the other girls, Linda is shocked and horrified at learning of Kay's death.  Linda clearly is a person who has substance, despite allowing herself to become Powell's mistress.  Because we realize that Linda is not at all a bad person, we realize the extent to which Jean can be stubborn and intolerant, even though she otherwise appears to be extremely likeable, down-to-earth and charming.

Jean unfairly judges Terry as a snob when they first become roommates.  When Terry tries to make friends with Jean, she quips, "We started off on the wrong foot.  Let's stay that way."  She gets angry at Terry when she believes that her roommate stole Powell away from her, and unfairly blames Terry for Kay's suicide.  In one of the most memorable verbal attacks in the history of cinema, Jean says in front of Terry after Kay's suicide, "She is responsible.  It was Kay's part, it was Kay's life, but now it's too late.  Kay is dead...Kay is dead.  Kay who never harmed anyone, it's all because she hasn't any heart, because she's made out of ice!...Oh, I'm leaving.  I'm gonna go sit out front because Kay asked me to be there.  And every line that she reads I'm gonna say 'That should've been Kay's line.'  And every move you make I'm gonna say 'That should've been Kay.'  Kay, who is lying in a morgue all broke and alone.  And I dare you to go on tonight."  We realize that Jean, despite her likeable qualities, is actually the intolerant, judgmental person in "Stage Door," not the rich and elitist Terry nor the promiscuous Linda.  Her attack on Terry is misguided, especially since Jean remained oblivious to Kay's plight throughout much of the movie, as she was too busy allowing herself to be romanced by Powell and hating Linda and Terry to realize how desperate Kay's situation had become.  However, Jean redeems herself when she reaches out to Terry, after being moved by her brilliant debut performance, and allows herself to become friends with her roommate.  Kay would've approved.

Often overlooked in most discussions of "Stage Door," Andrea Leeds' performance as the sensitive Kay gives "Stage Door" depth and gravitas.  She is the heart and soul of the movie.  What's amazing about Leeds' performance is that Kay never becomes a weepy wet blanket who drags the movie down with her.  Kay remains a noble and caring person who has a unique way of uniting all the other characters in "Stage Door" and bringing out the best in them.  Leeds plays the role in a subtle, low-key manner that avoids any histrionics or hysterics.  As such, her quiet desperation comes through touchingly and effectively.  Anyone who has ever struggled to find success in their chosen career path can identify with Kay's self-doubt, sense of isolation, and insecurity.  In one of the movie's signature pieces of dialogue, Kay explains to Terry, "You don't know what it means, waiting and hoping that some manager will interview you...How do you know who's an actress and who isn't?  You're an actress if you're acting.  But you can't just walk up and down a room and act.  Without that job and those lines to say an actress is just like any ordinary girl trying not to look as scared as she feels."  Amen.  We want Kay to reclaim the success on stage that she once tasted and, yet, we admire her for not resenting Terry for landing the role she hoped to get and for telling the other girls not to tell Terry that she wanted that part for herself.  Leeds projects a generous, selfless quality to Kay that makes her ultimate tragedy even more devastating.  Leeds is marvelous in the scene where Kay climbs the stairs to the window from which she will leap to her death, caught up in her delusion that she is back on-stage and about to make her grand entrance.  Leeds silently projects Kay's last moment of madness without any dialogue, and with a minimum of contrived dramatics, and clearly earned her Best Supporting Actress Nomination on the basis of that scene alone.

What always strikes me about "Stage Door" is the sense of unsentimental friendship and camaraderie amongst the characters living in the "Footlights Club."  They trade jabs and barbs with the same kind of tough edge you'd expect to see from characters in a movie set in the military.  And, yet, the movie never becomes misanthropic nor cynical and retains a warm sense of humor throughout.  I think this is because director La Cava has sympathy and compassion for the struggling actresses in "Stage Door" and sees them as people who have to have a great deal of courage to try and pursue careers as actresses on Broadway.  The interesting thing about "Stage Door" is that La Cava shows the girls frequently out of work, at home, hanging out together.  He avoids the cliche of showing them going to audition-after-audition because that would imply that they were even able to try out for the parts they hope to land.  The ultimate tragedy of "Stage Door" is the fact that few of the characters in the movie even have the opportunity to audition and be considered for roles.  In so doing, La Cava highlights how limited their opportunities are to succeed as actresses.  But the movie is never a downer.  He peppers the cast with future stars like Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller in the supporting cast, who trade barbs with Hepburn and Rogers (who are great in their scenes together) with equal aplomb.  Even though Arden, Ball and Miller don't have a consistent storyline throughout "Stage Door" as do lead actresses Hepburn, Rogers and Leeds, they have equal amounts of screen time because La Cava takes the opportunity to create witty moments and vignettes that highlight what they're capable of.  As expected, Arden gets some of the best lines in the movie.  When Ginger Rogers' Jean asks Arden's character on the night of Terry's stage debut "Hey, you're not gonna catch the opening tonight, huh?", Arden quips, "No, I'm going tomorrow and catch the closing."  When Terry tells Arden's character, "It would be a terrific innovation if you could get your mind to stretch further than the next wisecrack," a non-plussed Arden cracks, "You know, I tried that once but it didn't snap back into place."

One of my favorite scenes in the movie, a short little moment but which speaks volumes, is when Hattie (Phyllis Kennedy), the cook and housekeeper of the Footlights Club, casually walks to the living room area where Kay and Terry are seated on the couch chatting with one another.  Hattie carries a plate load of food, covered under a magazine and casually places it on the table in front of Kay, who has not kept up on paying for her room and board and, as such, has not had a meal in several days.  Hattie tells Kay, "It's something I dashed off in the kitchen I wanted you to try...this is something extra special.  I'm practicing cooking in my spare time...I'll just leave it there, you may get hungry after awhile.  And if I don't hear any screams I'll know I'm a success."  Hattie then rushes back to the kitchen after she is scolded by the landlady for not finishing the dishes.  Hattie is a supporting character in the "Stage Door" ensemble, usually the butt of jokes about her cooking, but La Cava gives depth to her character by demonstrating how wise, perceptive and considerate she is to recognize Kay's financial plight to bring her a plate of food to eat on the sly because she can't pay the rent.  Hattie is also sensitive enough to slip the food to Kay in a way that doesn't call attention to her employer what she is doing, and which also does not conspicuously embarrass Kay in front of the other girls.  In a simple little scene, La Cava tells us volumes about a supporting character like Hattie more effectively than needlessly padding her role with backstory.  It's little moments like these, that allows everyone in the film an opportunity to shine, that help to make "Stage Door" a genuine classic and one of the finest Hollywood movies ever made about women. 

1 comment:

  1. As I read your review, I could not help but recall the recent film, "Sucker Punch," and thinking, "You've come a long way, Baby!"


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