STAGE DOOR (1937) B/W 91m dir: Gregory La Cava
w/Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Gail Patrick, Constance Collier, Andrea Leeds, Samuel S. Hinds, Lucille Ball, Franklin Pangborn, William Corson, Pierre Watkin, Grady Sutton, Frank Reicher, Jack Carson, Phyllis Kennedy, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, Margaret Early, Jean Rouverol, Elizabeth Dunne, Norma Drury, Betty Jane Rhodes, Peggy O'Donnell, Jan Wiley, Katharine Alexander, Ralph Forbes, Mary Forbes, Huntley Gordon
This wonderful example of Hollywood filmmaking is set in an all-girl hotel for struggling artists. The film blends comedy with pathos as it unfolds the lives of the aspiring actresses.
From The Movie Guide: "A stellar cast, superb direction, and a screenplay even better than the stage play on which it was based, all add up to one of the best movies about show business --- or about women living together --- ever made. ...
"Directing his first film since MY MAN GODFREY, La Cava showed that he could handle a large group of actors as well as he could do a straight two-lead comedy. So much work was done on the script that co-author of the play George S. Kaufman suggested waggishly that it should have been called 'Screen Door.' Legend has it that La Cava ordered the actresses to the studio for two weeks of rehearsal and familiarization with the boarding house set. Then he had a stenographer take their dialogue down as they sat around between rehearsals, and their words were incorporated into the script. The large cast includes Eve Arden (in her fourth film and already taking out a patent on her no-nonsense spinsters), Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, and Jean Rouverol, who later became a well-known screenwriter with her husband, Hugo Butler. For years, impressions of Hepburn have used the line she speaks while acting onstage: 'The calla lilies are in bloom again.' The best line in the film, though, is Rogers' marvelous barb to a friend over the phone when Gail Patrick enters the scene: 'Hold on, gangrene just set in.' The best prop, meanwhile, is the cat forever draped over Eve Arden's shoulders. A brilliant script and strong, realistic acting make this film a treat to the eyes and ears, and it affords the additional pleasure of seeing all those future stars like Ball, Miller, Arden, and Jack Carson in their early days."
From the website www.notcoming.com, this review of the film by Beth Gilligan:
"Fresh off the success of My Man Godfrey, director Gregory La Cava took a break from screwball fizz, setting his sights on a stage play by Edna Ferber & George S. Kaufman. The play, Stage Door, chronicled the ups and downs of a group of aspiring actresses living in a dingy New York boardinghouse, a world far removed from the dilettantes and forgotten men who populated Godfrey. Still, the earlier movie’s rapid-fire dialogue and comic punch seem to have left their imprint on the director, who wisely lets the tart exchanges between the girls take center stage most of the time.
"Although Stage Door slows down a bit in its maudlin second act, La Cava makes the most of the play’s witty lines in the beginning. Katharine Hepburn, playing what essentially amounts to a watered-down version of herself, is allowed the movie’s richest material, but it is Ginger Rogers who all but steals the show. While her name may forever remain linked with Fred Astaire’s, Rogers’ skills reached far beyond the ballroom; the prodigious comedic gifts displayed here hint at a talent that would remain largely untapped for the rest of her career.
"Stage Door is also notable for its proto-feminist sensibility. While the tense early exchanges between Rogers and Hepburn are priceless (you can almost see a layer of frost forming on the windows around them), the interactions between the women at the boardinghouse are largely of a warm, supportive nature. Although they’re all trying to scrape by and, in some cases, even competing for the same jobs, none of the backstabbing on display in another contemporary film, The Women, is evident. There may be cattiness on hand, but it’s of a loving, not a vicious nature.
"La Cava was known for his gift with actors (he also directed several of the W.C. Fields silents at Paramount), and his unassuming directorial style allows them to shine here. Their lightning-fast banter and palpable sense of camaraderie help make Stage Door one of the more enduring Depression-era comedies."
The following contains information you may not want to know before viewing the film for the first time:
From the Slant website (www.slantmagazine.com), this review of the film by Dan Callahan:
"Fuck All About Eve. The real masterpiece about women and theater is Gregory La Cava's Stage Door, a film which casts Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and many other RKO women of the era as out-of-work actresses in a theatrical boarding house called The Footlights Club. Excitingly feminist, marked by the Depression, and obsessed by the sound of women talking, yelping, singing and generally whooping it up, Stage Door, though well-loved by many, has never garnered a big reputation, probably because La Cava himself has been overlooked in studies of major directors of the period.
"Like Leo McCarey, La Cava didn’t like to stick to a script, and he took his improvisational methods radically far in Stage Door. For two weeks, he had his actresses rehearse on the Footlights Club set, and he engaged a stenographer to take down what they said during breaks. This loose chat was then incorporated into the film (Arden often took the lines no one else would touch). La Cava had no use for the source material, an anti-Hollywood play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber which preached the superiority of the legitimate theater, and so he started from scratch and used what he had: his one-of-a-kind cast.
"Stage Door is the defining film about the 1930s working girl. However, the women who lounge around the Footlights Club don’t do all that much working, which means that money is always tight. When snooty Linda (Gail Patrick) sweeps into the main room in the opening scene, Rogers’s Jean Maitland marches in and peels the silk stockings right off her legs. 'I didn’t go without lunch to buy you stockings,' she says, and when Linda calls her a 'little hoyden' and a 'guttersnipe,' Jean gives her a shove. The other girls watch this catfight jubilantly, throwing out the first of an endless series of bright remarks.
