Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Stage Door: Ginger & Hepburn (1937)

Ginger and Hepburn checking each other out.

Bear rates Stage Door 4 out of 5 salmon. All star cast with crackling dialogue, and seeing Ginger and Hepburn together. Marred by cavalier treatment of women, barely there plot and some melodrama toward the end.

People always think of Ginger Rogers as a dancer, of course, and there was none better. But she only made 10 films with Fred Astaire. She was really a workhorse of an actress who made 60 other films, only a few of which featured her dancing talents. By 1937, the famous dance partnership had arrived at the top of the hill, and was starting back down. Changing tastes would not carry it into the 40s. 

Ginger made Gregory la Cava's Stage Door in 1937. Despite its standing as a classic, it is a bit melodramatic in part, with a barely there plot and confusion as to whose story is being told. Its unserious treatment (although very Hays Code) of the casting couch rubs modern sensibilities the wrong way. Even so, it is very enjoyable because of the collection of talent, and the crackle of their fast-paced dialogue.

The Footlights Club is a run-down boarding house for young actresses. Here, theatrical hopefuls share rooms, dreams, dubious meals, and banter. The film is packed with well-known names near the beginning of their careers. A gorgeous Lucille Ball, Eve Arden with a cat draped around her neck (already with her trademark sardonic drawl) and a tap-dancing Ann Miller are just the beginning.

This was the movie Katherine Hepburn starred in with Ginger Rogers.

Hepburn and Rogers were polar opposites. Ginger was a two-fisted commie fighter, while Hepburn was a liberal from the northeast. Ginger was very religious (not that she let it crimp her personal life), and Hepburn was not. Hepburn projected a sophisticated and superior persona, while Ginger was usually cast as the tough working class dame. 

The studio (RKO) tried to play up a supposed antagonism between the two actresses, but there is not any good evidence of that as far as the Bear knows. Hepburn only said Ginger spent a lot of time with her hair before scenes. (Honestly, Hepburn could have had someone do something with hers. Great Clips would have done a better job.) Ginger called Hepburn "snippy," and said they had nothing in common except "the same man" (Howard Hughes). 

Hepburn's character comes from money, but goes slumming to accomplish something on her own. She is kindly toward the other girls, and overcomes Ginger's initial dislike. A producer (Adolphe Menjou) lures vulnerable girls into his penthouse, where he plies them with champagne. He dangles a role in front of their eyes (or, we are to understand, regions somewhat lower) as a quid pro quo. It comes across as creepy today.

Hepburn's secret wealth makes her the non-victim woman who isn't having any of the producer's nonsense. For instance, she knows the photos on his piano are models. He's a fraud. Once he knows he's been made, the producer gives a lovable shrug, and says, "You got me. This is all a setup to have sex with desperate young actresses." Or something. Hepburn even saves Ginger from the producer by lounging on the floor, pretending to be compromised when Ginger bursts into his penthouse. Ginger is hurt and angry, but the audience knows the other woman has done her a favor.

Or are her motives mixed? The producer is the ticket to stardom, after all. In fact, is it fair that a rich girl playing at theater despite her lack of experience or talent  gets the role that is - literally - to die for?

Despite Hepburn's rejection of the producer's overtures, he nonetheless gives her the starring role in a play, because he admires her moxie. Hepburn had earlier come to the aid of one of her fellow Footlights Clubbers by storming into his office.

The weakest part of the movie is the subplot about the actress who has memorized the lines for the lead, and just knows it belongs to her. Andrea Leeds won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Hepburn's character cannot act until Leeds inspires her on opening night. Her above-it-all game suddenly becomes real.

The girls know every part a friend gets is one they will not. The tension between their solidarity and their competitiveness gives the film an edge that saves it from sentimentality. But no matter what, the Footlight Clubbers are there for one another. The best parts are the scenes where everybody is crowded onto the set cracking wise. They say Ann Miller could dance 500 taps per minute. Sometimes it seems there are 500 words per minute. And it is delightful.

The film is also about men having all the power, and women having nothing but their sex appeal, and the support of other women. Katherine Hepburn breaks the mold and beats the lecherous producer by confronting him like a man. The other actresses, like Ginger, are trapped in an old narrative; enjoying a rich man's attention as a status symbol, and hopeful of his boost of their careers, even though they know that one evening the car he sends will be for one of the other girls.

They know any part can go to only one of them, but they don't give up. They face the bleak odds with a brave front of makeup and wisecracks. The pleasure in watching is seeing so much talent showcased, and often in the same scene.


  1. Ginger was great, but Hepburn? Meh, never could stand her. She also cheated with Tracy on his catholic wife.

  2. Agreed. Oh. And Gingrrr throws popcorn up and catches it in her mouth. Is there anything Gingrrr can't do?

  3. Check out her saucy performance as Anytime Annie in the original 42nd Street....pre-HC.

  4. Watching these films is a refreshing break from life today, even though TCM is becoming annoyingly political, we just turn the sound down for that stuff. All of these women were worth watching. Hepburn shined in a movie she was smart enough to buy the rights to, Philadelpia Story, and what a superb film! I have to admit I loved her in the films with Spencer Tracy as well, our favorite being Adam's Rib. I've enjoyed many a film with Ginger Rogers in it.
    Spending an hour lost in a classic film is an hour well spent, especially these days.

    1. Hepburn was perfect in the screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby, I think in part because her intelligence made her almost against type, given the crazy story lines and loopy dialogue. I just didn't think she was as entertaining in Stage Door (even with the worst haircut outside of the hit man in No Country for Old Men) but I could say the same about Gingrrr. Maybe the tension between Hepburn and Gingrrr messed something up. Or the writing. The ensemble of supporting actresses was the real star. I just did not like much about the film. To understand what I mean, look at All About Eve, which is a true-to-life masterpiece about the theater with Bette Davis' best performance (or at least most memorable).

      Amazon has a large catalogue of classics available to stream, and we find it well worth three bucks to watch a film. Lots of Gingrrr movies.


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