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Classic Movie Saturday: How Hollywood Got “Stage Door” So Wrong, They Got It Right

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1957 poster

Was there ever a gayer film than Stage Door (1937) where Katharine Hepburn as an ingénue utters the famous line: ”The calla lilies are in bloom again”? Cast alongside Gay Icons Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers, Hepburn played it broadly and autobiographically, as the daughter of a wealthy businessman who wants a career in the theater with no prior training. It remains one of my favorite Hepburn performances.

The original Broadway play Stage Door by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman was a deeper look at the lives of a group of young women living in a theatrical boardinghouse in Manhattan while waiting for their big showbiz breaks. Ferber and Kaufman were good friends and members of the famed literary group The Algonquin Round Table.

Stage Door was first produced in 1936 at the intimate Music Box Theatre. It ran for 169 performances. It is the story of young ladies who all live together in The Footlights Club, a house exclusively for female performers. The show explores success, failure, love, comradeship and perseverance. Playing in the middle of The Great Depression, the play served as a love letter to the American Dream and the persistence of all starving artists.

Kaufman also directed  the premiere production of Stage Door. He had his first hit in 1925 with The Butter And Egg Man. Between 1921 to 1958, there was a Broadway play either written or directed by Kaufman every year. He collaborated with the Marx Brothers, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, and Stephen Sondheim. He won two Pulitzer Prizes: Of Thee I Sing (1932) and You Can’t Take It With You (1937); he won the Tony Award for Best Director in 1951 for Guys And Dolls.

The prolific Ferber wrote short stories, novels, magazines pieces and plays, adaptations of all of her work have been made into films. So Big (1924), won her the Pulitzer Prize. From 1925 to 1949 her partnership with Kaufman turned out six plays.

Margaret Sullivan (center) with five of the 17 women on the original Broadway cast, photo via NY Public Library archives

Margaret Sullivan played Terry Randall in the original production of Stage Door. Her life ironically parallels the play’s plot. She had her first Broadway success in 1933 in Dinner At Eight, and she gained the attention of Universal Studios, being signed to a three-year contract. It was on her own terms of: $1,200 a week for three years, non-exclusive and with approval rights. In 1933 she made her film debut in Only Yesterday. Once her contract expired she returned directly to Broadway, starring in Stage Door as a character who is vehemently loyal to theatre.

One year into her contract, after making her second film for Universal, she told Photoplay Magazine:

”I still hate making pictures! And I don’t like Hollywood any better! I detest the limelight and love simplicity, and in Hollywood the only thing that matters is the hullabaloo of fame… at present Hollywood seems utterly horrible and interfering and consuming. Which is why I want to leave it as soon as I am able.”

The play was very popular, yet it was changed almost completely when moved to the screen. The characters’ names stayed the same, but Terry Randall, played by Hepburn, was no longer a simple Midwestern girl but rather a rich heiress with an obnoxious self-assuredness that pisses off her new housemates. Ginger Rogers plays Jean Maitland, a secondary in the play, but in the film the character gets pushed to the forefront. She’s a streetwise dancer who is fiercely loyal to her friends, and, as Hepburn’s Randall puts it, never sees past the next wisecrack. Miller, Ball and Arden were all at the earliest stages of their careers.

During filming, it became apparent that these young women were as talented off-screen as they were on. Screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller hung out with cast between scenes and began writing down their witty quips. The director Gregory La Cava encouraged the girls to ad-lib. The effervescent dialogue included withering conversations between Rogers and a snooty Gail Patrick, and witty asides from Ball and Arden.

The dialogue is highly quotable: ”Hey, you’re not gonna catch the opening tonight?” someone asks. The reply: ”No, I’m going tomorrow to catch the closing.” When she’s told she must have heard of Hamlet, Arden responds with a shrug: ”Well, I meet so many people”.

Adolphe Menjou portrays a lascivious theater producer who is primarily there to be fought over. Rogers as Jean:

”He kinda makes you feel like you ought to run home and put on a tin overcoat.”

The plot hardly matters compared to the snappy dialogue. The best scenes just involve the girls cracking wise from the sad sofas in the Footlights Club’s living room.

Rogers and Hepburn did not get along when they were making Stage Door. Rogers was on her lucky streak of musicals with Fred Astaire. Those films brought a glamorous escapism from the Depression, but Stage Door delivered a more detailed depiction of the era, with young people looking for work and eating boardinghouse meals: ”If that vegetable soup had been just a little thicker, it might have made great hot water…”. It also showed that Rogers was a better actor than her musical films suggested. It also predicted the long comedy careers of Ball and Arden, dryly dropping bon mots while hanging around the communal living room.

Rogers gets to dance in the nightclub scenes, yet her number is short and indifferent, but Rogers was a first class wiseacre in this film. Ball often cited this film as her break in the business; it’s easy to see why. Miller was 14-years-old when she made the movie, playing an adult and holding her own next to Rogers as a dancer.

What struck me about watching it today was what a feminist piece it is. The men there are weak, or weasels, or worthless. The variety of indelible women’s roles in this film is astounding. More than that, it has an expansive idea of what constitutes femininity. Jean’s hard-boiled slang is the equal of any contemporaneous male jargon, while Terry’s defiant desire to make it on her own is Hepburn’s apotheosis as the previous decade’s “new woman.” Watching Hepburn fence with Menjou is one of the film’s pleasures, given that his character is the era’s typical man on the make, and he’s thoroughly outclassed.

Photo via YouTube

The gender equity in this film is surprising in another way, too: Stage Door was made during the era of the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to most American films released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. The Code was notoriously retrograde when it came to women’s roles. It was as much an instrument of conservative social engineering as it was an expression of moral outrage. Stage Door seems as if it was made in the pre-Code era. The hints of prostitution are salacious enough, even smothered under the Code’s propriety. This film deftly smuggles what would have been more explicit three years earlier in deeper levels of innuendo or subtext. Is the film stronger for it, as some of the Code’s apologists might have you think? Who’s to say? I know that I’d prefer it to be bawdier, but that’s mostly because I have a dirty mind.

The film received very good reviews but was only a moderate success at the box-office. Prior to this movie, Hepburn’s last four films had flopped commercially. However, because of the positive response to her performance in Stage Door, RKO immediately cast Hepburn opposite Cary Grant in the great screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938). Stage Door made a small profit of $81,000. It did well enough, with a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Picture and for Andrea Leeds (as Kay) for Best Supporting Actress. But, it hardly relates to the stage play.

The character of Kay committing suicide is one of the few consistencies between the play and the film, but with very different intentions. The themes so evident in the play do not cross over into the film version, which dilutes the storyline into a cautionary tale about showbiz.

Hepburn’s role in this movie is smaller than you might expect, given her billing, but this is an ensemble piece. This film was made during her “box office poison” years, and the execs at RKO were penurious with roles for her. It is amazing to me that her box-office poison includes this film, Bringing Up Baby, and Holiday. Hepburn was specializing in spoiled heiresses during this period, and this film is typical. Her performance lies somewhere between the lunacy of Bringing up Baby and the melancholy of Holiday.

Hepburn’s famous lines during the play within the film: “The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died…” are from The Lake (1934), the play for which Dorothy Parker panned Hepburn’s performance with the best bad review of all time:

“Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”


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