STAGE DOOR (1937)
The 1930s was the era of “women’s films,” and here’s a perfect movie of the type. It is witty, it has an all-star women’s cast, and it is simply unforgettable in its resolution of the conflicts inherent in a boarding house full of struggling actresses. The 1930s was also the era of wise-cracking dames. And the snappy dialogue launches you right into the story. The cast includes Katharine Hepburn as Terry Randall, an aspiring actress from a rich Midwestern family. The haughty Terry lands in a group of world-weary actresses and chorus girls boarding at the Footlights Club in New York. From the beginning Terry antagonizes Jean Maitland as played by Ginger Rogers. Then they find out they’ll be roommates. The other wise-cracking boarders were also like oil and water with Terry. Except for Gail Patrick as the ambitious sophisticate and venomous Linda Shaw. The super cast included Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and a very young Ann Miller. The “house mother” and acting advisor is played by Constance Collier, an actress famous in the silent era. A very earnest member of the house is loved by all, Kay Hamilton, played by Andrea Leeds. Kay had starred in a play the previous year, but now can’t find a role. The key theatrical producer is played by Adolphe Menjou as Anthony Powell. When the desperate and malnourished Kay visits his offices but is denied an appointment she faints. Terry (Katharine Hepburn) was also waiting and barges into Powell’s office to berate him for his callousness. He is unphased, until later he learns that Terry’s father wants to secretly bankroll a play, Enchanted April so she can get the lead role. If only things were that simple. Powell is a notorious womanizer, making advances on Terry and Jean. But Terry is weak as an actress and has bad rehearsals; and the lovable Kay had wanted that part. Kay is now giving Terry acting tips. Menjou/Anthony Powell sees a disastrous play in the works. It will take a tragedy for all of these disparate characters to come together in this bittersweet gem of a movie.
Gregory LaCava directed this film loosely based on the Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. LaCava always liked improvising from a script, and in this film, he reworked the plot of the Broadway play. He had the cast improvise many of the scenes and had them interact as if they actually roomed together. LaCava then transcribed their dialogue into a script. Hepburn would jot down her dialogue after each day and discuss it with LaCava, and it would become part of the script, which changed daily. The snappy dialogue that is characteristic of the film is the result. Hepburn had played the lead in a play called “The Lake” a few years previously which served as a model for the play-within-the-film. A sentence from her monologue was used in the film play, “the calla lilies are in bloom again” and it became her tag line. The popular Ginger Rogers was good friends with the young Lucille Ball at the RKO studio and convinced the producer to add her to the cast. She had previously been used mainly as a model and chorus girl. For the climactic finale scene LaCava had to tell Ginger Rogers that her house had burned down in order to get tears out of her. Stage Door was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress for Andrea Leeds, and Best Writing for Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller for the “script.”
Christian Esquevin is a member of the Coronado Island Film Festival Board of Directors, an avid film aficionado, and the creator of the blog Silver Screen Modes which focuses on the fashions and films of classic Hollywood. He is also the author and researcher for a stunning tabletop book Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Labelon fashion designer and icon, Gilbert Adrian, the chief fashion designer for MGM studios from 1928 to 1941.
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