Monday, October 08, 2007

 

Calla lilies still in bloom at 70

By Josh R
One of the inviolable rules of acting — at least as far as stars are concerned — is to make a memorable entrance. As one of the foremost practitioners of the art of grabbing an audience’s attention with early and decisive action, Katharine Hepburn managed some spectacular entrances in her career — including a deliriously baroque one in Suddenly, Last Summer which saw her descending from the heavens, deux ex machina style, via hydraulics. In the 1937 film Stage Door, Gregory La Cava’s superlative comic drama set in a boarding house for women pursuing theatrical careers, her entrance is one that almost isn’t — or rather, one that isn’t executed without a certain degree of difficulty. As Terry Randall, the haughty blueblood looking to trade in her status as heir to a wheat empire for success on the boards, she literally shows up at the wrong door — one which is locked. After locating the correct entrance, she wonders aloud “How many doors are there in this place?” Ginger Rogers, as the acerbic chorine who has been warily appraising the new arrival from a few feet away, snaps back, “Well, there’s the trap door, the humidor and the cuspidor…how many doors would you like?”

This brief, yet barbed exchange sets the tone for Stage Door, in which the quips fly fast and furious — to say nothing of the fur.


Adapted from a hit play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, the film chronicles a year in the lives of the residents of The Footlights Club, a somewhat shabby theatrical boarding house where would-be actresses, dancers and musicians eat, sleep, bicker, dish and crack wise while waiting for their big break. To play this ragtag collection of bantering Broadway babies, RKO recruited (as Hepburn would describe them to her biographer) “all the good girls” from their stable of contract players — the result being a dazzling assembly of female talent practically unrivaled in the history of motion pictures. In addition to Hepburn and Rogers, the ensemble featured Lucille Ball as a smart-talking gal from Seattle who serves as a reluctant hostess to the lumbering lumbermen who visit from her old neck of the woods; Eve Arden, dryly deadpanning her way through entire conversations while draping her bedraggled pet feline around her shoulders like a mink stole; the 18-year-old Ann Miller as a gum-cracking hoofer who knows a wolf on the make when she sees one, even if her pals get taken in by the lamb’s clothing; Constance Collier as a preening has-been who comes equipped with a musty volume of moth-eaten press clippings; Gail Patrick as an opportunistic vamp milking her sugar daddy for all he’s worth; and Andrea Leeds, Oscar-nominated for her heart-rending turn as the fragile Kay, who finds that fledgling success in the capricious, cutthroat world of show business does not a future guarantee. Together, this brilliant company of actresses creates a memorable portrait of a makeshift family forged through boisterous camaraderie, a competitive instinct that fuels their creative impulses and their wits, and ultimately, a touching mutual dependency.

While the film is often uproariously funny — these gals can fire off epigrams at the rapid-fire pace of champion ping-pong players on an adrenaline high — the basic narrative structure is essentially tragic. What Stage Door does, that so few films have ever done as successfully, is address the doubts and anxieties experienced by struggling performers trying to keep their hopes and spirits intact in the face of an uncertain future. The action hinges on a crucial plot point: the casting of the lead role in a play. The arrival of Hepburn’s Terry Randall is greeted with suspicion by her housemates — they don’t know what to make of the imperious, well-heeled interloper who quotes Shakespeare at dinner and discusses her career goals will the brash certitude of one who considers success to be her natural due. Since the women at the Footlights Club must share rooms, Terry is paired with Rogers’ equally sharp-witted, if more rough-edged Jean Maitland — for both women, it’s hate at first sight, although they gradually come to respect each other. Just as their tentative cease-fire arrangement seems poised to develop into something resembling genuine friendship, Terry — who believes she is acting in the other’s best interest — deliberately sabotages Jean’s relationship with a caddish producer (Adolphe Menjou) who has been wooing her with the promise of financial support. She further estranges herself from Jean and the other residents of The Footlights Club by securing a part coveted by Kay — the lead role in a Broadway melodrama. Terry’s casting owes nothing to her merits as an actress; she proves to be woefully inadequate in rehearsals, much to the delight of her tycoon father, who has secretly bankrolled the production in the hope that his daughter’s eventual failure will permanently cure her of the acting bug. Meanwhile, Kay’s depression has deepened - her spirit broken by the indignities of destitution and rejection, she eventually commits suicide. Jean confronts Terry on the play’s opening night, charging her with responsibility for Kay’s death. A shattered Terry believes she can’t go on, but is convinced to do so as a tribute to Kay; finally able to connect with the emotions of the scenes she is playing, she gives the performance of a lifetime. After delivering a moving curtain speech in which she credits Kay as the guiding force behind her triumph, she and Jean are reunited backstage in a tearful embrace. Instead of being feted at her opening night party, Terry leaves with Jean so that they can quietly mourn the passing of their friend.

