Stage Door (1937):  #MeToo In the 1930’s

Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller in Stage Door (1937)
Foreground: Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller

One of the pleasures of watching films is picking out the spots where you’d do things differently.  He should’ve done this, she should’ve said that….  It’s easy to fix everything from your couch, with no budget, deadlines, or staff with minds of their own to contend with.

Every once in a while, you get the even greater pleasure of watching a film and thinking, they got it exactly right.

Such a film is Stage Door.

Edna Ferber often lamented that she did not have the talent or looks to act on the stage, a medium she held in far higher regard than the movies.  Stage Door is her love letter to those who worked and lived the life she coveted.

In her memoir A Peculiar Treasure (1939), she writes:

“With George Kaufman I wrote a play called Stage Door, a rather gay and touching play about the hopes, ambitions and struggles of the young boys and girls who loved the theater and wanted to work in it.  The theater, struggling for its life against the motion picture, the radio, the motorcar, draws in its belt another notch and goes on.  I had seen and George Kaufmann for years had seen the young people who loved the stage meeting rebuff, disappointment, uncertainty and downright poverty with such gaiety and indomitable courage as would make the beholder marvel at the tenacity and fortitude of the human race.  Stage-struck, all of them, and proud of it.”

The play portrays the highs and lows of a group of struggling actresses who live together in a New York theater boardinghouse.  Margaret Sullavan starred in the lead role for 169 performances before quitting to have a baby and closing down the show.

The film version opens on the Footlights Club, an all-female boarding house for aspiring actresses in New York city.  There’s a cacophony of singing, talking, and shouting.  Annie (Ann Miller) is sweeping up broken glass, Eve (Eve Arden) is wisecracking with her cat draped around her neck, Judy (Lucille Ball) is tying up the communal phone line lining up a double date, and rivals Jean (Ginger Rogers) and Linda (Gail Patrick) are fighting over a pair of stockings.

The girls are hard-bitten and hungry—for both fame and food.  Jean reluctantly agrees to be Judy’s double for her date to avoid yet another lamb stew dinner.

Ferber makes no mention of the film in her memoir, likely because it deviated so much from her original play that George Kaufman called it The Screen Door.

But director Gregory La Cava, who’d struck gold with the Carole Lombard-William Powell screwball comedy My Man Godfrey the year before, knew the talent he had on his hands, and let the comediennes ad lib at will on the set. 

Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick in Stage Door (1937)
Ginger Rogers, Gail Patrick

The film is better for it.  It zooms along with a wisecrack a minute.  Trying to write down notable lines in my notebook had me constantly pausing the film until I gave up, sat back and enjoyed a script that is as much of a walk-and-talk as anything Aaron Sorkin ever wrote.

Into this maelstrom walks Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), a young woman who wants to succeed on her own merits and not her family’s wealth.  Brimming with confidence and naïveté, Terry books a room at the Footlights.

Terry finds the whole lot crass and undisciplined.  She bumps heads with new roommate Jean, who meets Terry’s olive branch with, “We started off on the wrong foot. Let’s stay that way.”

Terry figures that making a living acting will be easy if this is her competition.

Throughout the film she learns how wrong she is—that their hard exteriors hide the terror that they aren’t pretty enough, talented enough, or lucky enough to make it.  They hustle, they starve, they take up with old men who bankroll and paw them—anything to keep from going back home to Nowhere, USA a failure.

At first blush, watching Stage Door reminds us of three things:  (1)  Katharine Hepburn is first and foremost Katharine Hepburn, regardless of any role she might be playing, (2) Ginger Rogers can act as well as—perhaps better than—she can dance, and (3) RKO never did understand the comedic talent they had in Lucille Ball, who has a miniscule role in the ensemble cast.

Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in Stage Door (1937)
Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers

Modern films can learn a lot from Stage Door, a film that beautifully mixes comedy and tragedy, cynicism and sentiment.  The woman face poverty, hunger, and what we today refer to as #metoo moments.  A modern retelling would be a gritty and unrelenting catalog of misery.  But this film manages to handle it with a light touch that doesn’t minimize their challenges, and the women face it all with such gallows humor that we end up admiring rather than pitying them.

The world is cruel, the film tells us, and show business crueler.  But if you can’t laugh about it, you’ll never make it through.

The film garnered 4 Academy Award nominations, including Outstanding Production, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Writing (Screenplay.)

A delightful hidden gem, Stage Door is an absolute must-see for fans for the golden age of Hollywood.

