Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees tells us that the calla lilies are in bloom again.
Terry: It would be a terrific innovation if you could get your minds
to stretch a little further than the next wisecrack.
One of the best comedies to come out of the 1930s was also one of the best melodramas. Loosely—very loosely—based on the hit stage play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, Stage Door reunited director Gregory La Cava with his writer from My Man Godfrey, Morrie Ryskind, and the film captures a lot of the whirlwind spirit of that classic screwball comedy. At the same time, though, there's a sense of down-to-earth realism in the depiction of these struggling actresses' lives that gives the story real impact.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's start with a few basic details:
Katharine Hepburn. Ginger Rogers. Adolphe Menjou. Lucille Ball. Ann Miller. Eve Arden.
With that cast, everything else is like icing. And what a lot of icing there is.
Facts of the Case
The Footlights Club is a haven for poor young women trying to storm the world of the theater. There's spunky hoofer Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers, Swing Time), who valiantly practices her tap routine with her partner, Annie (Ann Miller, On the Town), even without any job prospects in sight. There's gentle actress Kay Thompson (Andrea Leeds), who had a hit a year ago but hasn't worked since. Seattle girl Judy (Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy) dates boorish lumbermen so that at least she'll have a decent meal from time to time, and dry-witted Eve (Eve Arden, Cover Girl) wears the club cat draped around her neck as if to take the place of the fur she'll probably never be able to afford. The only club resident who knows what it's like to wear real fur is sleek, superior Linda (Gail Patrick, My Man Godfrey), who has become the latest protégée of powerful theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou, Roxie Hart).
Into this hard-luck world strides Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn, Bringing Up Baby), whose expensive wardrobe and high-class manner immediately raise the hackles of Jean and her friends. Terry, it seems, has never acted before, but she's serenely confident that she can learn. What the denizens of the Footlights Club don't know is that she's an heiress who's determined to strike out on her own rather than living off the fortune her grandfather built. All they know is that she's a pain—especially to Jean, who's stuck sharing a room with her.
Then Jean gets a lucky break: She catches the eye of Powell, who transfers his affections—and his connections—from Linda to her. Thanks to Powell, Jean soon has a dancing gig and develops a taste for champagne and pheasant. But Terry, too, has attracted Powell's interest, and he courts her to play the lead in his upcoming play—the same role that fragile Kay so desperately wants, although Terry doesn't know it. As both romantic and artistic entanglements ensue, Terry and Jean learn that in the world of the theater, the real drama takes place offstage.
From the beginning, Stage Door stands apart from other comedies of its day. It sounds different. The dialogue isn't just batted back and forth between two speakers as in a tennis game; it's like Quidditch, with bludgers and Golden Snitches all flying around at once, and lots of players involved. The overlapping and even simultaneous dialogue prefigures His Girl Friday, but with a difference: These voices are all female. From the moment we enter the Footlights Club, we are immersed in the world of women, and the snap, crackle, pop of their conversation. The distinctive sound of their talk was no accident: Casting for many of the supporting actresses was done by ear, and the dialogue borrowed from on-set conversation among the actresses themselves. The result, as film scholar James Harvey aptly puts it, "is like going to wisecrack heaven." One of the first things we learn from listening to these characters is that they may be poor, struggling, and practically desperate, but by golly, they have sass.
There's a serious struggle going on beneath the banter, though, and the film doesn't shy away from showing it. The Footlights Club, with its shabby furniture and the electric sign that flashes into the room Terry shares with Jean, isn't glamorized. Neither are the hopeful actresses: Their everyday clothes aren't the chic costumes we usually see on film actresses of the '30s, and many wear slacks, a decidedly casual choice for the era. The centrality of the residential setting in which so much of the crucial action takes place carries echoes of the hit drama Grand Hotel, as do the circular structure of the film and the melodramatic turn the story takes near the end. (Lucille Ball's character even makes what seems to be an inside joke about this resemblance, since at the start of the film she tells someone over the phone, "At the Footlights Club, nothing exciting ever happens here"—surely a deliberate nod to Grand Hotel's opening scene and famous tag line.) The melodrama is a necessary underpinning to the comedy, since it shows how high the stakes truly are for women like Jean and Kay, women who can rely only on themselves to scratch a living out of the world of the theater. At the same time, only Kay seems to feel painfully the near impossibility of breaking into the career they've all chosen. The rest seem to have accepted it, with degrees of toughness varying according to the individual, and internalized it. They don't drift tragically about, despairing of ever making it. They crack wise. But the constant threat of failure and poverty gives purpose and importance to their constant tough-girl talk. Kay tells Terry that they "make a lot of noise" to hide their fear and to give themselves courage. It seems at first a sentimental interpretation of her fellow actresses, but it's not far from the truth. It's just that these women are no longer conscious of wisecracking for a particular reason—it has become a part of who they are. Kay herself hasn't developed that defense mechanism, which may be part of the reason Jean ranks her as the best actress at the club.
