The Women of 1937's Stage Door
A sharp-witted comedy-drama with a mostly female cast, Gregory La Cava's Stage Door tells the story of a group of aspiring actresses who live in the New York boardinghouse the Footlights Club as they struggle to make ends meet. Perhaps the most famous aspect of this film is the cast, which includes Adolphe Menjou, Jack Carson, Franklin Pangborn, and such fantastic actresses as Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, and more. Brimming with electric one-liners, touching tragedy, and superb performances, Stage Door is a lovingly complex illustration of female friendship and ambition.
Instead of doing a straight-forward review, I decided to try something a little different. Since this film is so well known for the illustrious women who star in it, the following is my personal ranking of the ladies of the Footlights Club. I tried to focus more on the characters than the actresses, but it is pretty remarkable how closely some of the women resemble who they are portraying. (Spoilers ahead, by the way!)
Look, I know Hattie is nice and all -- it is so sweet how she gives food to a malnourished Kay -- but... I can't stand her. I'm very easily annoyed and Hattie just pushes all my buttons with her off-key singing and whining tone. Sorry, Phyllis Kennedy!
9. Mary Lou, Ms. Orcutt, Olga, et al.
It probably isn't fair to rank these ladies so low, but they really aren't given enough to do for me to pass judgement. The proprietor of the boardinghouse, Ms. Orcutt, only pops up in two scenes, while the other gals are there to help fill out the cast and add to the camaraderie of the boarders. Olga, for example, turns out to be a pianist who pays the bills by working at the same dancing school Annie and Jean attend. Mary Lou, meanwhile, is a one-note character whose sole identity is "clueless Southern belle." And then there are the countless other boarders who never even get a name!
8. Anne Luther
An older thespian who spends her time reminiscing about her glory days, Constance Collier's Anne is almost like the cautionary tale of what the other women could become. She loves her craft more than anything else, which might explain why she doesn't seem that close to the rest of the boarders. While she does offer to help coach Katharine Hepburn's Terry, I get the feeling it is less an act of kindness and more a way to get back into the spotlight by riding on Terry's coattails. (Funnily enough, Collier was a real-life mentor to Hepburn, who cherished their friendship.)
In the end, we see that Anne's dedication to stardom has clouded her sense of humanity when she convinces Terry to perform despite her devastation over Kay's suicide. She argues that Terry would be honoring Kay's memory, which might be right, but then when Terry wants to leave immediately after the show to pay her respects to her departed friend, Anne doesn't understand how she could refuse the chance to be surrounded by the adoring public that will soon crowd her dressing room. I don't think Anne is a bad person exactly, but she is just a little too indifferent to others.
7. Linda Shaw
In my defense, it is Gail Patrick's fault that I don't like her character -- she was just too good at playing the sneering, haughty woman we love to hate. While most of the women talk about pounding the pavement, endlessly waiting in producers' offices, and failing to catch a break, Patrick's Linda tries to use the casting couch to her advantage by dating Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), a powerful, slimy producer with a little black book full of young women's names.
Linda is one tough cookie, though, as we see during her many sparring matches with Ginger Rogers's Jean. The irony is that both women are very much alike -- sarcastic, self-reliant, smart -- although they'd rather scratch your eyes out than admit it. However, there is an edge of cruelty to Linda that I find hard to take, which is why she is so low on my list.
I refuse to believe that Ann Miller was only fourteen when she made this film. Fourteen! Her trademark verve is evident here, as her character Annie snaps quips as easily as her chewing gum. She also has two brief dancing scenes with Ginger that aren't nearly as long as you wished they would be. With her great comedic timing, baby-faced Annie is a fun side character who definitely seems wise beyond her years. (Again: fourteen!)
5. Kay Hamilton
The heart of Stage Door, Kay (Andrea Leeds) reminds me of Melanie from Gone with the Wind, and it isn't just because of the last name. Noble, kind, and sensitive, she has a quiet strength that she can no longer hang on to as the film goes on. Despite being the gentlest and most talented of the women, Kay has endured more sorrow than all of them.
We get hints of her backstory from her conversations with others as she alludes to "someone [she] will never go back to" and the loss of or inability to have a child, which is why she feels so connected to and covets the star-making role that becomes Terry's. The blow of losing that role is personal, but also professional. The script tells us that Kay made a splash with a successful play over a year ago, and yet another job failed to materialize. With her money and her hope dwindling, Kay becomes weaker until she finally commits suicide in the film's most agonizing scene.
The death of Kay shatters the Footlights Club because she saw the best in each and every one of them. She reminded them to be kind to one another, pleading at one point, "Isn't there enough heartache in the theatre without our hating each other?" When Terry complains to her that the other boarders only seem interested in catty insults, her clear-eyed deduction explains it all: "They do make a lot of noise, but it's just to keep up their courage and hide their fears." In the end, Kay's death brings everyone closer and encourages them to accept Terry, who they finally see as the warm friend Kay knew her to be.
Swaggering around with a docile white cat around her neck, Eve is the kind of laidback, wisecracking goddess I wish I could be. It helps, of course, that she is played by the incredible Eve Arden. Eve (the character) really isn't given a backstory and she only functions as comedic relief, but, like all Arden characters, I just find her so damn irresistible. And I'm not even a cat person!
3. Judy Canfield
When you see Lucille Ball's performance in Stage Door, you have to wonder why the hell Hollywood had such a hard time figuring out how to make her a star. One of the earlier roles in her film career, it is obvious when watching Lucy's Judy Canfield that she had the charisma and the skill to be a major talent (as she would prove with I Love Lucy).
Sassy and good-hearted, Judy can toss off a one-liner like nobody's business but she also knows when to be sincere and drop her guard. As the sole boarder who is more concerned with men than finding a job -- when Olga complains that all they talk about is food and men, Judy remarks, "What else is there?" -- it feels right that she is the one to leave the Footlights Club in the last scene to get married. I can't help but feel for Judy every time she tears up saying goodbye. The boardinghouse and the friendships it brought her have been such an important chapter in her life, and now she must start a new one all on her own. I have no doubt, though, that Judy can take care of herself just fine.
2. Jean Maitland
Witty. Scrappy. Loyal. Prickly. Jean has a lot of layers, as Ginger Rogers so beautifully embodies. Although she has a hard shell, the women know there is a gooey center to Jean. "You bark a lot, but you don't bite," Terry accurately comments during one of their tiffs, while Annie marvels to the others, "She tries harder to hate people than anyone I know." (I can relate to this more than I want to admit.) For Jean, to fight is to survive, but she reveals her vulnerabilities in time, such as her giddiness when she lands a nightclub job and her heartbreak over Kay's death. By the last scene, she is still the same girl we have come to know and love, but there is a softness to her, too, as if she has taken to heart the way Kay lived her life with understanding and generosity.
1. Terry Randall
It isn't hard to see the parallels between Terry and the actress playing her. Both are outsiders who believe that acting is just common sense and hard work is everything. An heiress who wants to do something meaningful with her life, Terry's privilege is as plain as the nose on her face, as is her naiveté about the theatre. Unlike the rest of the boarders, she hasn't experienced their hard knocks and therefore can't comprehend their cynicism.
Despite being seen as a snob and a clueless amateur, Terry sincerely likes and cares for the other women, even thought it takes them much longer to warm up to her. She pays for Kay's doctor when she becomes ill and protects Jean from turning into Powell's latest victim, all of which she does in secret. Fierce, clever, and driven, Terry shows what it means to be a great friend and a good person. The Footlights Club gals teach her many lessons, but she teaches them quite a few things, too.
This is my entry to the Third Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by myself and Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check out the other contributions here!