While the film is very much an ensemble piece, the most interesting aspect of the film has always been the relationship between the two central characters — the lead actresses play off of each other brilliantly. There’s a charge and intelligence to Rogers’ work in Stage Door that she would never again equal in her career — perhaps working alongside Katharine Hepburn brought out the best in her. They were the two biggest female stars at RKO in the 1930s — it was a notoriously unfriendly rivalry. Kate, along with everyone else, believed herself to be the better actress of the two, and made it known in subtle ways that she didn’t really consider Ginger an equal — or a threat. Ginger was self-conscious, insulted, and ultimately, not one to back down from a fight. When the two traded barbs in their scenes together, the audience was treated to an authentic battling rhythm fueled by genuine animosity and a spirit of competition. Maybe it took a slap in the face and a challenge to bring out both the toughness and the vulnerability in Ginger Rogers – whether that’s true or not, you’re glad it’s there, because her work in Stage Door unequivocally qualifies as a career-best performance. Always underrated as a comedienne during her tenure as one half of the century’s most famous dancing duo, she was able to demonstrate in the La Cava film what a devastating way she could have with a quip — her delivery of the film’s zingy one-liners is so quick, sharp and assured that it sounds like inspired improvisation. Jean Maitland is a tough cookie, to be sure, but not immune to experiencing disappointment, or worse still, losing hope. The aspiring actresses at The Footlights Club live a precarious, uncertain existence — Rogers, more than any of the other performers, allows us to understand that comic banter is a necessary distraction from the fact that, at any moment, the girls might have their dreams and livelihoods taken away from them and fall off the grid. It’s not that the actress simply lets us see the fear and fragility that exists behind the comic sensibilities and snazzy retorts of these tart-tongued dames; she shows just how inextricably linked those seemingly self-contradictory entities are. She’s a smart-aleck blonde with a chip on her shoulder — as with any stand-up comedian, it’s the chip that’s the source of her comedy, even if the reality behind it is a source of hurt.

For her part, Hepburn seemed to relish the opportunity of matching wits with an actress who could give as good as she got; also, to an uncanny extent, her assignment in Stage Door represented an unwitting exercise in autobiography. Perhaps no other role the actress played in her long and storied career spoke as much to her own personal experience, or mirrored it more closely. Like Terry, she was the product of a privileged upbringing and education — a flashy specimen of “good breeding”. She too had turned her back on a guaranteed life of comfort as a member of the social elite in order to realize her dream of becoming an actress. And she was confident, brash, even arrogant in the way she wore her independent spirit as a badge of honor. She was also — by her own admission — highly competitive. Very seldom in Hepburn’s career was she required to play opposite other actresses who could not only challenge her for attention, but create as strong a presence in HER presence (Vanessa Redgrave in The Trojan Women is the only other one who comes to mind). In her scenes with Rogers, there’s a fascinating dynamic at work — not only a fight for supremacy, but a crackling electric current born of two great talents at the pinnacle of their powers giving great performances that complement each other. A lesser competitor might have made no impact on Hepburn whatsoever — she reacts to Rogers because she has to; the signal she’s giving out is coming back strong and clear.

In addition to furnishing her with a great character and a formidable co-star, Stage Door provided Katharine Hepburn with one of her most iconic pieces of dialogue: “The calla lilies are in bloom again … such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day, and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.” The lines are spoken in the context of the play that Terry Randall is appearing in, but they attain a different meaning after she learns that Kay is dead. In this, as in other respects, Stage Door illustrates the manner in which the act of giving a performance — whether on a stage in front of an audience, or by cracking jokes with your friends in a dormitory living room to keep despair at bay — can function as both something cathartic and as a means of survival.

In various critical discussions of Stage Door, the question has been posed as to whether the film is a comedy or a tragedy. Really, it represents the best of both worlds. Even its most cynical observations are delivered in a mordant vein of humor that tickle the funny bone even while they touch a nerve. Consider this exchange between Lucille Ball’s Judy and one of her lumbermen:
Man: “You know, I’ve known this little gal since she was that high, in pig tails…In those days, nobody ever thought that Pete Jones’ daughter would be an actress.”

Judy: “Well, the odds are still the same.”

The line isn’t delivered with any bitterness, but rather as a brightly self-mocking punchline. As Stage Door illustrates, sometimes the best way to cope with frustration and disappointment is to make light of it. Often, humor is the only defense against despair. Very few comedies have been brave enough to admit it.


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Comments:
It's been awhile since I've seen this, but I do remember it quite fondly and I agree that Ginger's performance is one of the few times another actress successfully stood toe-to-toe with Kate and, in this instance, I think Ginger won.
 
I think Ginger eaked out the win, but it was highly competetive - and marvelously entertaining - contest. Really, they're both wonderful, and they both should have received more recognition for their work at the time of the film's release.

Ginger was nominated once and won - but if she was only to receive one nomination in her career, and the Oscar win to boot, it should have been for this. I love her in Roxie Hart and The Major and the Minor, but Stage Door is far and away her best work.

As for Kate, you can't really say that she didn't get her full due from the Academy. The majority of her 12 nominations were richly deserved, while a few of them were on the generous side - the one for Suddenly, Last Summer was actually just a little bit silly, when you stop to think about the amount of screentime she has and what a junky, crackpot film it is (she was good campy fun for the most part, so it's forgiveable). If I were playing Odie's Oscar exchange game, I'd gladly trade her nominations for Guess who's Coming to Dinner?, in which she gave a very professional but rather uninteresting performance, and On Golden Pond, in which she's quite lovable but basically coasting on strength of her own personality, for some well-deserved nods for Stage Door and Bringing Up Baby. Would you agree?
 
Definitely on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for sure.
 
Excellent point about Hepburn hardly ever sharing the screen with another female presence of any weight. Usually it was the male costar and that was it. Contrast with Bette Davis, who has Miriam Hopkins, Mary Astor and Olivia de Havilland to play off of in several movies.

The only other example I can come up with, of Hepburn getting her hat handed to her by a female costar, is Judy Holliday in Adam's Rib. Holliday walks away with their few scenes together.
 
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