The other female character who doesn't know (at least initially) how to wisecrack is, of course, Terry Randall, played by Katharine Hepburn in one of her most natural and winning performances. Before her films with Spencer Tracy started putting her through ritual onscreen humiliation, even before her big comeback in The Philadelphia Story—a film whose main purpose seemed to be to allow Hepburn to apologize for being Hepburn—Stage Door could be said to have started the process of "humanizing" the actress. Her role as Terry captures what a lot of audience members at the time must have thought of Hepburn herself (to judge by the label of "box office poison" that affixed itself to her soon after), with her high-class diction, her wealth, her supremely self-confident, even arrogant bearing. The scene in which Terry is rehearsing for her play and driving everyone into fits of exasperation—the director, the playwright, her fellow actors—seems to be a sly dig at Hepburn herself, as if the film is saying, if you guys in the audience think she's hard to take, imagine how those of us feel who have to work with her. How, then, to surmount this chasm between the thoroughbred actress and the common man in the audience?
That's the function (for Terry) of the relationship with Jean. Like Claudette Colbert's character in It Happened One Night, Terry has to learn about the lives of those less privileged than she is, and learn to relate to them, in order to become a real heroine. The education she gains through knowing Jean is different from the onscreen humbling Hepburn would receive in later films, though. Here, she doesn't have to undergo a fundamental change; she just has to have the edges knocked off. It also becomes quickly apparent that Terry has a lot of good qualities: her honesty, her sense of fair play, her intelligence, and her kindness. Jean Maitland and the other wary young Footlighters—like the audience—must simply learn to look beyond their own prejudices to see them. In this respect the treatment of Hepburn onscreen is more insightful and more satisfying than that of many of her later films.
Jean too is arrogant, but with the arrogance of a hard-working hoofer who has had to fight for everything and resents Terry's privileges. And like Terry, over the course of their rocky acquaintance Jean gains greater understanding and insight. As Jean, Ginger Rogers more than holds her own opposite the Great Kate; she has a streetwise edge that gives her performance real punch, and her line delivery zings. The way these two characters come to understand and appreciate each other is one of the most important developments of the film, and it makes Stage Door unique in its genre: As critic Elizabeth Kendall so perceptively notes in her book The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s, in many ways their relationship is structured like that of the leads a romantic comedy, except that here the leads are both women. The growth of Terry and Jean's relationship from animosity to respect and liking follows the classic pattern established by romantic comedies like It Happened One Night, creating a positive portrayal of female friendship that's unusual to see in a Hollywood film. Even the triangle with Anthony Powell doesn't undermine their friendship permanently—and the way it develops is actually proof of Terry's protective instinct toward Jean. ("I think you need a governess," she informs Jean at one point, and then takes it upon herself to fill that position.)
This friendship is emblematic of the whole atmosphere of solidarity and mutual support among the actresses that makes Stage Door stand out from other '30s films with female ensembles. Sure, the occasional catfight breaks out between Jean and Linda, the resident bitch, but on the whole this group of women shows a sense of comradeship that's quite unusual. Even Linda truly belongs at the Footlights Club: When her own liaison with Powell has gone south, we see her relaxed and at ease among the Footlights women—even wisecracking, which is surely the acid test of belonging. This kind of comradeship is a refreshing change from the common film depiction of female "friends" who are secretly ready to stab each other in the back, especially when a man enters the picture.
