I taped Stage Door on a whim with little knowledge of what it was about short of starring Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn. In just a short time I’ve grown to love Hepburn and am slowly becoming a huge fan of Rogers. Both actresses have had films appear on this blog from Hepburn’s turn in Bringing Up Baby and Rogers’ role in Monkey Business. Either way Stage Door literally knocked it out of the park. I’ve already been interested in seeing more of Hepburn’s work but now I’m planning on adding more of Ginger Rogers’ films (maybe even those Fred Astaire dance movies). As a film, Stage Door is witty, charming, and a lot of other fun words you’ll read in the review. In short, any movie starring a pre-Lucy Lucille Ball is worth seeking out now!
The film follows a group of aspiring actresses all living in a boardinghouse. When snooty “theater” girl Terry Randall (Katherine Hepburn) arrives, she butts heads with the cynical Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers). The various other girls all have their own stories but each dreams of stardom.
There’s so much to love about Stage Door! Having not seen it and going off the basics, it struck me as a cattier, more star-struck version of The Women. I’m sure that has a lot to do with the female ensemble cast. What director Gregory La Cava does best is expertly handle every other woman’s story while making the overarching narrative surround Terry and Jean; even then the story seems to be more Hepburn’s than Rogers’ despite both women getting side-by-side billing. When all the girls assemble in the common room of the boardinghouse, their dialogue all improvised, is where the audience gathers all they need to know about each of the other female characters. They all dream of stardom but each face their own unique challenges, a great example is Judith (Lucille Ball) reading a letter from her mother “lots of love and can you spare fifty bucks?” And even though they aren’t the stars of the film you feel as if every story is completed by the end.
Much of this has to do with the script penned by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller. The girls all sound genuine, they don’t talk above their years, and in the scenes where they’re all together the dialogue is rapid-fire. The group all talk over themselves making you truly pay attention to every word or risk missing some great one-liners. Some of the dialogue is pretty frank for 1937 and comes courtesy of Ms. Rogers. She spends the majority of the film’s opening to declaring her enemy, Gail Patrick’s cold Linda Shaw, a slut. Every line Rogers says to her is dripping with disdain and punctuated with “by the way you’re easy” (I’m paraphrasing). Compliments of that rapid dialogue most of it sails over the less discerning audience members’ heads.
That leads me to discussing Ginger’s character Jean. I adored Ginger in this movie and for all those expecting some awesome moves…Ginger only has one dance sequence and it’s pretty short. I mentioned in my review of Monkey Business how great Ginger was at playing a tomboy, well it seems she excels at playing a hardened character in general. In short: Ginger’s character is a bitch; but not in a rude way (although she does threaten to slap Linda in the face so go figure on that one). Sure she spars with Linda but that’s because Linda looks down at everyone because she’s got the favor of producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou) so you expect Jean to be mean to her. When Linda goes on a date with Anthony, Jean is performing on-stage and takes to poking Linda with her prop. It’s petty and funny but Jean is proving to Linda that not even her stares can break her confidence. When we first meet Jean she’s yelling at Linda for taking her clothes. She threatens “next time you can buy your own stockings or go barelegged and where you go it doesn’t make a difference.” Wow Jean, tell her how you REALLY feel!
Jean ultimately comes off as a character incapable of keeping her thoughts to herself. She ALWAYS has to speak her mind, and because of that she unintentionally hurts people. There’s a moment where she’s supposed to double-date with Judith. Jean finds the guy boring and openly starts making fun of him; the guy is such an idiot he doesn’t know he’s being made fun of but Judith does and tries to make Jean stop to no avail. This is the moment where the audience realizes that Jean isn’t bad, she’s just not good at following the adage “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” That makes for a lot of humor but at a certain point the humor stops being funny like when Jean turns on Terry.
Hepburn is pure delight as Terry. You assume she’s going to be a pain in the ass as she struts in and expects her own room or that she’ll be the outcast. Sure she’s upper crust and snotty with a roomful of trunks, furs, and the expectation that Jean will give her half the wardrobe but her confidence just oozes out of her. Terry is the only other character able to spar verbally with Jean and that leads to a lot of fun conversations that are like verbal tennis. On top of that the film presents the dichotomy in the acting world as Terry wants to be an actress “under the right circumstances” and refuses to sleep her way to the top. She’s of the old school of classical acting and the “thea-tar” as opposed to the rapid-fire sex verbiage of the other girls who are willing to do anything to get ahead, “comics” as Terry calls them. It’s an interesting route to take as the standards of comedy were changing around this time and even today there’s a level of “classiness” associated with stage actors vs. film actors.
Terry is also the one loyal member of the group, willing to sacrifice her own character for the sake of her friends. When she goes to meet Powell, himself wanting to cast her in a play, she interrogates him about his relationship with Jean. She doesn’t worry about her career at all during their conversation even though he’s the man everyone wants to get a meeting with. The character of Kay (Andrea Leeds) is an example. Kay desperately wants a part in the play Enchanted April and throughout the film she’s constantly rebuffed by Powell. When she finally gets a meeting with him he again abandons her causing her to faint. Of course Terry doesn’t take kindly and storms into Powell’s office and screams at him, again sacrificing her career! Hell, even after Terry’s phenomenal stage performance she doesn’t take credit but instead gives a touching tribute to Kay. Katherine’s stage debut in the film is presented here:
One has to discuss Lucille Ball as Judith in this movie. Ball attributed Stage Door as the film that propelled her to stardom and even if you didn’t know her, she’s magnetic in a brief role. Judith is sarcastic and sweet and at certain moments you can see the physical comedy that Ball would become famous for with her fast-talking and her constant need to move her hands around. I haven’t even discussed the equally great performances by Constance Collier and Eve Arden.
Stage Door was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Andrea Leeds as Kay. The film is worthy of the accolades as I’ve hopefully explained. Stage Door is a witty, and heartfelt story of fame, success, and the broken dreams that come with it. The female cast is astounding, especially Hepburn, Rogers, and Ball! Glad I taped it!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.