Stage Door (1937)

The Women

Stage Door is very much the poverty row version of MGM’s The Women. It features only one big box office star, another who had become box office poison and a supporting cast who would later go on to play notable prominent roles in later films (Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden).

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn where the two big rivals at RKO pictures with Rodger’s career on the up and Hepburn’s career on the down yet you can feel their mutual respect for each other as the film progresses (in the fictional realm at least). Stage Door follows a group of actresses living in a drab theatrical boarding house trying to make it in the world of show business. Right of the bat the movie is emotionally investing as the cast of street smarts constantly spew one-liners and witty remarks in an effort to try and deal with their lack of success amidst the depression-ridden 30’s; the film succeeds in evoking both laughter and sadness simultaneously with its barrage of highly relatable human emotion – The lightning-fast dialogue alone makes Stage Door worthy of multiple viewings.

Supposedly the filming of Stage Door began without a completed script resulting in much of the film’s dialogue being improvised. The interactions between the female cast feels real; the acting present in the movie doesn’t feel like acting, almost like I’m getting a voyeuristic insight into these character’s lives.  Likewise, the film even has an early appearance by Jack Carson as an over giddy lumberjack on an arranged date with Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers); always a great screen presence no matter how brief his appearance is. I find Stage Door a one of a kind film; it has a raw quality, one that can’t be created intentionally making it a rare treat in many respects. The cast and dialogue is just too good that I really become attached to these characters and almost wish the film could be a bit longer.

Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall is another instance of Hepburn playing the odd one out. I do love Terry Randall, she’s the one character in the boarding house of whom clearly comes from an upper-class background and she is only one who achieves stage success by landing the lead in a play despite her lack of acting experience. With her go-getter attitude, Terry is the embodiment of the individual as summed up in one line: “You talk as if the world owed you a living. Maybe if you tried to do something for the theatre, the theatre would do something for you”.  I get the impression Stage Door purports the idea that one who comes from a lower class background will find it harder to overcome these ties and find success. In one dialogue exchange Terry asks the other women “do you have to just sit around and do nothing about it?” and the character played by Lucille Ball replies “maybe it’s in the blood, my grandfather sat around until he was 80”. Terry is clearly more dedicated to her craft than the other woman in boarding house, discussing Shakespeare and other aspects of theatrical arts, while the other conformist woman poke fun and shun her for it. This does make me question what they are doing there in the first place; I guess they have just been beaten down by the system that bad. One thing Terry is not, however, is a snob. She doesn’t look down on the girls from a high and mighty position and even makes the effort to learn their slang. When I doubt I will ask myself, what would Terry Randall do?

My Man Godfrey (1936)

She’s Electric, she’s in a family full of eccentrics.

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does a comedy film actually have to make you laugh? Can you have a comedy without any laughs in it? This was once a question posed by film critic Mark Kermode.  When thinking of this question, the first movie which comes to my mind if My Man Godfrey, a comedy which I love but there are only a few moments during it which make me laugh and even those few aren’t big laughs. This is despite the movie’s crazy screwball, gorilla imitating antics in which the straight man William Powell enters a cartoon world. But I would still call it a comedy as it’s a movie which leaves you feeling melancholic watching it.

William Powell’s role as Godfrey exemplifies why he is the master of words. He can take any regular sounding lines and turn them into something memorable and unique – it’s like poetry. Even as an unshaven bum Godfrey outclass anyone. Likewise It’s easy to fall in love with Carole Lombard watching My Man Godfrey; she succeeds in playing a ditsy scatterbrain in an endearing manner but I feel the real unsung cast member of the film is Gail Patrick, one of the most underrated actresses of the 30’s – it’s a shame she never became an A-list leading lady. She became typecast playing (for lack of a better term) bitches, but could do so with a dose of humanity.

I love those moments which describe a ridiculous situation which is never caught on camera. The mental image of Carole Lombard riding into a mansion on a horse, going up the stairs and leaving it in the library is an image better left to my imagination. Many modern film comedies would show such a display for the viewer to actually see and well, would just be cringey and embarrassingly unfunny in the process.

My Man Godfrey wasn’t based on a stage play but watching it you might think otherwise as long stretches of the film take place in real time. Plus you get one thing almost unheard of in films prior to the 1950’s, an intricate title sequence.  I consider My Man Godfrey along with You Can’t Take It With You as the two quintessential “kooky family” movies although “kooky” may be an understatement.