And what of the male figure whose presence is so prominent in this world of women? Anthony Powell seems to hold everything these young women want: career opportunities, glamour, material comforts, and romance. He recognizes that the vulnerability of these young women makes them susceptible to the allure of the good things he offers them, so these starving young actresses provide him with a steady supply of beautiful young girlfriends. Despite that exploitative quality, it's hard to dislike Powell; along with his tried-and-true seduction routine, Adolphe Menjou endows him with a sense of mischief that softens his self-importance, and he becomes more sympathetic over the course of the story. Nevertheless, it's hard to see him making himself vulnerable enough to fall deeply in love. Which perhaps explains…ah, but that would be saying too much. Suffice it to say that the resolution of the Jean-Powell-Terry triangle is surprising and unconventional—something else that makes this film stand out.
Stage Door receives a respectable transfer on this disc, if not a stellar one. The mono audio is clear and strong, with little distortion. Visual quality is not all that I had hoped; some early scenes are quite busy with grain, and there are instances of film damage. Nevertheless, the image is pretty clean, with a decently low level of speckling, and the grain decreases as the film progresses. It's certainly an improvement in reduced dirt and speckling over the version I recorded off cable some years ago. In fact, I'm curious to know what source was used for this transfer, since it differs from the broadcast version I'm familiar with in one interesting respect: A brief montage toward the end of the movie is substantially different from the one in my taped copy. I can't describe the difference without giving a big spoiler, but I can say that the DVD version of the montage was quite surprising and introduced a new tone along with the new images. It made me very curious about the origin of the different print I've been watching all these years.
The main extra, the Lux Radio Theater adaptation from 1939, features Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou reprising their roles, but Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) takes Hepburn's role as Terry Randall. It's an enjoyable and largely faithful adaptation of the film, and Rosalind Russell does a fine job in Hepburn's role; I found it particularly interesting to note the slightly different shadings she gave the character of Terry. A more surprising casting decision was to put Eve Arden in the role of bitchy Linda, but she actually does such a good job that I didn't recognize Arden, despite her distinctive voice, until late in the program. I also appreciated learning a little bit about the origin of the real-life Footlights Club. The other extras are the film's theatrical trailer and a 22-minute musical short from 1937, "Ups and Downs," in which a very young and platinum-haired June Allyson (The Benny Goodman Story) plays a business mogul's daughter who falls in love with a tap-dancing elevator boy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If ever a film cried out for a commentary or a making-of featurette, this one does. The many trial rewrites the plot went through (some of them potentially disastrous); the seat-of-the-pants construction of the eventual screenplay; the inside jokes that dot the film; the impact of the film on the careers of such young actresses as Ann Miller (still a teenager at this time) and Ginger Rogers, who was trying to establish a career for herself outside of the Astaire-Rogers films; the parallels and differences between Hepburn's role in this film and her turn as a stagestruck kid involved with Adolphe Menjou in Morning Glory—all of these warrant discussion, and none is forthcoming here. The story of the filming of Stage Door is almost as full of twists and drama as the film itself, but you'd never know it from the packaging. Warner Bros. gets a raspberry for not bringing in a film scholar to provide a commentary track that would fill in some of this information. I've noticed that they don't usually provide commentaries for their classic releases, but I think it's time to start.
It's also beginning to grate on me that when Warner Bros. includes vintage radio adaptations on DVD, there's no way to navigate within them—no pausing, no fast-forwarding or rewinding. It's not very convenient. Just a dash to the refrigerator or an unexpected phone call can throw a wrench into the experience, making you have to go back to the very beginning and start all over. I'm delighted to have these radio programs available, make no mistake, but I wish that they were offered with a little more thought for the listener's convenience.
Despite these weaknesses in the area of extras, any lover of classic movies should add this disc to their collection, posthaste. There's so much more to this great dramedy than hearing Hepburn give her famous line "The calla lilies are in bloom again." Fans of Ginger Rogers's nonmusical work will be overjoyed to see one of her best performances come to DVD, and it's also a great chance to see future stars like Lucille Ball and Ann Miller when they were still young and hungry. (Literally, if the tales of the Footlights Club's dreadful food are to be believed.)
The women of the Footlights Club are free to go—and may they break a leg.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Ups and Downs" Musical Short
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