TERRY RANDALL: I see that, in addition to your other charms, you have that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall” and Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland” in Stage Door (1937)
JEAN MAITLAND: Hmm! Fancy clothes, fancy language and everything!
TERRY: Unfortunately, I learned to speak English correctly.
JEAN: That won’t be much of use to you here. We all talk pig latin.
This is just one example of the snappy dialogue present in the 1937 RKO classic, Stage Door. MGM’s 1939 classic, The Women, is held-up as the ultimate women’s picture, mostly because of the all-female cast and it’s spectacular script full of witty one liners and innuendo. While The Women is great, I much prefer Stage Door, despite including men in the cast in addition to the spectacular female cast. The cast is more appealing to me, the story is more interesting and frankly, the film is shorter which makes it a lot more compelling. It is my opinion that The Women runs a little long and could stand some editing. But I digress. This blog entry is not about The Women, it is about Stage Door.
Stage Door, directed by Gregory La Cava, was released on October 8, 1937. As a big Lucille Ball fan, this film is notable for being Lucy’s big break and was her first decent supporting role in an A-list production–and you can’t get much more A-list than co-starring in a film with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. In addition to Lucille Ball, this film also features Eve Arden and a 14 (!) year old Ann Miller. It is hard to believe that Ann is only a child in this film, she carries herself as a much older woman and more than holds her own dancing alongside Rogers in the film. Arden is awesome because she spends much of the film with a cat wrapped around her shoulders. Gail Patrick (playing a similar character to her “Cornelia” in My Man Godfrey) and Andrea Leeds also lend support as other women in the boarding house. Adolphe Menjou co-stars as producer Anthony Powell who is acquainted with the young women at the club and to whom the women look to for roles in upcoming productions. Look for a young Jack Carson as Judy’s lumberjack beau, Mr. Milbanks.
Stage Door starts with a raucous, chaotic scene inside the Footlights Club all-female boarding house. The inhabitants of the boarding house are all aspiring Broadway performers, mostly acting, but some dancing as well. Because it’s the Great Depression and because breaking into Broadway is definitely not a sure thing, the women are struggling to survive and make ends meet. One of the boarders, Linda Shaw (Patrick) doesn’t seem to be starving, and it’s implied that she’s a kept woman–often being “kept” by Powell. We see Jean Maitland (Rogers) and Linda arguing over Linda’s borrowing Jean’s stockings without asking. Then, Judy Canfield (Ball) is observed asking Jean if she’d like to double date. Eve (Arden) walks around with a cat draped around her shoulders. The boarding house maid, Hattie (Phyllis Kennedy), contributes to the cacophony by poorly warbling some indistinguishable tune. An aging experienced actress, Ann Luther (Constance Collier), dispenses advice. Later she’ll guide Terry in her performance in her big break.
The noisy scene comes to a halt when a new boarder, Terry Randall (Hepburn), enters the Footlights Club looking for accomodations. It is apparent from the get-go that Terry is not in the same destitute situation as the other women in the club. She has money. She is interested in pursuing theater as a lark, not because she has a passion for the performing arts. Her obvious advantage makes her an instant adversary to the other women, especially Jean. According to Stage Door, Kay Hamilton (Leeds) is the best actress in the club. Kay is desperate to land the lead in Powell’s upcoming play, Enchanted April. Despite being the Footlights Club’s best actress, I find Andrea Leeds to be the weakest part of the film. I think her scenes are too saccharine and frankly, Kay comes off as pathetic. I can see why Terry is getting roles over her.
The main conflict of Stage Door comes when Terry breaks the status quo and barges into Powell’s office to demand to know why he refuses to see any of her fellow colleagues, despite their trying day after day to audition. Terry eventually ends up winning the coveted role in Enchanted April, making her the persona non grata at the Footlights Club. Hepburn’s solo scene at the end of the film when she recites the famous “the calla lilies are in bloom again…” speech is heart wrenching and one of the highlights of an otherwise dialogue-heavy film. Hepburn and Rogers are fantastic as the sparring roommates, a situation not too far removed from real life. Apparently, Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers did not get along. I would probably chalk it up to personality differences and probably a professional rivalry at RKO. Lucille Ball and Eve Arden are fantastic as the sarcastic roommates and it’s easy to see why the two women eventually became huge stars.
