Which picture did Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller all appear in together? It was the funny and touching 1937 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s and George S. Kaufman’s Broadway success about a bunch of struggling actresses in a New York women’s boarding club, STAGE DOOR (available on DVD). Directed with a discreet and delicate touch by Gregory LaCava (whose Carole Lombard-William Powell classic, My Man Godfrey, had come out the previous year), this comedy-drama–remember those?–has boundless energy and charm, thanks mainly to his sure hand and the superb ensemble performances he inspires from a once-in-a-lifetime cast. Critics of the period praised the script by veterans Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller as being an improvement on the original play, and although time has somewhat dated a couple of plot points, the overall work still has affecting contemporary relevance and resonance in its look both at women and their place in show business. Seen today, it isn’t surprising the film received four major Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for lovely Andrea Leeds, who carries the picture’s most dramatic aspects.
Ms. Hepburn had already, four years earlier, won an Academy Award for playing an aspiring stage actress in the now fairly creaky Morning Glory, so it’s a tribute to her unselfish artistry that she would take a generically similar role in such a group effort. She gives Stage Door its greatest solidity in an unmannered, self-effacing performance as the newcomer to the “Footlights Club,” secretly an heiress whose millionaire father (Samuel S. Hinds) strongly disapproves of her theater ambitions. The lengths to which he goes (a bit farfetched) to prove her a failure makes him definitively unlikable, although in fact all of the men come off badly here. The smooth Broadway entrepreneur and incorrigible lothario, deftly done by Adolphe Menjou, is the most blatantly despicable, while the other guys who appear briefly in the story–Jack Carson, Franklin Pangborn and Grady Sutton play them–are either sycophants or boobs.
But then it’s the women’s picture from beginning to end, and what a kick to see them, all so young and yet so fully realized. Ginger Rogers is the wisecracking hoofer–she does a few quick but tantalizing turns dancing with Ann Miller–and is effectively restrained in her dramatic moments. Ms. Miller, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden had their first really sizable screen roles here and they each have total authority and instantly recognizable personas on which they would play variations for the rest of their long careers. Equally effective are veterans Gail Patrick (as the cool, sophisticated lady) and Constance Collier (as the ultra-theatrical stage doyenne).
The movie’s most famous (and often impersonated line) is Ms. Hepburn’s opening speech for the character in a play she ends up doing: “The calla lilies are in bloom again,” which she does stiffly and by rote until life teaches her a tragic lesson and then she acts it with tremulous, poignant emotion. However, the essential theme of the whole picture is summed up awfully well in another line Kate Hepburn virtually throws away right before the end. Talking to Ginger, she says, “We’re probably a different race of people.” In context, this seems to be meant as referring to showbiz folk, especially actresses, but it could just as easily be interpreted as an intriguingly ambiguous comment on women in general.