Waiting in the Wings
For two months three showings weekly of each of eight 35mm prints from the Museum of Modern Art archives, “Acteurism: Ginger Rogers” showcases the versatile dramatic, comedic and dancing star truly of both screen and stage. Included is the 1937 gem Stage Door.
The popular actress won an Oscar for a tender dramatic rôle three years later and was early cast as the sarcastic wisecracking blonde and late as an embittered career woman. “Perhaps best known as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner in [ten] musical comedies of the 1930s” in between, way understates the case for her. Today’s audiences unfortunately may know the name more from the Fellini satire in which small-timers imitate Ginger and Fred or, if travelers, from the Gehry Dancing House in Prague.
Stage Door was adapted, tightened and improved from the Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman stage play with Margaret Sullavan and was later to be a Lux Radio Theater sixty minutes with Rogers again before resurfacing as Broadway musical Applause. Dubbed “wisecrack heaven” and right up there with All About Eve as a consideration of realities of the theater world, the film did not feature producer Leland Hayward’s then-wife Sullavan -- who had won the stage part over Katharine Hepburn, Hayward’s reported ex-fiancée -- because she was pregnant. So Terry Randall Sims went to Hepburn after all, who successfully lobbied for more lines and shared top billing with Rogers. But the entire cast is stellar, including little knowns Lucille Ball -- “my big break”-- Eve Arden, “real discovery” Andrea Leeds, Jack Carson (as punningly named Seattle lumber magnate Milbanks), and a fourteen-year-old Ann Miller who lied about her age.
Much of the story takes place in the West 53 Street Footlights Club, a boarding house for aspiring actresses waiting for their big chance but invariably put off, never called. Some, such as snooty but eventually good-hearted Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick, who frequently worked with director Gregory La Cava), reach the lower rungs of the ladder of success by allowing philandering producer and Grotto Club owner Tony Powell (Adolphe Menjou, in a part not in the original stage version) to have his way with them under the lowered eyes of his would-be ladies’ man butler Harcourt (Franklin Pangborn).
Even if a little glitter and champagne go a long if temporary way to her head, Rogers’ realist Jean Maitland is no-nonsense. The acknowledged leader of the gaggle of cynical but caring girls in the boarding house, she is generous with other hopefuls like the dangerously vulnerable Kaye Hamilton (Leeds) but unsparing with newcomer Terry (Hepburn), who tries hard but cannot get by her gaucheries and inherent snobbery.
The patrician Connecticut actress’ popularity was not at a high point, but her aloof character and accent are suited for the part of an only-child heiress whose adoring Wheat King father Henry (Samuel S. Hinds) hopes she will flop on the stage -- indeed, plots to help that along -- and return to her senses and the family bosom.
The crisp ninety-two minutes does away with much of the play’s romantic interaction with men, and Eve’s (Arden) tomcat Henry turns out to be pregnant pussycat Henrietta. Focus is squarely on the sisterhood and its catty but on-target and never mean-spirited one-liners, all in those inimitable nineteen-thirties voices.
Success, or rather acclaim, at the end does not necessarily bring satisfaction. As in Birdman, “I’ve dreamt of being a Broadway actress since I was a little kid. And now I’m here, and I’m not a Broadway actress. I’m still a little kid.” Lessons are learned, hatchets buried, and friendships bloom like the calla lilies which were actually imported from a different stage play, the one that had elicited the Dorothy Parker quip that a cold Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
(Released by RKO Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)