I'd like to spank the Academy

Stage Door (1937)


I feel like the films from 1937 are trying to deceive me. We had a musical that wasn’t a musical (The Awful Truth), a film noir that wasn’t a film noir (Dead End), a historical movie that ended up being set in the present (Captains Courageous). Now with Stage Door, we get a movie that was promoted as a comedy (“The gaiety…glamour…foolishness and fun of showbusiness!”), but which has a too-serious ending.

So What’s the Story? The young women living at the Footlights boarding house all have the same ambition: stardom on the stage. Some are actresses, some dancers, some singers, but they’re all just waiting for that big break. Into this madhouse of laughter and rivalry comes the mysterious Terry Randall, who just doesn’t fit in. She’s too wealthy and too educated to understand these smart-mouthed girls. As she beings to settle in, she begins to see that much more is required for stage work than talent and pluck.

The Good: I have never seen Katharine Hepburn not a good job in a movie, but she is brilliant as Terry Randall. Standoffish and snobby at first, she learns to appreciate what her housemates are going through the longer she’s there. She loves them and sticks up for them. With a lesser actress, Stage Door would not have been the strong movie it is.

Many of the girls living in the boarding house would become famous actresses in later years. Ginger Rogers was already well known, of course. She is fabulous as Jean, Terry’s slightly bitter wise-cracking roommate. Gail Patrick was also famous at the time. She plays Linda, a woman who has decided that accepting advances from a man is better than struggling as an actress. Ann Miller is Annie, an optimistic girl who is Jean’s dance partner in a tap routine. Eve Arden plays Eve, a jaded young woman who wears her cat around her neck like a stole (yes, it sounds silly, but seriously, how did they train that cat?). The name that is perhaps more familiar to people now is that of Lucille Ball. She plays Judy, a girl from Seattle who is more interested in boys than auditions. All of these actresses are so funny; they deliver their quips at a whip-crack pace that somehow manages to seem natural. Each displays a distinct personality even though they all want the same thing.

There is one girl in the boardinghouse who doesn’t join in the fun, but is still sweet and kind. Kay is recognized as a great actress, but she has lost confidence in her abilities because she hasn’t had a part for over a year. Andrea Leeds plays the part with great sensitivity, showing Kay’s determination and desperation as she tries to get the part she was born to play.

Adolphe Menjou is in Stage Door, as well as being One Hundred Men and a Girl. 1937 must have been a busy year for him. However, he is not the sweet father that he played in One Hundred Men and a Girl, but a slimy stage producer who takes advantage of desperate girls who want to be stars. He is really, really good at being gross, unlikable, and debonair. It’s hard to see the kindly father in this smug, wealthy jerk.

The screenplay is quite good. It brings out the personalities and contrasts between each of the characters in a humorous way, but it’s also able to make tragedy personal and realistic. It’s not just a sunny comedic romp through a bustling girls’ boarding house; the screenplay shows the downsides and sadness of show business just as well as it does the humor. There isn’t exactly a happy ending, which makes the movie deeper and truer.

The Bad: With the quips flying quickly from every direction as the girls talk over each other, sometimes the lines get garbled. Everything is so funny that I want to hear everything they say, so it’s a little bit sad that they don’t all come out clearly.

Both Ginger Rogers and Ann Miller are in this movie, and there is no fantastic dance number to show off their skills. It might have been out of place. It may have slowed the movie down. But still. Two great dancers that don’t get a chance to show off their skills? It is a sad waste of talent.

The Ugly: Nope. Stage Door is really a well-done picture.

The Apology: I’m sorry that I kept referring to all the young women as girls. They are (mostly) all adults. I will use the excuse that they are always called “girls” in the movie, and so that’s what is in my head.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Andrea Leeds); best director; best writing, screenplay.

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