Stage Door Movie Review
Justifiably famous for a rapid-fire script jam-packed with barbed remarks and caustic retorts, the film makes you stifle your laughter so you don't miss the next oncoming zinger. At one point, an exasperated Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) says to the delightfully bitchy Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), "It'd be a terrific innovation if you could get your mind to stretch a little further than the next wisecrack." Indeed.
Most of Stage Door's action takes place in a New York theater-district boarding house for aspiring young actresses. Day after day the young women head out on auditions and come home wearily to their ersatz sorority house to chat and joke about their unlucky breaks or to get all dolled up for a night out on the town with the potential sugar daddies who are always sniffing around.
Jean is the Queen Bee of the moment, and she's mighty displeased having to welcome a new roommate in the form of Hepburn's Terry, a rich, stuck-up poseur with a highfalutin' accent who's just arrived from Connecticut (hey, just like Hepburn's real life story). Terry is out to prove to her traditional family that she can make it as an actress, and she successfully parries every one of Jean's constant insults with rapier-like remarks of her own. It's some of cinema history's sharpest, fastest insult flinging.
Rounding out the gang is a very young Lucille Ball (fascinating to see), Eve Arden playing the type of wise-ass sidekick she'd play dozens of times in her career, 17-year-old Ann Miller, and Oscar-nominee Andrea Leeds as Kaye, the dreamy hopeful with a heart of gold who just has to get a part. She just has to!
As the girls tackle the big city, they find themselves caught in casting couch situations and dodging the nefarious advances of all kinds of unscrupulous theater types. They stick together through thick and thin, and their humor seems to be their ultimate defense mechanism. They'll do anything to keep their spirits up because the reality of their situation is so challenging and downright ugly.
Only the standoffish Terry stands outside the circle. Eventually she lands a leading role in a turgid drawing-room melodrama that features that famous speech, "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." Anyone who has ever imitated Hepburn knows this soliloquy, and it's interesting to note that it was actually lifted from a famous Broadway flop called "The Lake" in which Hepburn had starred a few years earlier.
Of course, when Terry wins the part, several other people lose, including the fragile, innocent Kaye. Tragedy ensues, and the story takes a sharp turn into high drama in its final minutes.
Stage Door is totally rewarding from start to finish. Like many movies of its time that came from the stage, it looks a bit stiff, like a filmed play almost inevitably will, but that doesn't detract one bit from the whipsmart dialogue that races by almost faster than you can process it. In the first half of the 20th century, only All About Eve matches it for its combination of brilliant female performances and a near-perfect script. If you love movies, Stage Door is mandatory viewing.
The DVD adds the musical short "Ups and Downs" and a radio production starring Rogers and Rosalind Russell.
These doors are open.