Perhaps Katharine Hepburn’s most famous lines, taken from a failed play in which she played the lead in 1933. Stage Door follows aspiring actresses into the world of grease paint and heartache. One actress tries to find success through important connections (Gail Patrick), another wants to go about it through hard work and persistence even though she begins to fall short (Ginger Rogers), still another had success and her star has already fallen after one great run (Andrea Leads). We are to follow one aspiring actress specifically, one who has never worked in the theatre, who seems to have the world as her oyster and who has the confidence to pull strings, but is short on talent and the heartbreak to allow her to give a mature performance (Katharine Hepburn).
Hepburn delivers the calla lilies lines with so much heart and sensitivity it really feels like she broke out of the Hepburn mold and has become Terry Randall channeling the character of Kay Hamilton. On occasion, especially in her earlier films, Katharine Hepburn was melodramatic and disconnected from her roles a bit. This was Hepburn’s only bright spot of the mid-thirties as far as the critics were concerned prior to 1940 with The Philadelphia Story. Most of her successful films had a balance of lightness in large doses to the melodrama. It’s clear from Stage Door that she could carry a film if she didn’t take herself too seriously.
Hepburn is not the center of Stage Door, however. The ensemble cast includes a 14 -year-old-who-forged-her-age-as-17- year-old Ann Miller, the on-top-of-her-game Lucille Ball, the always amusing Eve Arden, Adolph Menjou as the producer who sets everything a-flurry, a very young Jack Carson who was just getting his start in films in minor roles (he had 14 film credits in 1937–most uncredited), Gail Patrick who I always think of in her role in My Favorite Wife, Andrea Leeds who is wonderful in the role of Kay, and finally the one and only one that shares the title billing with Katharine Hepburn–Miss Ginger Rogers.
Ginger Rogers was every ounce more the star than everyone else in the film and yet she doesn’t take it as her own. She delivers wise-cracks like no other. It was not exactly the first film where she played the wise-cracking dame looking for success, but Stage Door did showcase her talents as a comedienne and led to more screwball comedy roles like Carefree. It’s also a little bit meatier than the roles she played against Fred Astaire–more of an emotional range for her to play and she does seem to go through the gambit of emotions. She’s at her best in locked battles of wits, but her performance clearly delivers the level of sophistication for the top billing.
Incidentally, quite a bit of the dialogue that takes place between the tenets of the Footlights Club was ad-libbed. It was a brilliant choice to make, because it adds more depth to the film than canned dialogue would. You really feel like you’re in the midst of what goes on outside of the theater and rehearsal halls. It gels the relationships between the girls and heightens emotions in the scenes to come.
As one of the girls, Eve Arden adds to the color of the film by engaging in snuggles with the love of her life–a cat she lovingly calls Henry. She dangles Henry around her neck as if he were sable. It’s beautiful. Though Arden’s role is limited, all she has to do is be present in a scene to make it amusing–the beauty of her delivery being the monotone delivery of her lines. Stage Door marked her fourth screen appearance. She appeared in Song of Love when she was just sixteen years old. Arden a long break from film until appearing uncredited in Dancing Lady. She had a plummier role in Oh Doctor, which was the fuel which led her to be cast in Stage Door.
This film also tackles social issues like wealth and security. Katharine Hepburn’s character ‘comes from the so-called upper class and Ginger’s the lower.’ Much like The Philadelphia Story and Holiday there’s this moral struggle in the female lead over whether or not you should do what you want to in life rather doing what society dictates is your place. The beautiful thing is that the character has a choice, the problem is that in each of these films the dominant male figure tries to sabotage and take control of what form this choice comes in.
There’s an even darker element involved with Kay Hamilton–the star of last year who is unable to get another lead role. I won’t give things away, but her role is the emotional hinge that the film turns on, it’s the heart of the film and Andrea Leads lends great depth to the character’s inner turmoil, aided by the music and periodic voices. She delivered the Calla Lilies to Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall. The hand-off of the role and the torch is tear-inducing and appropriate to the energy that builds from the climax of the film.
If you’ve never seen Stage Door, you must find a copy immediately, because it’s a film that shouldn’t be missing from your collection. The ensemble cast and stellar performances make this film, though sometimes a weighty emotional roller coaster, one that you’ll want to watch many times over.