those pesky calla lillies

I saw Stage Door for about the ninety-gazillionth time on Wednesday night. However, it was the first time I’d seen it in a theater. The movie isn’t available on DVD (like so many other movies I’d like to watch repeatedly) and the copy I videotaped from cable years and years ago is in such awful shape now that I can’t even watch it, much less inflict it upon others.

(Actually, the poor state of the theater print makes me wonder if this movie isn’t on DVD because there isn’t a good master print to use for a decent transfer. The print was full of splices and skips and it’s pretty dark in spots. What a shame.)
I love Stage Door to death. It has a stunning cast: Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, Lucille Ball … and oh yeah, Adolphe Menjou. The men are rather of secondary importance in the film, but they’re not conspicuously absent as in The Women. You might know it only as the film where Hepburn reuses the famous line from her Broadway flop, The Lake: “The calla lillies are in bloom again.”
What caught me on this showing of the movie was the way in which the characters have to deal with perpetual unemployment and under-employment. It rang a very familiar note. Many of my friends are currently in the same situation. They’re not actresses and dancers and musicians like the women in Stage Door, but rather tech writers and software developers and Web designers.
It is almost painful to hear Eve Arden crack, “She’s been out of work so long, if she gets that job it’ll amount to a comeback” in current circumstances.
Austin was hit particularly hard by the high-tech bust a few years ago. It hasn’t recuperated as far as I can see. Tech writing is one part of the high-tech industry that hasn’t moved overseas much, but instead companies either got rid of their tech writers entirely, cut the staff down to the bone, or switched to using contractors. I’m watching a number of acquaintances and friends decide whether or not they can stay in Austin at all anymore, or if they have to move where the jobs are.
And I know people like Katharine Hepburn’s character Terry Randall in Stage Door, who barge into town wondering why the hell none of these women can get jobs, and assume it’s their own fault for being frivolous and lazy. Terry makes a bet she can crash a manager’s office and see him and she succeeds. Terry gets a leading role in a play after being in New York only a few months … but what no one knows (including herself) is that it’s because her rich father has arranged to finance the play himself. She doesn’t associate her success with luck but with intelligence and ambition. (She learns better by the end of the movie.)
I hear a lot of that. I’m told we’re sending engineering jobs to India because we don’t have enough qualified engineers in this country. Anyone out of work must have something wrong with them. I’m told all it takes is a focused, intelligent effort, and a little American ingenuity, and you should be able to get some work in no time. And so on.
I don’t have some big universal point to make about The State Of This Country or politics or anything. I’m in no mood to start an argument about politics anyway. I can call my family if I want to do that. I do feel really fortunate that I have a nice job with all the trimmings.
No, it just struck me how timely and affecting a 1937 movie about aspiring actresses can be to a tech writer in 2004. Stage Door really should be on DVD, and if you ever get the chance to watch it, I cannot recommend it enough. Not for the message but for sheer entertainment value. (I’m very fond of Eve Arden’s continual wisecracks, myself. And seeing Ann Miller at 14—she lied about her age to RKO—is fascinating.)
Holiday (also not available on DVD, damn it) is another movie like this. Every time I see it I am amazed at how well it holds up, how pertinent its story still is. The Paramount is showing it next week and my boyfriend and I are going to see it. He hasn’t seen it before, and I’ll be interested to see what he thinks. I wrote a long essay on Holiday, the play and the movie, about seven years ago and I’m thinking I should find it and see whether I still agree with whatever the hell it was I said (I can’t remember any of it).
And I saw Modern Times (which is on DVD) for the first time last weekend, which I hope I’ll write more about later … but it’s another Depression-era film that didn’t try to attract audiences through escapism. There were times when I knew I was supposed to be laughing but the situation was too heartbreaking for me to do so.
Thirties movies are often odd that way. You can see the despair over unemployment and poverty and hunger even in sophisticated movies like Trouble in Paradise in 1932, and as late as Sullivan’s Travels in 1941.
At the end of Stage Door, I felt confident the characters are going to succeed (except Lucille Ball’s character, who gets married and moves away). I don’t know if audiences in 1937 felt the same way, but that’s how I feel in 2004. This is probably because all the actresses did in fact succeed in real life. All the actresses are dead now, though, Ann Miller being the last in January of this year. But they had wonderful, in some cases phenomenal careers. It helped me hope that we’re all going to survive too, economic downturns or not. Even though my life is not a movie, I know.
Now if they would just release these damn movies on DVD. But that’s another rant entirely.

2 thoughts on “those pesky calla lillies”

  1. I caught “Stage Door” on Friday night. It was so neat to see it on the big screen, although it kept skipping in places. Bringing Up Baby is tonight! I’m so excited.

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