It has been a very busy two weeks around these parts, and my attention to my beloved classics has fallen by the wayside (though blogging itself has not; I’ve been helping with a blogging project for my alma mater’s historic alumnae association, and you can see the fruits of that labor here). Can I just say that the invention of the DVR ranks right up there (in my book) with manned missions into space? Personally, I think the ability to record my favorite TCM showings is much more beneficial than the scientific breakthroughs that come from the International Space Station.
Yes, I’m being facetious.
Since TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar celebration is winding up this week, I want to get back into the swing of things by throwing out some final recommendations, starting with a sharp little comedy that’s airing later this evening.
Stage Door (1937)
Airing 3:30AM EST
Katharine Hepburn plays Terry Randall, an aspiring actress from a disapproving and very wealthy family, who moves into a boardinghouse occupied by other young, aspiring actresses, including the talented and one-time successful Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds) and dancing dynamo Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers). Terry’s high-class attitude alienates her from the other girls, and her acting ability is sub-par, at best. When her father intervenes, secretly backing a new play in exchange for Terry’s casting, the other young women dislike her even more, having seen this as “stealing” a part that should have been won by Kay. But when an unexpected tragedy intervenes, the tension between the aspiring actresses is set aside in solidarity and support, and new friendships and new talents emerge.
Hepburn and Rogers, two of my favorite actresses of all time, on the screen together? It’s heaven, truly. These two play off each other beautifully, their sly, often biting humor resulting in some of my favorite dialogue:
Terry : I see that, in addition to your other charms, you have that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.
Jean: Hmm! Fancy clothes, fancy language and everything!
Terry: Unfortunately, I learned to speak English correctly.
Jean: That won’t be of much use to you here. We all talk pig latin.
Both actresses had something to prove here; Ginger Rogers, by this time so revered for her work with dancing partner Fred Astaire, was attempting to develop her dramatic chops (which would serve her well three years later, with her Oscar win for the treacly Kitty Foyle), while Hepburn, who was famously criticized by writer Dorothy Parker for “running the gamut of emotions from A to B” for her performance in the play The Lake (which, interestingly, provides the material for the play in which Terry performs in the film), was developing a reputation as “box office poison” after several notable under-performing films in previous years (she would not fully shake this reputation until after the success of 1940’s phenomenal The Philadelphia Story). And, having something to prove, both women ably wrestle with their material, embodying these characters to the point that, at times, you forget you’re looking at Hepburn; you stop waiting for Astaire to walk through the door and sweep Ginger off her feet.
One of my favorite things about this film is the excellent supporting female cast, with memorable turns by the great Lucille Ball and Eve Arden, as well as the first film appearance of Ann Miller, who was only fourteen at the time. Ball actually helped Miller lie about her age so she could be hired to work on the film.
Though Lucy was, of course, best known for her work on television in her eponymous, groundbreaking series I Love Lucy, she appeared in over eighty films during her storied career. She never quite broke out as a full-fledged star (her somewhat dubious title in Hollywood was “Queen of the B’s,” as in B-pictures), but the roots of her impressive comedic skill are evident in her Stage Door performance. As Judy Canfield, Lucy is called upon to serve sarcastic asides with two of the best, and she more than holds her own against Hepburn and Rogers. Not for nothing, this is one of Lucy’s best film performances.
Yes, there is melodrama. And yes, some of the performances are over the top (Andrea Leeds’ portrayal of the ill-fated Kay Hamilton becomes, at times, particularly grating in this respect, even though she scored an Academy Award nomination for the part). But it all seems justified, and real, somehow, because the atmosphere is created so pitch-perfectly. These are young actresses, trying to learn their craft, many of them unschooled and still green. Their lives are melodramatic and over the top by virtue of their chosen profession. In the end, it all works, and it works beautifully.
Make sure you catch this great film if you can! And should you miss it, it will play again on March 24th at 11:15PM EST, or you can find it on DVD through Movies Unlimited, which is still running its amazing sale of many of the titles from the 31 Days of Oscar celebration (though it likely won’t last much longer!).
**And if you’re stopping by from SITS, welcome! We’re glad to be a part of the SITStahood. 🙂
Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Leeds), Best Screenplay, Best Director (Gregory La Cava), Best Picture