Everyone has their ups and downs. Katharine Hepburn had plenty of both. In Stage Door she plays an aspiring actress who’s stubborn, forthright, opinionated and can’t act… and she’s absolutely brilliant. Four years earlier she’d won her first Oscar for best actress in Morning Glory. One year later and she’d be labelled box office poison in the Independent Film Journal by the Independent Theatre Owners of America. Among those named was Kay Francis, a superstar of 1930s Hollywood, who was to have her wish to be forgotten come true (to an extent) earlier than expected. After this it was difficult for Hepburn to get good work but she managed to win the public over again… eventually. It’s not a revelation that Hollywood could be a nasty place.
Stage Door isn’t about Hollywood but it’s not unlike the great Sunset Boulevard and the other-people-seem-to-like-it Mulholland Drive. Anyone who knows their sums can tell that if the theatre industry of a town wants five hundred actresses a year, you get a lot of spare change out of fifty thousand hopefuls. That in itself is harsh, but it’s life. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too much to worry about if it was a good, clean fight. Those are the numbers our friends from the Footlights Club theatrical boarding house have to digest every day with their barely-edible lamb stew. One of them was in a play a year ago and did quite well… but that was a year ago. These girls aren’t just numbers however – they’re wonderfully brought to life by both script and cast. They’ve developed a kind of gallows humour, cracking wise and teasing, but they pull together when it matters. On the surface they’re real women, talking about everything and nothing. You’ll root for them – want them to succeed, even though most of them won’t. If you don’t feel it then perhaps you won’t like the film. It certainly does a lot to take us with it; have us suspend disbelief, sit forward, feel its story. Maybe the numbers tell us it can’t be all laughs, but forget them – you only know how you feel by feeling it.
The comparison with Sunset Boulevard was deliberate. I was surprised but this is a great film, from an entertainment perspective at the very least. It’s a lot more earnest and direct than Boulevard. Its place is a living, breathing one to Boulevard’s graveyard mansion. One big difference is that this one is a lot more positive. In the end of the day, so long as you’re still alive, you’re winning. If you’ve had a good innings when the inevitable comes then that’s something to be thankful for, too. I probably added that last bit (or did I?). I’ve talked enough – it’s best to go into this one reasonably blind. It’s got plenty of strong female characters, not just Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, who are superb. Strong, but not unbreakable – what living thing is? This kind of strength of character in spite of everything is one of the most attractive things anyone can possess. If you agree then maybe drop into the Footlights Club and see how the girls are getting on.