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.

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Mildred Pierce (1945): Crawford at a Crossroads

Joan Crawford in fur coat as Mildred Pierce (1945)
Mildred Pierce (1945) Opening Banner

The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty.  It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman.  The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.

The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff.  But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.  

And presents the chance to become a legend.

In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.

After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts.  If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it.  He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.  

It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.

This control was nearly her undoing.

Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years.  Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down.  It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate. 

She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.  

The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up.  She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with.  She was no longer worth the trouble.

No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.

The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.

She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.

She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines.  She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.

She set her sights on Mildred Pierce.  Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.

The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why.  Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.  

Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.  

But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice.  The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.

The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.

And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (1945)
Nobody, but nobody rocks shoulder pads like Joan Crawford

In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.

She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone.  She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.

She got the role.

Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama.  When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies.  Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant.  She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.  

Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life.  Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.

The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions.  In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.

Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.

She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career.  Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.

Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.

A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public.  Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life.  Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.

She won.

There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.

Joan Crawford holding her Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945) in her hotel bed

She was still Joan Crawford, after all.

She’d made the hairpin turn.

And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.

Mildred Pierce (1945) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

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

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (1945)