How can a film from 1937 seem relevant and impressive today? It can when it’s Gregory La Cava’s STAGE DOOR. Based on the popular stage play written by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, the film version takes a detour with a large ensemble cast of characters. It’s essentially based on the struggles and pursuits of the all-female tenants at the Footlights Club, a residence hall for actors, dancers, and singers of the theater.
Here’s all the reasons to love STAGE DOOR (1937) and why it’s impressive and relevant, even based on today’s standards…
The ensemble cast of actors is like Christmas morning – every role is a gift! At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the colorful and chaotic cast of characters that reside at Footlights. The women are presented as catty, bickering and snarky. It’s a 3 ring circus of constant movement and dialogue as we see the strong personalities interact. A contentious dynamic is between Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) and Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick). Rogers is sublime as the tough, grounded, and razor-tongued spitfire that holds nothing back in slinging insults with Patrick’s superficial, untrustworthy Shaw.
This is Lucille Ball’s breakout role (as she claimed) that helped put her on the map as Judith the roomie on the continual lookout for a filler for a double date- and she does well in holding her own with the likes of this crew. Eve Arden as Eve is reliably hilarious with her sassy, dry wit. With her cat constantly in her lap or wrapped around her shoulders like a fur stole, she delivers some fab lines in classic Arden style. Usually when you see a large cast of distinct characters, several roles take a back seat to make room for the leads and oft the writing takes a hit, too. But not here. Just look at this phenomenal cast: Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Gail Patrick, Constance Collier, Andrea Leeds, Samuel S. Hinds, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, Jack Carson, Ann Miller, Phyllis Kennedy- and so many more!
Kate is simply marvelous. Katharine Hepburn stars as Terry Randall, the newbie introduced to the group that has difficulty fitting in. For good reason. Randall stands out as high society and classically educated which is in direct contrast to this jaded and joking group. Daddy’s millions and his personal objections to her ‘slumming’ mean nothing to her ambitions to become a true thespian. Terry bunks with street-wise Jean and their blue blood vs. blue collar pedigrees create sparks at the get-go. With no actual experience, it’s easy for Randall to advise her Depression-worn and hungry housemates on the merits of Shakespeare and taking their craft seriously. This doesn’t go over well.
But Randall takes several steps to eventually earn their respect. She makes moves to show her loyalty to her boarding housemates but often in sacrificial ways that goes unseen. And thanks to misunderstandings and miscommunication, when a tragedy occurs that shakes the entire house to its core, everyone firmly rallies against Terry just prior to her opening night debut, with Jean delivering the tragic news. It’s this horrific tragedy that turns Terry’s performance jitters into a passion that translates into an emotional performance of a lifetime. This metamorphis on stage along with a heartfelt and revealing speech, deeply and forever connects Terry Randall with her fellow Footlights Clubbers.
Hepburn’s performance is strong throughout but when she reacts to the house tragedy (I’m doing my best to avoid this spoiler) and gives the iconic “the callie lilies are in bloom again” emotional performance, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. I don’t mean just in the movie; I dare you to try to hold back the flood gates while watching this scene. Kate gives it her all here. It’s hard to imagine that she had to fight to get better billing and a more expanded role from the stage version due to her career going into a decline prior to filming. Shocking, right?
This is one of those rare “female films.” It’s still difficult to this day to find quality films that are female-focused. STAGE DOOR offers up a large cast, mostly made up of women that deliver great writing with solid performances. And the plot gets into the realistic (both the good and bad) dynamics that women face, from conflicts to supportive relationships. This story is essentially about women being ambitious with their careers and craft and following their dreams, in opposition to the men in their lives (often serving as either obstacles or generally non-supportive) who are also not their primary goal. Gee, what a crazy concept for a Hollywood film… made nearly eighty years ago!
The lines, the zingers… SNAP! The writing is sharp and it certainly helps when delivered by outstanding actors. Here are some of my faves:
Eve (Eve Arden): “A pleasant little foursome. I predict a hatchet murder before the night’s over.”
Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) [to Linda Shaw as she is leaving for a dinner date]: “Don’t chew the bones and give yourself away!”
Eve [after a dinner where Terry Randall has evidently spoken very eloquently about Shakespeare]: “Well, I don’t like to gossip, but that new gal seems to have an awful crush on Shakespeare!”
Susan (Peggy O’Donnell): (sarcastically) “I wouldn’t be surprised if they get married!”
Mary Lou (Margaret Early): (with genuine naiveté) “Oh, you’re foolin’! Shakespeare’s dead!”
Susan: (playing along and sarcastic) “No!”
Mary Lou: “Well, if he’s the same one that wrote ‘HAMLET’, he is!”
Eve: (delivered dry and playing along, too) “Never heard of it.”
Mary Lou: “Well, certainly you must have heard of ‘HAMLET’!”
Eve: “Well, I meet so many people.”
Terry: “I see that, in addition to your other charms, you have that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.”
Jean: “Hmm! Fancy clothes, fancy language and everything!”
Terry: “Unfortunately, I learned to speak English correctly.”
Jean: “That won’t be of much use to you here. We all talk pig latin.”
14 year old Ann Miller faked her way into this film. FOURTEEN?? That’s right, according to imbd, Ann Miller was a mere 14 years old when she made this film which she made possible by apparently faking her age documentation. I’m sure being tall with a unhealthy layer of make-up probably helped. But can you imagine holding your own, including hoofing it with Ginger Rogers who had been dancing with Fred Astaire for the past four years at this point, with the likes of this entire cast, at that age? Now that’s impressive.
Book me a room at the Footlights Club. The boarding house scenes reminded me of dorms or sororities in college, and made me jealous I didn’t experience that fun social mayhem as a non-traditional student. In my mind, college group dwelling should be exactly like this.
STAGE DOOR (1937) has a good dose of everything- heart, humor, tragedy, great writing, incredible performances from an outstanding cast. Mix in a Great Depression undertone and a ‘go girl power’ theme of empowerment, this is a great showcase not only for powerhouse talents of Kate Hepburn but everything this memorable film has to offer.
This piece was my contribution to the Great Katherine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by @MargaretPerryKH at MargaretPerry.org. Explore all the fabulous contributions on her site for the complete list.