Fuck All About Eve. The real masterpiece about women and theater is Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door, a film which casts Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and many other RKO women of the era as out-of-work actresses in a theatrical boarding house called The Footlights Club. Excitingly feminist, marked by the Depression, and obsessed by the sound of women talking, yelping, singing and generally whooping it up, Stage Door, though well-loved by many, has never garnered a big reputation, probably because La Cava himself has been overlooked in studies of major directors of the period.
Like Leo McCarey, La Cava didn’t like to stick to a script, and he took his improvisational methods radically far in Stage Door. For two weeks, he had his actresses rehearse on the Footlights Club set, and he engaged a stenographer to take down what they said during breaks. This loose chat was then incorporated into the film (Arden often took the lines no one else would touch). La Cava had no use for the source material, an anti-Hollywood play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber which preached the superiority of the legitimate theater, and so he started from scratch and used what he had: his one-of-a-kind cast.
Stage Door is the defining film about the 1930s working girl. However, the women who lounge around the Footlights Club don’t do all that much working, which means that money is always tight. When snooty Linda (Gail Patrick) sweeps into the main room in the opening scene, Rogers’s Jean Maitland marches in and peels the silk stockings right off her legs. “I didn’t go without lunch to buy you stockings,” she says, and when Linda calls her a “little hoyden” and a “guttersnipe,” Jean gives her a shove. The other girls watch this catfight jubilantly, throwing out the first of an endless series of bright remarks.
As James Harvey points out in his book Romantic Comedy, it isn’t what they say that is important but the way that they sound. The sound design of Stage Door and its overall aural chaos is enough to make your head spin, with overlapping dialogue that might throw even Robert Altman. It’s as if these girls are terrified of silence, and if someone isn’t pitching in a one-liner, another girl will laugh, sing, or simply throw out a nonsense noise. Harvey says that watching Stage Door is like “going to wisecrack heaven.” Hell, it’s a wisecrack symphony. And Stage Door is a truly democratic movie: every girl gets a shot at a crack, not just the stars.
When Hepburn’s stage-struck heiress Terry Randall enters the club, everyone regards her suspiciously (just as flighty Hepburn herself was usually an iffy proposition for audiences). Terry is a serious, lyrical type, and the girls immediately think that she’s a rich phony who will never fit into their world of wised-up badinage. Jean zeroes in on her and lets off one zinger after another, continually getting laughs from the girls. “Evidently you’re a very amusing person,” says Terry, arrogant yet vulnerable.
When the owner of the club, Mrs. Orcutt (Elizabeth Dunne), shows Terry around and tells her about her own theatrical career, she is cut off by down-on-her-luck Grande dame Catherine Luther (Constance Collier). “Mrs. Orcutt played with all the stars,” says Miss Luther, leading Terry away. “She supported me in lots of my shows, didn’t you dear?” La Cava gives Mrs. Orcutt a memorable close-up in response, a wounded, nearly servile look at Miss Luther that speaks volumes about their relationship and about the eternal relationship between stars and supporting players, a line of demarcation that Stage Door itself erases.
“Don’t you ever take anything seriously?” high-minded Hepburn asks the girls after dinner. “After you’ve sat around for a year trying to get a job, you won’t take anything seriously either,” says Lucille Ball’s Judy. Ball’s line readings are swift and sour, but she’s wet behind the ears compared to the great Arden, who has a white cat draped over her shoulders for most of the film. The inflections Arden gives to her oddball lines are sometimes quite stupefying and certainly inimitable. When Hepburn asks if she may continue discussing Shakespeare, the way Arden says, “No, go right ahead, I won’t take my sleeping pill tonight,” enshrines her as the Queen of Sarcasm.
Though Hepburn eventually emerges as the star of the movie, Rogers is the touchstone of its style. Her Jean Maitland is guarded, touchy and extremely anti-social. When powerful producer Anthony Powell (ratty Adolphe Menjou), sees Jean trying out a dance routine with her pal Ann Miller, he stares at her legs and asks her what she’s doing. “We’re just getting over the DT’s,” Jean snaps, and taps away from him. When Jean warily goes to his penthouse, she gets very drunk indeed. He tells her that her name will soon be in bright lights on a big sign. “It’s got to be big enough to keep people away,” says Jean, in her most revealing remark.
Stage Door has a rather conventional tragic heroine, desperate Kaye Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), a sweet-faced type who loses the part she needs to Terry. Leeds can be a bit too much, but La Cava handles her suicide superbly. As she walks up a staircase, La Cava takes the chattering women sounds that we’ve been hearing all through the movie and begins to distort them. This white noise dissolves into opening night well wishes, and then vociferous applause. As Kaye walks past the camera to her death, La Cava cuts to a girl singing downstairs: “Just give me a sailboat, in the moonlight, and you….” and then there’s a scream: another girl has found Kaye, dead. This sequence shows La Cava’s talent for counterpoint, and it makes what could him been hokey into something visceral and moving.
In rehearsals for Powell’s show Enchanted April (based on Hepburn’s 1934 Broadway flop The Lake), Terry is stiff and defensively unemotional (a take-off on Hepburn’s amateurishness when she first started out). Talking to an apoplectic Powell, Miss Luther wonders, in the film’s funniest line, “Could you possibly see an older woman in the part?” But on opening night, Terry, not so much cold as inexperienced, is transformed by the news of Kaye’s death. Terry becomes an actress, and, more importantly, she finally wins the love of the girls at the club. This is a classic Hepburn role, and La Cava understands what works for her, just as he knew better than anyone else how to handle the problematic Rogers.
In the end, there are no men to fall back on for these women (though Judy does get married). They’re tough, and they ridicule each other mercilessly, but they’re in this together. Kaye’s death doesn’t keep them teary-eyed for long, but in the last scene, the girls’ frivolous talk has a gravitas that it didn’t have before. La Cava shows that life goes on, and even repeats itself, as a new girl shows up at the club. She might be a new Terry, or perhaps a new Kaye. For these girls, the food will always be bad, the Depression will never be over, and men are their last option. If you listen closely to Stage Door—and some have made a religion of it—you might be surprised to find that underneath the wisecracks and snarky camaraderie of these extraordinary women lies the wintry humor of Samuel Beckett.