“Stars galore shine in this nominee for 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture, a fast, witty story of aspiring actresses living at a theatrical boarding house. Based on an Edna Ferber/George S. Kaufman play, the tale was considerably rewritten for film, so much that Kaufman quitted it should be called Screen Door. What matters most to an acting hopeful is an open door. With humor and heart, this excellent movie suggests some things matter more.” (back cover copy)
Directed by Gregory La Cava in 1937, this film stars Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Adolphe Menjou with Gail Patrick, Constance Collier, Andrea Leeds, Samuel S. Hinds, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Ann Miller.
Stage Door is a black and white film starring Adolphe Menjou as big-wig theater man Anthony Powell, decades before his memorable performance as cantankerous Mr. Pendergast in Disney’s Pollyanna (1960), and who, I admit, I mistook at first for Harry Davenport (Meet Me in St. Louis’ “Grandpa”). Sorry Grandpa. Powell, a womanizer, is always on the lookout for the next dame err… theatrical star (weren’t they all?) and in a boardinghouse of wannabe starlets, who will do almost anything to get his attention.
Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) comes on board at the Footlight Hotel in NYC, the theatrical residence of aspiring actresses, dancers and singers on the stage. She and fellow roommate Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) don’t exactly hit it off right away. The Footlight Hotel is a colourful mix of an all-star cast including Constance Collier (Miss Luther), Andrea Leeds (Kay Hamilton), Lucille Ball (Judith), Eve Arden (Eve), Ann Miller (Annie), Gail Patrick (Linda Shaw), which leads me in to my biggest complaint of this film: too many actors.
The back cover copy describes this film as having “stars galore”, but they are so numerous that many of them don’t have characters that really shine in the film. They’re flat characters with a clever quip or two. Eve Arden’s one good joke is mentioned on the back cover and that’s basically all I could remember her doing throughout the entire film — one clever line. Lucille Ball as a secondary character goes out on a date with a lumber baron, which we never see, or grow to care about, or miss when she’s gone.
Sure, there’s some great quips, and some unexpectedly dark moments that are necessary to force character change, but Hepburn and Rogers’ characters are the only ones that truly shine. This could have been a stronger film with fewer big-name stars (Ann Miller is completely wasted for one) and the way that Randall gets her chance at the stage undermines Kay Hamilton’s struggle, a performance that is both poignant and heartbreaking.
Stage Door is unrated with a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.