I picked Stage Door for my entry in this blogathon because I can’t resist a good backstage movie, and this one sports lots of first-rate wisecracking from a spectacular cast. Stage Door has some of my favorite scenes of women hanging out together at The Footlights Club, their slightly shabby but genteel residence in the theater district, where they commiserate and joke about the knocks the world handed them that day. Also, I’m particularly interested in adaptation and happen to have a copy of the play’s script from decades ago when I had read Scott Meredith’s doorstop-sized bio of playwright George S. Kaufman and was reading as many of his plays as I could get my hands on.
Couldn’t remember a thing about the play and was a little surprised to find so little of it in the movie. Turns out that after RKO paid $125,000 for the rights ($2,138,956.83 in today’s dollars), director La Cava kept the basic premise and a few character names and tossed the rest, developing a whole new story with his writers Morrie Ryskind, who had written his hit My Man Godfrey the year before, and Anthony Veiller, who had written A Woman Rebels (1936) for Hepburn. Kaufman and Ferber’s Stage Door was full of anti-Hollywood diatribes, and not surprisingly those didn’t make the movie (Kaufman said RKO should have retitled it Screen Door). In addition, La Cava worked in an improvisational style something like Howard Hawks’s, with the cast wearing their own street clothes and memorizing lines they had tossed off impromptu in rehearsals.
Hepburn’s character started out as not much of anything except an outsider. When Hepburn asked La Cava who Terry Randall was, he said, “She’s the human question mark,” which sounds like a W.C. Fields line to me (La Cava was a close friend and drinking buddy of Fields). Hepburn probed further, asking him what that meant, and he said, “I have absolutely no idea.” But her part grew and developed throughout the shoot, and Terry Randall turned out to be rather like Hepburn—tough and odd and vulnerable, self-assured and kindly but not much on empathy or understanding of how life is for her housemates who lack the security of her pedigree and investments, though she does come to appreciate their struggles and deprivations, to see that the playing field is not quite so level as she had been raised to think. All Terry’s “stop feeling sorry for yourselves” talk upon her arrival is tin-eared indeed, a boneheaded way to approach a group whose acceptance you hope to win. It’s something Terry and Jean have in common, a kind of impolitic obliviousness.
Olga: If it’s not food, it’s men—can’t you talk about anything else?
Judy: And what else is there?
There’s a similar exchange in The Women, another ’30s comedy/drama renowned for its female ensemble, although in The Women food is a matter of no interest, since there’s always plenty of it, and it is the never-seen men who occupy the center of the characters’ thoughts and lives. In Stage Door there is talk of men, dates with men, affairs with men, even marriage, but only Linda (Gail Patrick) is as strictly mercenary as most of The Women‘s ladies. At The Footlights Club marriage is a fall-back, a retreat from the world where you cannot gain purchase. Judy (Ball) returns home to Seattle at the movie’s end to marry her old sweetheart (in the play Louise does the same in the first scene), but she’s hardly in a romantic fog—she’s just sick of lamb stew.
Very little dialogue survived the adaptation process: Judy gets most of it (her character called Louise in the play), including this: “You know, there’s nothing like a cheerful letter from home. Pa got laid off, my sister’s husband has left her… One of my brothers slugged a railroad detective. I guess that’s all. ‘Lots of love, and can you spare fifty bucks?’ “
Lots of ragging about the food, lamb stew or vegetable soup night after night: “How’d you like that soup tonight?”
“If it were a little thicker it would’ve made nice hot water.”
“If she tries to serve it again I’m going to bring a bar of soap to the table and wash out a few stockings.”
“She must have gotten that meat loaf from the Smithsonian Institute. I wonder what was in it?”
“I don’t want to know.”
Jean: “By way of variety, let’s complain about the food.”
Like so many movies of the ’30s, underlying even the women’s dreams are the insistent forces of economics. The worn but cozy living room at The Footlights Club (as far from the Art Deco paradise of the same studio’s Astaire/Rogers sets as the Footlights Club is from The Waldorf, which is to say, half a mile and a universe away), the crappy food, all this at least safe—Jean and Terry and the rest don’t have to sleep with a gun by the bed as one young actress did before The Rehearsal Club, a real-life New York residence for young actresses, came into being in 1913. But the safety comes at a price, and while $13 a week (including meals) sounds impossibly cheap, Kaye (Andrea Leeds) can’t even pay that anymore.
