|Released by MGM | Directed by Charles Brabin
Run time: 84 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- In one of the most unique scenes of the entire pre-Code era, the titular ‘stage mother’ offers to hook her daughter’s gay ballet instructor up with other men in order to secure special attention.
- “You son of a b–“
- At one point, a mom with a ton of children ‘must have lived near a firehouse’.
- Musical numbers with plenty of see-through dresses, and Margaret O’Sullivan gets undressed just cuz.
- The stage mother takes photographic blackmail photos while creeping along fire escapes. She taunts one male producer, “You don’t look so romantic in your underwear!”
- The naive stage girl is often encouraged to “toss conventions” and eventually works her way around some high powered men, at her mother’s bequest.
- “You’re nothing more than a common little–“
- A mayoral candidate’s campaign manager explicitly threatens to murder a woman for interfering with a mayoral race. On the scale of New York mayoral races, this still seems pretty tame.
- “Bring the bottle, for the lady who drinks like a gentleman!”
Stage Mother: Mommie Delightfulest
“Kitty, you used to a human being once!”
“Yeah, and what did it get me?”
There’s a movie opening this weekend in the real world called Red Sparrow. I don’t know much about it other than a few movie critic friends are chortling over Jennifer Lawrence delivering the heartfelt line, “You sent me to whore school!” Well, good news, what is new is old. Stage Mother is a deft, comedic drama that features a mom whoring out her daughter for riches and fortune; they laugh all about it at the end.
Kitty Lorraine half of a vaudeville acrobatic act but has two problems: she’s pregnant, and, before her daughter is born, her husband falls to the stage, breaking his neck and dying. She doesn’t have any options other than to shack up with her rich, snobby in-laws. A vagabond life– and a second husband– call her away, until the marriage fails and she feels like it’s time to grab her daughter back. Lorraine pushes Shirley to make her a star, no matter what anyone says. Including Shirley.
Stage Mother takes Kitty and makes her an utterly compelling character. She’s sweet, testy, and has a chip on her shoulder, but you can still wholly empathize with her even as she spends the entire film consumed by her megalomania. Alice Brady’s performance here is top notch. She’s cagey and sweet, innocent and also a Svengali. She’s a talker and evolves into a maestro; at one point when she’s being knocked out for surgery, they struggle to get her to finally stop giving orders so they can put the mask over her mouth. Her Kitty is scheming, mischievous, and smarter than every other person in the room. When her daughter loses her virginity to a scion of a society family, Kitty sends them a bill.
Maureen O’Sullivan, toning down her Katharine Hepburn accent and getting a voice double for her musical numbers, is great as a big ol’ nerdy girl who just kind of floats around until she locks into serious gazes with a bevy of men. The best of these is Franchot Tone as Warren Foster, one of the few men who could almost make a smock sexy. Shirley also gets in with a mayoral candidate and a suave British aristocrat (played by Phillips Holmes, for those keeping track). It’s fascinating to watch her character become so hardboiled, finding the exact gestures and teases that her mother has taught her, either through mimicry or possibly even direct instruction.
All of the power in Stage Mother comes from these two women. Like Baby Face and Heat Lightning, the material benefits of being a cold-blooded woman are showcased in their entirety. Both Shirley and Kitty are constantly robbed of the opportunity to make their own choices– Kitty by the rich and insufferable, Shirley in turn by her mother. Through this suppression, both women take the opportunities offered and become unholy terrors, preying on human fragility to climb to riches and fortune. And though the two manipulate, lie, seduce, and play people like a xylophone, there’s no repercussions. And it somehow, eventually, brings them together.
Like with a lot of these amoral pre-Code romps, Stage Mother is a lot of fun. It’s well put together, a cohesive film that moves and constantly surprises. Maybe not the best pick for Mother’s Day, but, hey I don’t know you and your mother.
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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links
- TCMDB has a really good background article
Most of Stage Mother‘s tawdry situations came from its source, a novel by Bradford Ropes. MGM bought the screen rights partly because of the success Warner Bros. had had with another of his works, 42nd Street (1933). Warner’s had turned the book into tamer fare, which may have contributed to its box office success. […] At MGM, however, the sky was the limit.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon thanks to Warner Archive. And a big thank you to Warner Archive for providing a review copy of the film.