Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Watched "Stage Door" on TCM last night after a showing of "The Women" (which is wonderful to watch after the foul taste the ads for the 2008 remake left in my mouth). "Stage Door," a 1937 Gregory LaCava film, is pretty entertaining. It marks the first pairing of Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, the two big female stars at RKO, and has great support from, among others, Lucille Ball.
But in keeping with my tradition of picking up on small character moments, it was Constance Collier who really took my breath away in the film. Constance plays "Miss Luther," a grand old dame of the stage now living out her remaining years in a women's theatrical boardinghouse. Katharine Hepburn's character warns to her out of their shared devotion to Shakespeare, and Miss Luther instantly produces clips from her handbag to show how great she once was.
The performance is a masterpiece of puffery and self-importance, but it's also not without its pathos. Undoubtedly Collier could relate to the role as she was, in some sense, playing a broader version of herself.
Constance Collier acted on British stages from the age of 3 (in "Midsummer Night's Dream"), and was a legend on the stage for decades. She also wrote several plays, including collaborations with Ivor Novello, and was one of the great acclaimed theater actresses of her time. She also did some silent film work, appearing as Lady Macbeth in 1916, but Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with her. She played a variety of small roles, but it wasn't until the 1930s, wit Collier now in her 50s, that she hit her stride in character roles.
Onscreen Collier both celebrated and sent up the British tradition of royalty. A quick look through her resume shows countless "Lady," "Countess," and "Queen" roles. The same year as "Stage Door" she appeared in John Ford's "Wee Willie Winkie," and went on to appear in numerous other films through the 1930s and 40s, even appearing in Hitchcock's "Rope," where her theater training and timing surely came in handy.
Watching Constance Collier now, she almost seems to not be acting. The type of a matronly, regal, self-important English lady is so stereotypical now, it's hard to see the talent beneath it. But Collier is a master, and "Stage Door" is possibly her finest role in films, as it showcases the vulnerability and fragility beneath her royal exterior. Watch the clip below as Hepburn and Collier discuss "Twelfth Night" - and then do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie!
-Wee Willie Winkie