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.
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.
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.
- 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.