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.

Dinner at Eight (1933):  Focus on Ferber

Dinner at Eight poster (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1933)

Though she’s not as well remembered today, Edna Ferber was a literary giant of the early and mid-twentieth century on par with contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.

Seven of her novels were among the top ten best sellers in the year of their publication, and two topped the list, both feats that neither Hemingway, Fitzgerald, nor Faulkner accomplished.

She was primarily a playwright and novelist, her works encompassing the trials and tribulations of the American people, whom she knew and loved.  Her well-researched works covered a wide range of American life, from the struggle of Oklahoma statehood, to life on the Mississippi, the machismo of early twentieth century Texas, and the actors on the New York stage scratching out a living.

Edna Ferber
Edna Ferber

Her commercial and critical success ensured that Hollywood would come calling, and when it did she took the money and ran, having little to do with the making of most of her films.

So though you may not know the name Edna Ferber, you undoubtedly know the films based on her work.  Over the next eight weeks, we’ll cover the onscreen adaptations of this forgotten chronicler of the American experience.

Let’s start with Dinner at Eight (1933.) 

Ferber collaborated on nearly all her plays with fellow Algonquin Round Table member George Kaufman, and Ferber had long had the idea to write a comedy of manners with interlocking stories surrounding a group of couples set to attend a dinner party.  The play was a success, and it was adapted for the screen the next year.

Dinner at Eight was producer David O. Selznick’s first film with MGM after his successful stint at RKO.  Selznick wanted to prove his worth to father-in-law and boss Louis B. Mayer, and compete with golden boy MGM producer Irving Thalberg.  So he brought director George Cukor over from RKO, and they set about casting the successful play for the screen.

The similarities to Grand Hotel were known from the start—Ferber and Kaufman knew before writing the play that it would be compared to William A. Drake’s play, also made into an MGM film with an all-star ensemble cast, though Ferber insisted that she’d had the initial idea years before Grand Hotel was produced, but had to talk Kaufmann into doing it.

Both Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight have large star-filled casts with a history of stage acting.  Both have multiple storylines that intersect in funny, tragic, and surprising ways.  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery star in both films.

Dinner at Eight begins simply enough—Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, years before her unforgettable turn as Glinda the Good Witch) wants to throw a dinner party for her wealthy friends and acquaintances.  But there’s secrets among the group—affairs, looming financial disasters, and an impending suicide.  The film starts with the invitations, divulges the secrets, and gathers the group together at the Jordan’s home before ending just as the group goes into the dinner room for the titular dinner.

The cast of Dinner At Eight (1933)

It’s not as good a film as Grand Hotel.  There’s lots and lots of talking, and not quite enough action, even for a film made in 1933.  I gave the film two shots—viewing it several weeks apart, and I must admit that I fell asleep both times in the middle.

The film comes alive only when Jean Harlow arrives, and she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.  She plays Kitty Packard, the low class wife of Dan Packard.  Millicent was forced to invite the Packards as her husband wants Dan to invest in his failing family business.

Jean Harlow, Dinner At Eight (1933)
Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight

Kitty flounces around in her dressing gown, literally eating bon bons and having an affair with her doctor while her husband works to build his business empire.  She’s thrilled to attend the party, and arrives in an inappropriately tight dress.  She’s crass, laughs too loud, and doesn’t know how to hide her low-class breeding.

It’s a character Harlow perfected—the low class floozy—and the whole film wakes up when she slinks onto the screen.

Dinner at Eight has a distinguished pedigree—an all-star cast, great director, a producer who would go on to write his name in the Hollywood history books, and yet this film doesn’t have much to offer the modern audience outside of a view of Harlow, a star gone too soon when she died suddenly of kidney failure at twenty-six just four years after Dinner was filmed.

I tip my cap to all involved, but Dinner at Eight had it’s day, but it’s day is done.

Dinner At Eight (1933) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

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.

Dinner at Eight poster (1933)