I love the ending of this film. After a very tragic and tense third act, Terry gives the performance of her life. Much of her performance is inspired by her friendship with Kay and how much Terry knew that Kay wanted the role. While dialogue indicates that Terry is not delivering the correct dialogue for her opening monologue, it is forgiven because she is properly evoking the mood the author intended. Terry demonstrates that she is intuitive and is an actress. At the behest of Ann, Terry goes on stage despite being distraught–“the show must go on,” as we all know. Terry is forgiven by her roommates, presumably because of her heart-wrenching performance in Enchanted April. She finally wins approval of her roommates who no longer see her as someone who is just slumming it in their boarding house as a form of entertainment. Terry has demonstrated that she has the passion and skill to be an actress on the stage. At the end of the film, Terry is shown throwing out sarcastic barbs alongside her former foe, Jean. A new starry-eyed boarder moves into the boarding house and Terry is right alongside the other women, ready to welcome the newbie into the fold.
Despite the presence of the hugely talented cast, the star of this film is the dialogue. It must have been quite a undertaking for the cast to remember all their lines.
(After Terry has spoken at length and eloquently about Shakespeare)Eve Arden as “Eve,” Peggy O’Donnell as “Susan,” Margaret Early as “Mary Lou” in Stage Door (1937)
EVE: Well, I don’t like to gossip, but that new gal seems to have an awful crush on Shakespeare!
SUSAN: I wouldn’t be surprised if they got married!
MARY LOU: Oh, you’re foolin’! Shakespeare is dead!
MARY LOU: Well, if he’s the same one who wrote ‘Hamlet,’ he is!
EVE: Never heard of it.
MARY LOU: Well, certainly you must have heard of “Hamlet” !
EVE: Well, I meet so many people.
JEAN MAITLAND: (yelling) OH LINDA!Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland” and Gail Patrick as “Linda Shaw” in Stage Door (1937)
LINDA SHAW: Maybe if you spoke a little LOUDER next time, everyone in the whole HOUSE could hear you.
JEAN: Oh I’m sorry, I forgot you’re old and deaf.
JEAN MAITLAND: Do you mind if I ask a personal question?Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland” and Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall” in Stage Door (1937)
TERRY RANDALL: Another one?
JEAN: Are those trunks full of bodies?
TERRY: Just those, but I don’t intend to unpack them.
JEAN MAITLAND: In some ways, you’re not such a bad egg.Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland” and Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall” in Stage Door (1937)
TERRY RANDALL: As eggs go, I probably have my points.
KAY HAMILTON: It’s (her birthday cake) so beautiful, I hate to cut it.Andrea Leeds as “Kay Hamilton,” Lucille Ball as “Judy Canfield,” Phyllis Kennedy as “Hattie,” Gail Patrick as “Linda Shaw,” and Constance Collier as “Ann Luther,” in Stage Door (1937).
JUDY CANFIELD: It’s one of Hattie’s cakes. Maybe you can’t cut it.
HATTIE: I resent that!
LINDA SHAW: Be careful you don’t drop it on your foot.
ANN LUTHER: Girls, I have the most wonderful news!
JUDY: Maybe the house is on fire.
EVE: I’ll never put my trust in males againEve Arden as “Eve,” Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall,” Ginger Rogers as “Jean Maitland,” in Stage Door (1937).
TERRY RANDALL: What happened to Eve?
JEAN MAITLAND: She’s brokenhearted. Henry’s in a cat hospital.
TERRY: An accident?
JEAN: He just had a litter of kittens.
TERRY: Well that’s easy to solve. Change his name to Henrietta.
TERRY RANDALL (in her play): The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.Katharine Hepburn as “Terry Randall” in Stage Door (1937)