Stage Door (1937) Verdict:  Timeless-Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Good Life

#20 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)
James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can’t Take It With You
You Can't Take It With You (1938) opening banner

Frank Capra was on a roll.  Starting in 1934 with It Happened One Night, he won the Best Director Oscar in three out of the next five years.  In 1938, he won his third and final Oscar with the ensemble comedy You Can’t Take It With You.  He also began to cement his legacy as a director who perfected a tone in his films that celebrated the best parts of the American dream and gave audiences wholesome and upbeat films to take their minds off their Depression troubles.

Capra was still working under Harry Cohn at Columbia, turning out critical and commercial successes without the benefit of the huge budgets and roster of stars his competition enjoyed over at Paramount and MGM.  In You Can’t Take It With You, Capra managed this by pulling sparkling performances by both young and up-and-coming actors and old favorites.

You Can’t Take It With You started out as a 1936 play by George Kaufmann and Moss Hart.  Capra and writer Robert Riskin expanded the play for the screen.

The film’s initial setup is simple enough—ruthless, greedy banker Anthony Kirby is planning to buy up all the real estate around a competitor’s factory to prevent expansion and put his competition out of business.  It’s an underhanded plan, but it is spoiled by the one eccentric old man who refuses to sell his family home.

Lionel Barrymore plays Grandpa Vanderhof, the lone holdout and benevolent patriarch of the eccentric Vanderhof family, a group of misfits that eschew convention in favor of spending their days—and thus their lives—doing exactly as they choose.  This includes daughter Penny Sycamore writing bad plays all day just because someone once left a typewriter at their house, her husband setting off fireworks in the basement, and granddaughter Essie dancing ballet in the living room, despite her teacher’s continued assertions that, “Confidentially, she stinks!”

Kirby’s dilemma is simple, and unsolvable:  He is a man who throws money at every problem, and the Vanderhofs can’t be bought.

Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to sell for the simple reason that he doesn’t want to leave the home filled with happy memories, and his refusal to sell protects the rest of the neighborhood from being evicted from their homes.

This clash of ideas about what makes a good life—Kirby has more money than he could ever spend but lacks fulfilling relationships with his wife and son, and treats his employees like dirt, while Grandpa Vanderhof lacks wealth and status but has the love and respect of family and friends—is the heart of the film.

Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof

Capra thickens the plot, of course.  The life philosophies of two old men might be interesting, but a Hollywood film needs youth, beauty, and romance.

In his first starring role James Stewart plays Anthony’s son Tony, the reluctant vice president and heir apparent in his father’s company.  Jean Arthur, also in an early starring role, plays Grandpa Vanderhof’s loving and slightly less crazy granddaughter Alice, who is a stenographer at the Kirby’s bank.

Unbeknownst to both old men, Tony and Alice are in love. 

And we’re off.

There is an inevitable clash of cultures when the Kirbys and Vanderhofs meet, a plot twist where Grandpa Vanderhof nearly loses the house but is saved by the senior Kirby’s dawning realization that Grandpa Vanderhof is the richer man, surrounded by people who love and respect him.  And of course, Tony temporarily loses Alice.

Don’t worry, he gets her back again.

It’s amazing to me that this film was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Director.  Not because I think it’s undeserving—it certainly is (and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barrymore wouldn’t have been out of line)—but a picture like this wouldn’t even have been considered for a nomination today.  It’s a comedy with a message so pure and positive it borders on corny.

Its complete lack of cynicism would invalidate its legitimacy in the minds of today’s Oscar voters.  As a critique, it says more about the trend of the Oscars than it does about Capra’s film.

You Can’t Take It With You also serves as a changing of the guard in terms of Hollywood’s leading men.  Though he would act for fifteen more years, at sixty Lionel Barrymore’s best years and films are behind him.  He’s on crutches throughout the film, and this is explained by an accident, but the truth is in real life he was plagued by painful arthritis that would increasingly trouble him the rest of his life.

Barrymore is the heart of the film, and he gets all the best lines.  Yet he’s clearly passing the torch—however reluctantly—to James Stewart.  

Only three years into his nearly sixty year career, James Stewart is already oozing charisma and speaking in his inimitable stutter-step accent.  His wide-eyed Tony is head over heels in love with Alice and her crazy family.  Alice knows it is a bad idea to fall in love with someone whose family will never accept her, but really, what woman could resist Jimmy Stewart when he turns up the charm?

You Can’t Take It With You isn’t a perfect film.  It’s a little too long, and sometimes the antics of the Vanderhof family become irritating.

But honestly, let’s not quibble.  This is a movie made to distract you from your troubles.  You munch on popcorn while watching young people fall in love and old people coming around to the idea that love triumphs over money, and that the American Dream is alive and well.

What could be better than that?

Verdict for You Can't Take It With You (1938):  Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can't Take It With You (1938)