Brendan’s Log: STAGE DOOR (1937)

December 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

An historical curio and time capsule of talent in its prime as much as an effective dramedy; a boarding house populated by Constance Collier, Ann Miller, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, and Katherine Hepburn; a staircase leading to discovery and death; a neon sign that keeps you awake and persists into your dreams, remaining there like the imprint of a flashbulb or a lifetime spent staring too long at the sun. Stage Door, which opens onto the familiar show-biz picture setting of a boarding house packed with aspiring actresses, as big-city girl Terry (Hepburn) cruises in to shake up the order established by blonde den mother Jean (Rogers) and the fragile, brilliant Kay (Andrea Leeds), is one of the most underrated pictures of the 1930s. It may be one of the greatest investigations into the confident assumptions of classical genre: whether there’s any business like show business at all, and if not, whether that’s something to be glad of.

The rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of the picture’s editing distinguish it from the dialogue-based stylings of, say, a screwball comedy like those of Howard Hawks which synchronize the placements and movements of the camera to the actor’s expressions. Director Gregory La Cava, who switched from animating cartoon strips with speech bubbles for William Randolph Hearst to a director of comedies like My Man Godfrey, incorporates a frenzied energy to the proceedings by ping-ponging between reaction shots of the surrounding girls as Hepburn and Rogers preen, jab, and circle each other. It’s in their scenes upstairs, isolated from the other tenants, that the two girls reveal softer sides beneath their sparring, and the lack of reaction shots gives way to longer takes in which La Cava’s camera glides serenely about their room.

Not quite the ensemble piece to which its stacked cast pretends, Stage Door early on reminds viewers of the unwritten, unquestioned rules that dictate the flow of a story and the fate of its characters. Every number we spend with Ginger Rogers means time away from the other tenants, who live their lives in the in-between, waiting for a part, a break that might have already come and gone forever. Kay, of course, is the arch symbol of talent wasted, downtrodden by a system too fragile and easily shaped by the whims of producers like the lecherous Powell (Adolphe Menjou); these men respect cunning and deception, as with the choice of the shrewd but untested Terry for the new lead, but overlook artistry in the process.

The relative calm of the upstairs scenes, in which characters can find solace from the mayhem of the floor level and sort out the truth of their situations, reaches its climax in the picture’s most distinctive moment of editing. Having lost her dream role to Terry, the distressed Kay climbs the stairs as the sound of applause slowly builds on the soundtrack, a glow taking over her face as she rises from the frame’s bottom right to a luminous closeup and finally passing out of sight on the left, one unbroken shot that signals the intrusion of a harsh reality onto the light melodrama of Terry’s adventures in show business.

It’s not the fatal, tragic twist of the third act that stings the most so much as the bubbly epilogue that follows, an uncanny mirror of the very first scene that refrains from tying the story off with a bow. A shellshocked performance on opening night, in the wake of Kay’s suicide, solidifies Terry’s credibility as an actress and her tearful curtain-call tribute to the departed forms a lasting bond with Jean. In the final scene, now fully welcomed (or assimilated) into the collective of the boarding house, life appears to go on as usual with two troubling reminders: first, Terry’s unanswered question in her dressing room: “Must someone die to create an actress?”; second, the appearance in the lobby of a new ingenue looking for room and board, bags in hand. A hand to the telephone, the chatter of conversation, and suddenly we’re in the credits. A new chapter has begun in the life of a young artist, but she’s living it behind a curtain. – Brendan

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