"As James Harvey points out in his book Romantic Comedy, it isn’t what they say that is important but the way that they sound. The sound design of Stage Door and its overall aural chaos is enough to make your head spin, with overlapping dialogue that might throw even Robert Altman. It’s as if these girls are terrified of silence, and if someone isn’t pitching in a one-liner, another girl will laugh, sing, or simply throw out a nonsense noise. Harvey says that watching Stage Door is like 'going to wisecrack heaven.' Hell, it’s a wisecrack symphony. And Stage Door is a truly democratic movie: every girl gets a shot at a crack, not just the stars.
"When Hepburn’s stage-struck heiress Terry Randall enters the club, everyone regards her suspiciously (just as flighty Hepburn herself was usually an iffy proposition for audiences). Terry is a serious, lyrical type, and the girls immediately think that she’s a rich phony who will never fit into their world of wised-up badinage. Jean zeroes in on her and lets off one zinger after another, continually getting laughs from the girls. 'Evidently you’re a very amusing person,' says Terry, arrogant yet vulnerable.
"When the owner of the club, Mrs. Orcutt (Elizabeth Dunne), shows Terry around and tells her about her own theatrical career, she is cut off by down-on-her-luck Grande Dame Catherine Luther (Constance Collier). 'Mrs. Orcutt played with all the stars,' says Miss Luther, leading Terry away. 'She supported me in lots of my shows, didn’t you dear?' La Cava gives Mrs. Orcutt a memorable close-up in response, a wounded, nearly servile look at Miss Luther that speaks volumes about their relationship and about the eternal relationship between stars and supporting players, a line of demarcation that Stage Door itself erases.
“'Don’t you ever take anything seriously?' high-minded Hepburn asks the girls after dinner. 'After you’ve sat around for a year trying to get a job, you won’t take anything seriously either,' says Lucille Ball’s Judy. Ball’s line readings are swift and sour, but she’s wet behind the ears compared to the great Arden, who has a white cat draped over her shoulders for most of the film. The inflections Arden gives to her oddball lines are sometimes quite stupefying and certainly inimitable. When Hepburn asks if she may continue discussing Shakespeare, the way Arden says, 'No, go right ahead, I won’t take my sleeping pill tonight,' enshrines her as the Queen of Sarcasm.
"Though Hepburn eventually emerges as the star of the movie, Rogers is the touchstone of its style. Her Jean Maitland is guarded, touchy and extremely anti-social. When powerful producer Anthony Powell (ratty Adolphe Menjou), sees Jean trying out a dance routine with her pal Ann Miller, he stares at her legs and asks her what she’s doing. 'We’re just getting over the DT’s,' Jean snaps, and taps away from him. When Jean warily goes to his penthouse, she gets very drunk indeed. He tells her that her name will soon be in bright lights on a big sign. 'It’s got to be big enough to keep people away,' says Jean, in her most revealing remark.
"Stage Door has a rather conventional tragic heroine, desperate Kaye Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), a sweet-faced type who loses the part she needs to Terry. Leeds can be a bit too much, but La Cava handles her suicide superbly. As she walks up a staircase, La Cava takes the chattering women sounds that we’ve been hearing all through the movie and begins to distort them. This white noise dissolves into opening night well wishes, and then vociferous applause. As Kaye walks past the camera to her death, La Cava cuts to a girl singing downstairs: 'Just give me a sailboat, in the moonlight, and you ....' and then there’s a scream: another girl has found Kaye, dead. This sequence shows La Cava’s talent for counterpoint, and it makes what could have been hokey into something visceral and moving.
"In rehearsals for Powell’s show Enchanted April (based on Hepburn’s 1934 Broadway flop The Lake), Terry is stiff and defensively unemotional (a take-off on Hepburn’s amateurishness when she first started out). Talking to an apoplectic Powell, Miss Luther wonders, in the film’s funniest line, 'Could you possibly see an older woman in the part?' But on opening night, Terry, not so much cold as inexperienced, is transformed by the news of Kaye’s death. Terry becomes an actress, and, more importantly, she finally wins the love of the girls at the club. This is a classic Hepburn role, and La Cava understands what works for her, just as he knew better than anyone else how to handle the problematic Rogers.
"In the end, there are no men to fall back on for these women (though Judy does get married). They’re tough, and they ridicule each other mercilessly, but they’re in this together. Kaye’s death doesn’t keep them teary-eyed for long, but in the last scene, the girls’ frivolous talk has a gravitas that it didn’t have before. La Cava shows that life goes on, and even repeats itself, as a new girl shows up at the club. She might be a new Terry, or perhaps a new Kaye. For these girls, the food will always be bad, the Depression will never be over, and men are their last option. If you listen closely to Stage Door --- and some have made a religion of it --- you might be surprised to find that underneath the wisecracks and snarky camaraderie of these extraordinary women lies the wintry humor of Samuel Beckett."
STAGE DOOR won an Oscar for Best Screenplay (Morris Ryskind & Anthony Veiller, based on the play by Edna Ferber & George S. Kaufman) and received three additional nominations: Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actress (Leeds).
For more information about director La Cava, see LIVING IN A BIG WAY.