stage-door

Stage Door

US (1937) Dir. Gregory La Cava

The whims and machinations of the stage impresario are rich fodder for exploitation by writers with a keen eye for a scathing drama. Based very loosely on the stage play of the same name by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, this is a proto-feminist tale of sisters doing it for themselves in spite of the male influence in their careers.

Well-to-do Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) arrives at the Footlights Club, a boarding house for aspiring and working actresses in New York, and is assigned a room with sharp-tongued dancer Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers). Initially Terry’s affluent upbringing sets her apart from the humble origins of the other girls, with aging veteran Anne Luther (Constance Collier) appointing herself as Terry’s mentor.

Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou) is the most influential theatre agent in town, currently wooing Footlights girl Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick). But after spotting Jean at a rehearsal, Powell dumps Linda and takes up with Jean instead. Meanwhile, Terry is pursuing acting to prove she can survive without her family’s money to the annoyance of her father Henry Sims (Samuel S. Hinds), who secretly tries to sabotage her career.

Interestingly, the original stage play was an anti-Hollywood piece designed to reinforce the archaic belief that the theatre was the only legitimate platform for actors. Director Gregory La Cava therefore jettisoned most of the original play, keeping the title and the bare bones of the plot, and left it to his screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller to do the rest.

For the dialogue, La Cava allowed his cast to ad lib whilst much of the scripted material came from the writers overhearing the “of screen” chat between the cast, noting the rhythms and specific use of language for further authenticity. This allows Stage Door to pass the Bechdel test as the predominantly all female have a lot more on their minds than just men; when they do need a male presence it is largely for a free feed or a bit of innocent networking.

Among the feisty females all hoping to tread the boards and see their name in lights are future legends Lucille Ball, 40’s musical queen Ann Miller (who was only 14 at the time because used a fake birth certificate to say she was 18) and Eve Arden, who will mostly known as the principal of Rydell High in Grease 41 years later. Ball and Miller would reunite a year later in the Marx Brother’s only RKO film, Room Service.

While Rogers and Hepburn are the main focal points the real drama belongs to the only cast member to earn an Oscar nomination, Andrea Leeds. She plays Kay Hamilton, a popular member of the house who earned great praise for a role a year prior but has since found it hard to repeat this success. Desperate to get the lead role in Powell’s next production Enchanted April, Kay forgoes food to get herself noticed.

On the day Kay finally gets an appointment to see Powell, he arrogantly blows her off, along with everyone else waiting in his office yet lets in the (black) shoe shine boy in. Kay faints under the stress, causing Terry to burst into Powell’s office and give him a huge serve for being such a selfish and rude man, finally earning the respect of the other girls at Footlights.

It is this meeting that not only puts Terry on Powell’s radar, but also her father whose deal to finance the play on the proviso Terry in cast in the lead role is kept a secret. Sims is hoping that the inexperienced Terry will be a complete failure and have her come back home. At first Powell tries to use his seduction techniques on Terry whilst still dating Jean, but Terry is too smart for him and gets her revenge.

There is a particular irony about the speech Terry recites in Enchanted April that is part of Katherine Hepburn’s personal folklore. Her first major Broadway role was in the 1933 play The Lake, but her speech that began “The calla lilies are in bloom again” prompted critic Dorothy Parker to suggest Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions — from A to B“. Hepburn used this to mocked her previous failure and it since became her signature.

La Cava is unable to fully abandon the stage play origins in the recurring main locations of Footlight’s lounge area, Terry and Jean’s room and Powell’s penthouse, but is not exclusively limited to these either. He opens with a smooth crane shot that crosses a busy street to outside Footlights and inside, the camera is equally busy following the various bodies around as numerous conversations fill the air.

With a diverse bunch of ladies running in and out of the scene, there is a genuine sense of community to be found among the residents of Footlights, each one able to play of any of the others. The men are limited in their actual influence over the girls’ lives aside from the bigwigs like Powell and Sims, and even though they are not portrayed as cardboard villains, they are for once not the alphas in this situation.

Hepburn, whose career was saved by this film after a string of flops, is in fine catty form as the refined Terry, whilst Ginger Rogers is given the chance to show more of her dramatic side and whip smart delivery as Jean, ironically at the expense of her dancing skills. Lucile Ball shows the comic potential that would make her the biggest TV star in the world twenty years later, but we can’t overlook the understated performance of the tragic Kay by Andrea Leeds.

Stage Door is a smart and a very progressive film for the 1930’s, cynically exploiting the perfidy of men in show business and the perspicacity of the women clever enough to circumvent it. A modern version would be too acerbic, crude and dramatically overplayed so enjoy this comparatively innocent but still biting treat.

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