Screwball comedy was partially about making fun of the rich as retribution for the great depression; My Man Godfrey is probably the harshest attack on the rich which the genre ever made, partially because of just how somber the film is. The opening scene in which men are living in a shanty town by a dump or the scavenger hunt for bums (or so-called ‘forgotten men’) are shocking sights for any era. However, My Man Godfrey shows how the wealthy upper classes are not beyond redemption and are a necessary component for any functioning capitalist society.

At the beginning of the film, Godfrey utters “Prosperity is just around the corner”, a line misattributed to Herbert Hoover though a widely mocked platform of the Republican Party during the early days of the depression. Once Godfrey is hired by the Bullock family as their butler he uses his newfound position to work his way out of poverty. By pawning the necklace Cornelia planted in Godfrey’s bedroom in an attempt to frame him, Godfrey purchases stock which Mr. Bullock had sold and in turn saving the family fortune. Godfrey owes a debt to a wealthy family for bringing him out living in a literal dump but in return, he is responsible for saving the family’s fortune and bringing the dysfunctional Bullocks together.

It sounds like the movie makes an argument for supply-side economics. Less subtle however is the scene in which Eugene Pallete (I swear that man is the spitting image and voice of Alex Jones) as the head of the Bullock household says “I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make but I can’t do it when my family spends 50% of it”, followed by his wife’s response of “Well why should the government get more money than your own family?”. At the end of the film, Godfrey has opened his own diner at the dump from the beginning of the film and hiring his previously homeless chums. – People banding together to get themselves out of poverty and not relying on an FDR handout.

Love Crazy (1941)

Serving the Nuts

I believe every great actor should have at least one movie in which they get to go completely over the top and out of character (Barrymore in Twentieth Century, Leslie Howard in Its Love I’m After, Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stewart in Vertigo). For William Powell, Love Crazy provided him with his opportunity in easily the most slapstick oriented comedy ether Powell or Myrna Loy ever done; from heads being stuck in elevator doors to characters slipping on the same rug several times throughout the film. It’s not John Barrymore levels of over the top but compared to William Powell’s usual soft-spoken persona it’s pretty over the top.

Love Crazy is the William Powell show all the way, showcasing the complete range of his abilities as a comedic actor in a plot which is like a tabloid newspaper story turned into a screwball comedy; a jokey representation of mental illness which wouldn’t be politically correct by today’s standards. All the more fun then! One of the scenes from any film Powell has appeared which I feel best demonstrates his comedic timing is when he is tasked with convincing a lunacy commission of his sanity by placing shaped blocks into their corresponding holes. It’s such a basic task yet with his overzealous confidence he still manages to convincingly screw it up; it works on so many levels. Yet as the film progresses, I end up feeling particularly sorry for his character due to losing a wife like Myrna Loy and having her despise you, all over one improbable misunderstanding.

But not to undo Myrna Loy with her stand out moment being a surprisingly erotic scene with Jack Carson in which both of them are bare-shouldered and she even utters the line, “It will smell like an orgy”. On top of that, I find myself in awe that there is a straight up dick joke in this movie (“He has to have his torso free when he shoots his bow and arrow”). Of all the sneaky jokes they got past the censors I’ve heard in screwball comedies, this is one of the most unsubtle. Likewise, Gail Patrick who plays Powell’s former girlfriend appears to be a bit of a nymphomaniac; badly wanting him shortly after meeting for the first time in years despite both of them now being married, not to mention it’s his anniversary night! Just listen as the seductively tells Powell “Stevie I’m bored!”. There’s quite a bit of setting up in Love Crazy but the payoffs are worth it. Love Crazy also gets a big boost from the apartment sets designed by Cedric Gibbons. The painted backdrops of skyscrapers high in the sky and the art deco shading, it’s beautiful.

I had the benefit of going into Love Crazy unaware of the screwball hijinks which occur during the third act. If it’s not too late for you, I recommend doing the same otherwise stop reading but yes, William Powell dresses up in drag as a tall, butch woman and convincingly at that. He even goes to the length of sacrificing his trademark moustache – now that’s commitment.