Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Stage Door

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stage Door

Not only are Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn cast side-by-side in Stage Door, the two superstars play competing actresses. However, the thespians onscreen are not movie goddesses but hard-working, long-suffering actors sharing a room in a noisy boarding house, stocked heavily with sniping and struggling female performers - both the actors themselves and the characters they play (among the ensemble are Lucille Ball and Ann Miller). Rogers is Jean Maitland, a sassy working-class gal who struggles with whether or not to sleep her way to the top (though even then there are no guarantees). Hepburn is the rich girl who's decided she'd like to try acting; she's self-confident and no-nonsense, at least until the first-night jitters arrive.

Hepburn and Rogers were two of the biggest stars at RKO in 1937, but very different types. Hepburn, whose genteel roots were well-known, had an air of sophistication and a cerebral quality that she brought even to her most manic roles. Rogers, on the other hand, had an earthier persona though she was graceful as any debutante in the arms of Fred Astaire. In Stage Door, Hepburn gets the bigger star treatment: a delayed entrance, and a grand one when it comes. But Rogers compensates on the sly - she uses her earlier screentime to establish a playful but catty persona and then digs the sand out from under Hepburn's heels when she arrives.

The screenplay is based on a theatrical production, which is clear from all the sparkling rapport (some of the fastest, sharpest, and funniest dialogue of the thirties) and the overwhelming focus on a single location. Yet it never feels like anything other than a movie. Director Gregory La Cava seldom sticks with single master shots, often cutting between similar angles just to goose the pacing. We really hop around amongst the ensemble in a way that wouldn't be possible on the stage. Most of the characters are struggling actresses, and they're marvellous creations, at once cynical and supportive, thick-skinned and sensitive, manipulative and romantic.

All of the women circle around Anthony Powell, a theatrical impresario played by Adolphe Menjou, like moths around the candlelight. He takes them in one by one, wining and dining, promising great success, yet refusing to even see them in his office once he's lost interest. Rogers has watched the producer play sugar daddy to one of her housemates and is wary when he turns his attention to her, but the charm of his comfortable life and undeniable power is hard to resist. Indeed, much of the movie is suffused with a sense of inevitability. One actress was given a break by Anthony Powell only to see her opportunities dry up a year later. (Stop reading here if you don't want to know the end.) Once Katherine Hepburn has taken a role meant for her, she loses her mind and jumps out a window.

Hepburn, who till now has been a totally underwhelming performer, is scolded - to put it mildly - by Rogers for being so insensitive in her pursuit of fame. Hepburn, devastated, goes onstage and gives a knockout performance. After the show, she's congratulated and told that tragedy makes a great actress. She seems shaken by the notion that someone else had to die for her art but the film does little to persuade us otherwise (though it doesn't tidy up the matter either: shots of a lawnmower running over the dead actress' humble tombstone are intercut with headlines proclaiming Hepburn's rise to stardom).

The movie views the difficult realities of artistic struggle - not just the struggle to create, but the struggle to exist and establish even a base upon which one can create - with a clear-eyed lack of sentimentality. All the more remarkable given that it's a star vehicle for a major studio! But then the world of Stage Door was probably not such a distant memory for the actresses cast in the picture...everyone starts somewhere, and that kind of desperation, and the forced solidarity that comes with it, is probably hard to forget.

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