Cast & Crew
Immediately after comic Ralph Martin announces to a vaudeville show audience that trapeze artist Fred Lorraine will perform for the first time without his wife Kitty, who is pregnant, Fred falls to his death while executing a difficult stunt. Months later, Kitty takes her newborn, Shirley, to Boston and, in spite of proposals from the sympathetic Ralph, moves in with Fred's conservative family. Although Kitty agrees to give up vaudeville and take a job selling music in a department store, she resents the oppressive attitudes of her disapproving in-laws and, after four stifling years, accepts Ralph's proposal to marry and return to vaudeville. At the urging of her mother-in-law, Kitty leaves Shirley in Boston, assured that there she will receive good care and education. On the road, Ralph's drinking binges eventually drive Kitty to divorce, and alone once more, she takes a job working in a New York talent agency. Once financially secure, Kitty sends for her daughter, who is now fourteen, and immediately enrolls her in a dance class. Two years of intense instruction pay off when Shirley is cast as a featured dancer in a touring musical revue. As Kitty vigorously protects her daughter from her overly amorous admirers, Shirley dances her way across America and returns to New York City a seasoned performer. To assure Shirley's success in New York, the ambitious Kitty packs the theater with acquaintances, then threatens the touring show producer with blackmail so that Shirley can safely break her contract and star in a Broadway-bound revue. During the revue's Boston tryout, Shirley sneaks away from the theater and returns to the Lorraine's old house, which is now occupied by artist Warren Foster. While Shirley acquaints herself with the kind and handsome Warren, Kitty is rushed to the hospital with appendicitis. Taking advantage of Kitty's hospital stay, Shirley sees Warren repeatedly and eventually spends the night with him. Once back in New York, however, Kitty intercepts a love letter from Warren and, without saying a word to Shirley, visits Warren's parents. Just before Shirley is to open in New York, Warren shows up in her dressing room and denounces her for bilking his parents of $10,000, the amount demanded by Kitty for Warren's apparent indiscretions. Although heartbroken by Warren's rejection and furious at Kitty, Shirley goes on with the show and is an enormous success. Then, to the delight of her mother, Shirley takes up with the backer of the show, Al Dexter, an aspiring politician. When, however, Dexter's cronies decide that the affair with Shirley will hurt Dexter's political profile, Kitty is offered $25,000 to sail with her daughter to Europe. On the boat, Shirley attracts the attention of Lord Ronnie Aylesworth, who quickly falls in love with her. Deeply embittered by her mother's meddling, Shirley tells the class-conscious Ronnie that the loud and boisterous Kitty is not her real mother, but an easily dismissed "stage mother." After accepting Ronnie's proposal, Shirley then reveals to Kitty her lie and calmly tells her that she will not be welcomed at the Aylesworths' home. Shocked into seeing her maternal selfishness, Kitty retrieves an apologetic love letter from Warren, which she had hidden from Shirley, and gives it to her daughter with her blessing.
C. Henry Gordon
Nacio Herb Brown
Edwin B. Willis
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. The original had nary a sympathetic character in sight. The star of the show-within-a-show is a drunken slut, success turns the young innocent who replaces her into a neurotic diva, the chorus girls are only a time step removed from the streets and the leading man is sleeping with the show's male director. Although the film version had some risqué lines to suggest that not all of the chorus girls got their jobs purely on the basis of musical talents, all that remained of the gay subplot was a vague implication, barely noticed until more recent times, that the director enjoys masculine company when he's feeling lonely -- and it would be easy enough to read that as his need for a good drinking buddy.
At MGM, however, the sky was the limit. Brady's character got to lie, cheat and steal in order to push her daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) to stardom. When she finds out the girl is having an affair with an artist from a wealthy family, she charges the man's parents $10,000 for her daughter's virginity.
She also uses sex in more subtle ways. The girl studies dancing with Mr. Sterling (Jay Eaton), a former chorus boy who epitomizes the stereotyped lisping gay man prominent in films of the era. When Brady wants her daughter to get some help climbing the ladder of success, she gives him a knowing look and says "I can throw a lot of good things your way." When he protests with a lisping, "Mrs. Lorraine!" she responds with her own "Mr. Thterling," offering the clear suggestion that she can fix him up with some of the gay men she knows from the theatre. It was one of the frankest sexual moments for any gay character in a pre-Code film. Early screenplays had cut Mr. Sterling's gayness, so the studio brought in Ropes to beef the role up.
Stage Mother gets some of its authenticity from astute casting. Brady was a stage veteran, the daughter of producer William A. Brady and stepdaughter of star Grace George. She had begun acting as a teenager against her father's wishes, starred in silent films, and gone on to dramatic triumphs, most notably as the leading lady in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. One of the character's husbands was played by Ted Healy, a veteran comic most noted as the creator of the Three Stooges. Initially MGM had publicized that they would also appear in the film, but only Larry Fine turns up, in a one-line bit (some sources claim that Curly and Moe Howard also appear as clowns).
As usual, MGM poured on the production values, with costumes by Adrian and expert cinematography from George Folsey. For O'Sullivan's musical numbers, they had one of their top song-writing teams, Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, provide two songs, one of which, "Beautiful Girl," would later turn up in Singin' in the Rain (1952). They also engaged Broadway veteran Albertina Rasch as choreographer.
Stage Mother also provided a showcase for O'Sullivan, who had already scored as Jane in MGM's Tarzan series. The part gave her the chance to play heavy dramatic scenes coping with her mother's domineering ways along with light comedy with love interest Franchot Tone (though the suggestion that they are spending the night together was cut by local censors). Critics were so enthralled with her acting they forgave her the film's failed attempts to pass her off as a musical star. Her singing of "Dancing on a Rainbow" was dubbed by a belter whose voice bore little resemblance to O'Sullivan's more demure tones, nor did she do a very convincing job of lip-synching. In the dance numbers, the camera cuts from close shots of her trying to figure out how to move to the music to long shots of a trained dancer making the most of Madame Rasch's choreography. None of that stopped O'Sullivan from moving on to even better pictures at MGM, even without a stage mother campaigning for her.
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Director Charles Brabin
Screenplay: John Meehan, Bradford Ropes
Based on Ropes' novel
Cinematography: George Folsey
Art Direction: Stan Rogers
Music: Maurice De Packh, Louis Silvers
Cast: Alice Brady (Kitty Lorraine), Maureen O'Sullivan (Shirley Lorraine), Franchot Tone (Warren Foster), Phillips Holmes (Lord Aylesworth), Ted Healy (Ralph Martin), Russell Hardie (Fred Lorraine), Ben Alexander (Francis Nolan), Jay Eaton (Mr. Sterling), Larry Fine (Music Store Customer).
by Frank Miller
According to Hollywood Reporter and Motion Picture Herald pre-production news items, Frank Morgan was to appear in this film. Motion Picture Herald and Hollywood Reporter also mention Enrico Caruso, Jr. and T. Roy Barnes as cast members, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. In addition to Ted Healy, an Hollywood Reporter news item announced that the "Three Stooges" would appear in the film. Only Stooge Larry Fine was identifed in the viewed print, however. The Variety review complained that the use of a double in Maureen O'Sullivan's dance scenes "might have been a bit more skillyfully blended, as the fade-ins from the long-shots to her close-ups evidence a marked retarding of tempo as the heroine is shown ad libbing or faking it, more or less." Variety also speculated that the "big-moment" scene between "Shirley" and "Warren" might be "sheared in some states" because of censorship problems.