Director, Gregory LaCava; Screenplay, Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller; Producer Pandro S. Berman (RKO); Cinematography, Robert De Grasse; Original Music, Roy Webb; Editor, William Hamilton; Art Direction, Van Nest Polglase; Costume Design, Muriel King
Cast: Katherine Hepburn (Terry Randall), Ginger Rogers (Jean Maitland), Adolphe Menjou (Anthony Powell), Gail Patrick (Linda Shaw), Andrea Leeds (Kay Hamilton), Constance Collier (Miss Luther), Lucille Ball (Judith), Eve Arden (Eve), Phyllis Kennedy (Hattie), Ann Miller (Annie), Margaret Early (Mary Lou)
Something we largely lost in the movies after World War II was the presence of strong, independent female roles. They didn’t disappear completely, but they became rarer than in the days when any given week you could see Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins, Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, Irene Dunne, Marlene Dietrich, and Ginger Rogers dominate a film. Some of these women continued playing strong roles after World War II, but most of them faded away into obscurity or irrelevance. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis successfully rebranded themselves as middle aged firebrands, ignoring Hollywood’s strictures against older leading women, but that came after burps in both of their careers. Barbara Stanwyck continued as well, but usually in lower budget pictures like San Fuller’s Forty Guns (a wonderfully campy 1957 Western in which she plays a ruthless ranching baron who directs forty gunmen – all suggestively male – to carry out her dirty work). Only Katherine Hepburn (and maybe Rosalind Russell) transitioned their pre-war, pre-feminist independent personas seamlessly.
One of the best – if not the best – of the pre-war empowered women movies is Stage Door, an alternately funny and moving picture about the trials of a group of young women trying to make it onto the New York stage. Set in a theatrical boarding house, the mostly unemployed women spend a lot of time making cynical cracks about the world, how the odds are stacked against them, and lamenting the difficulty in getting to see a producer, let alone getting a job. Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) is one of the hardest and most cynical of the bunch, regularly butting heads with snooty Linda (Gail Patrick). Jean isn’t bitter because Linda has money, but because Linda is “dating” theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou) for her favors. Linda doesn’t fit Jean’s definition of a working girl. She’s taking a shortcut to success.
The rivalry between Jean and Linda doesn’t disrupt the raucous harmony of the house. The verbal jousting between the two fits right into the chaotic, but good natured spirit of the house. The arrival of acting newcomer Terry Randall (Katherine Hepburn), however, does. Randall clearly has money; most assume she also has an older sponsor, though they don’t know she comes from a rich family, intent on making a name for herself on the stage without the help of her family name. Jean is immediately hostile to the new roommate foisted upon her, but Terry takes all the jabs in stride. She is amused by Jean’s hostility and sees someone who just can’t bring herself to care about another roommate who probably won’t be around in six months.
There are many other characters populating the house, from the wise (Eve Arden and Lucille Ball) to the hopelessly naïve (Margaret Early), all tirelessly looking for that break that will catapult them to stardom on Broadway – or at least bounce them into a job of some kind, stardom or not. One young girl is something of a rarity in the group: Kaye (Andrea Leeds) has already starred in a show and received rave reviews, but now, more than a year later, struggles to overcome her freshman blues and prove she wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Kaye is desperate to get a part in a play being produced by Linda’s sponsor Anthony Powell. She knows the character backwards and forwards. The role would put her back on the stage with positive reviews almost guaranteed and, perhaps more importantly, regular meals in her stomach.
It is the struggle over this play and the lead female role in particular that drives the rest of the picture. While Kaye pines away, Terry Randall bulldozes her way to success despite her obvious lack of acting ability. (She claims acting is about intelligence, which anyone who knows about acting will tell you, kills performances.) Her brash outlook and outspoken nature lands her on the bad side of many of the girls, but when she inexplicably gets the part, Kaye is devastated and the women line up to take sides, leading to a shocking climax that forces Terry to question her entire outlook on life, Jean to question her views of Terry, and the rest of the women to question their professional goals. Some change, some don’t, but all are a little wiser.
The men in the movie are almost afterthoughts. They arrive to pick up one of the women for dates, but they float away, as though they are aware of their irrelevance to these women’s lives. Their life is the stage, even though few of them are working. The most important male character, producer Anthony Powell, is a leech. He uses his position to woo and seduce young women with promises of success which he more often than not leaves unfulfilled. (We never hear of Linda, his most consistent female companion, getting any work through him, though this doesn’t seem to bother her.) This is a movie about women, but for us all – in some ways a more universal version of George Cukor’s The Women. Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers show us that women were never tightly contained in domesticated boxes; they worked and played like any man, though the dangers and difficulties were different.
Stage Door is a fast paced, fun, and, at times, tear-jerking film. Director Gregory LaCava expertly balances the comedy with the drama without ever tipping over into melodrama. The dialogue is refreshingly naturalistic, allegedly modeled after the real life banter of the actresses behind the scenes. And, in a style that would be perfected by Preston Sturges in the next few years, several conversations are conducted at the same time, keeping our ears alert for the gags as the lines overlap. This strategy informs us that we aren’t watching just another cookie-cutter movie, but an ambitious treat that sets out to make us laugh, think, groan, and, eventually, cry. That it succeeds on all counts is a triumph, making this an instant classic. That three films beat this one out for the top spots should tell us what a strong year 1937 was.