Hepburn (playing Terry Randall, Margaret Sullavan’s role in the Broadway production), was in a tailspin after several unpopular films, while Rogers was on the way up, finally getting a chance to flex her acting muscles after her career-defining dance partnership with Astaire. The two shared top billing, but their animosity onscreen mirrored the offscreen tension between them. Adolphe Menjou (billed just below them) is the single major male character, a producer not all that different from the one he had played in the Hepburn vehicle Morning Glory four years before.
For several in the ensemble this was their first featured role in an A picture. Rogers went to bat for her pal Lucille Ball, and her performance won her a new contract with RKO. Ann Miller was only 14 in Stage Door (though her birth certificate said otherwise), her lanky 5’8″ frame helping with the illusion, as did her facility with snappy dialogue. This was Eve Arden’s first movie since Dancing Lady (1933), but she is already the Eve Arden we recognize from her work for the next two decades. Gail Patrick was a veteran with 27 movies under her belt before her stand-out supporting performance as Carole Lombard’s bitch sister Cornelia in My Man Godfrey in 1936. We even get a moment with several of my favorite utility players: Jack Carson, Franklin Pangborn, and Grady Sutton.
Rogers’s Jean is extremely attractive, a good hoofer and quick with a wisecrack, but she’s too immature and naive to build a career. Her squabbles with Anthony Powell’s (Menjou’s) mistress Linda (Patrick) stem from envy—Jean can’t help it, she’s never had anything, and it’s so tantalizing, Mr. Powell gives Linda furs and sends his car to call for her—Jean practically stamps her foot: Why not me? One Champagne-soaked supper in Powell’s penthouse and poor Jean completely loses her head. Powell dazzles her with the view and his hokey patented line, and she’s dreaming of marriage to the great man, all her tough, brave, wised-up bravado shattered.
There’s a scene at Powell’s office where Ball and Arden wait for Terry (they have a bet with her that if she doesn’t get in to see Powell by 2 she will buy them lunch). The secretary says Mr. Powell is out of town, then waves the shoeshine boy in past the job seekers. Kaye comes in for an appointment to read, faints when she hears Powell has canceled on her, and entitled Terry, who has never been put in her place like the working-class characters she lives with, storms Powell’s office to give him a piece of her mind.
“Who does that Powell think he is?” Terry fumes to his secretary as she begins to barge in, and then confronts the great man: “By what right do you barricade yourself behind closed doors and refuse to see people? Do you know that a girl just fainted in your outer office because you broke an appointment with her? … As long as you keep that door closed you’ll never know anything … Never mind about me, I don’t need you, but those other girls do. They sweat and slave and even go without food and decent clothes in the hope that someday, someone like you will come out of his office and notice them.”
If Terry could harness that passion and outrage when she tries to act, she might have something. As it is, her stand on Kaye’s (and all of their) behalf begins to shift opinion about her at the Footlights Club, though not all at once.
As for the one man in Stage Door who is more than a momentary reprieve from lamb stew, Anthony Powell (Menjou) is a cad and a scoundrel, a cardboard character, thin stuff compared to the richness of the women at the movie’s center.
In Stage Door the women go to work, look for work, pounding the pavement in pursuit of an audition and a break. In The Women they shop at department stores, attend fashion shows at ateliers, go to spas and work out with trainers. But they’re not doing it for fun—this relentless, self-involved routine is their work. Keeping the attention of the invisible men in their lives requires tireless effort and endless expense. In The Women only Crystal has a day job and let’s face it, that’s strike one against her with Mary’s crowd. The Stage Door girls are fighting for a chance to perform onstage, while the gang in The Women never even realize they need a break; their lives are an endless performance.
While the would-be actresses in Stage Door compete and have serious rivalries they’re not mean. They play fair and none of them would dream of engaging in the kind of sabotage-for-sport that underpins The Women. Within the walls of their women’s domain at The Footlights Club they squabble, joke, rag each other; they treat each other as family. You know when you’re watching it that whatever turns their lives may take, Judy (married in Seattle) and Terry and Jean and all the others will look back on their days in that brownstone in a kind of golden haze. They’ll remember the tough times and failures but they won’t seem so harsh, and what will stand out is the camaraderie, the sharing. Not the lousy food but how much fun it was to complain about it.