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« Scream Queens, Rusicals, and Snatch Games | Main | Next on Hit Me: You Can't Stop This Letter to Pocahontas! »
Wednesday
Mar262014

A Year With Kate: Stage Door (1937)

Episode 13 of 52 wherein Anne Marie screens all of Katharine Hepburn's films in chronological order.

In which we've finally made it to the good stuff, so let's celebrate with Katharine Hepburn vs Ginger Rogers in a battle of the stars.

Hallelujah! Katharine Hepburn has arrived! From the ashes of Quality Street she rises, patrician and perfect. After 12 weeks of inconsistent performances, to suddenly be confronted with Kate in all her Mid-Atlantic, New England-born, iron spined, pants-wearing glory is a downright religious experience. And lo, Katharine Hepburn did star in a Kaufman and Ferber adaptation, and it was good.

Stage Door is the limelight dramedy of a gaggle of Broadway hopefuls living at the fictional Footlights Club in New York. The original play was an ensemble piece, but director Gregory La Cava and writer Morrie Ryskind remade the the movie in the image of its stars. Ginger Rogers, then between musical blockbusters, stars as Jean Maitland, a cynical chorine who falls for a slimy producer (Adolph Menjou). Kate is Terry Randall, a rich New England girl who decides to make it in showbiz. Rounding out the cast are Eve Arden, Gail Patrick, Lucille Ball, baby-faced Ann Miller, and Andrea Leeds, whose bland Olivia de Havilland knock off somehow landed her an Oscar nomination, and therefore a mention here.

Catfights and calla lilies after the jump

If ever anyone declares that typecasting is a menace to good acting, point them to this movie. Rogers and Hepburn both play strongly to type, and the result is comedic chemistry. By 1937, Rogers had established herself as a comedienne quick with a quip or a caper. Hepburn’s career had no such firm establishment (as we at TFE have learned lo these many painful weeks), but her haughty offscreen persona was splashed across every tabloid in the country thanks to her whirlwind romance with aviator Howard Hughes. So, take one sassy comedienne, one saucy debutante, tell each that she is the lead, and then let the catfight begin:

I could listen to them argue all day, couldn’t you? This is the perfect odd couple pairing: Jean is a slob, Terry’s a snob, and their bickering makes them better. Truth and fiction differ here, though. Unlike the catfight I manufactured earlier between Bette and Kate, rumors persisted that Rogers and Hepburn actually did fight. Howard Hughes had briefly dated both ladies in 1936. Then, though Ginger had the box office draw, Kate was allowed to walk away with the last half of the picture and nab top billing. Ginger may have won the argument in this scene, but she lost the war.

More unexpected than that, though, is the revelation that Stage Door is the progenitor the famous Katharine Hepburn onscreen persona. It starts as a caricature of Kate’s poor public image, played lightly to humanize her. Remember this line? 

This is the best line to practice your Katharine Hepburn impression.

The play Terry almost bombs is the play Kate actually did bomb in 1934 - The Lake. In Stage Door, Kate gets the chance to rewrite her own history and reinvent herself. As Terry Randall, all of the puzzle pieces click into place - the tomboyish willfulness of Jo March, the stylish grace of Lady Cynthia, the unapologetic ambition of Eva Lovelace, acting skill honed in Alice Adams, and the well-manicured Mid Atlantic accent that could only come from years of self-discipline. In terms of star image, Stage Door is a proto-The Philadelphia Story, offsetting snobbery with silliness, but still just lacking the extra something that would catapult Kate into superstardom in 1940.

Could that extra something be Cary Grant? We have three movies to find out. I'm so happy I could cry!

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels, Quality Street

Next Week: Bringing Up Baby - In which there is a leopard on your roof and it's my leopard and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing! (Available on Amazon Prime)

 

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Reader Comments (15)

Praise be! This is a great write-up, but I confess I'm already counting down til we get to talk about Bringing Up Baby. SO EXCITEDDDDD

March 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

It's funny you call Andrea Leeds a de Havilland knock off. She auditioned for Gone with the Wind for Melanie! There is video of her screen test somewhere on youtube with others. She is actually good but it is amazing who else they thought to cast (Lana Turner or Scarlett?)

March 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertom

that argument is so deeply pleasureable - haha. thanks for the clip. I dont know what it is but I always forget how enjoyable Ginger Rogers is onscreen inbetween watches. Love this movie.

March 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Knowing this was coming up I rewatched the film and Kate & Ginger are aces both together and separately. You can almost see the two of them trying to one up each other as they lock horns which adds a great deal to the film but for once the script is good enough that they aren't necessarily indispensible to the picture. In most of the other films leading up to this when Kate's off the screen the pictures flatten out and you're waiting for her to reappear. This one is so packed with dynamite actresses, and Adolphe Menjou, there is something to enjoy every minute of the film. There are so many great small performances that it's impossible to choose an MVP in support, Eve Arden, Lucy, Constance Collier, Ann Miller and Gail Patrick each steal their individual scenes but then Kate or Ginger show up and take it right back. A great ensemble.

I have to dissent about Andrea Leeds performance, I don't know if it was nomination worthy but I found it affecting. She does resemble Olivia de Havilland but she has a more bruised quality to her persona than the delicate but indomitable vibe Olivia exuded even at her most vulnerable, she would never be a jumper.

Having read the play they reworked the source material a great deal minimizing Kate's part and changing Ginger's radically, actually they changed it so much that George S. Kaufman who wrote the original with Edna Ferber cracked they should have called this version Screen Door.
I always wondered if it was LaCava's idea to have Kate sport Margaret Sullavan's signature bob in the picture as a sort of bow to the stage production. The great Sullavan had originated the role on Broadway. Of course it might have only been changing trends, the late thirties were when most women were growing out their hair from the severe marcelled styles of the depression years to those elaborate sky high forties creations.

There definitely was a rivalry between Hepburn and Rogers. It seems that Ginger was something of a bitch, haughty and imperious to a degree that even Kate found hard to take. I read that Kate laid in wait on one occasion and dropped water balloons on a fur coat wearing Ginger as she come out of the studio's main office building.

She wasn't the only one either. It seems that former chorine Ginger once she hit the big time treated the rest of the cast like serfs and Betty Grable, who had been a supporting player in a few Astaire/Rogers pictures, never forgave her. Years later after attending a performance of Hello, Dolly starring Rogers Betty left while Ginger was doing an elaborate introduction of her ultimately ending with the spotlight shining on empty seats and egg on Ginger's face.

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I love these essays, even when I haven't seen the movie. But I've seen this one! And it made me a Ginger fan (I was already a fan of Ms. Hepburn). Keep 'em coming...

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

I don't think a person could call themselves an actressexual and not know this movie off by heart.

Meantime, I hate to go all TMZ (by way of classic Hollywood nerdism), but could the tension between the two women have stemmed in part from the fact that Rogers was a Republican (I'm pretty sure) and Hepburn of course a flaming liberal?

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Goran - I don't know what the origins of their mutual enmity may have been, but I'm sure their radically different political views didn't help. It seems to have been a case of Lead Actress Ego as much as anything. The rumors sound a lot like the reports of bad behavior on the set of The Women two years later.

joel6 - I was actually props master of a production of the play Stage Door a few years back, and I was shocked at how different the movie is. Both Hepburn's and Rogers's parts are completely rewritten. As much as I love the Kaufman "Screen Door" dig, I think in this case the rewrites fit the movie very well. The play wouldn't have worked as-written onscreen, and not just because of its not-so-subtle Broadway vs Hollywood subplot.
That being said, while we're on the subjects of rewritten Kaufman plays, the changed ending of You Can't Take It With You is the worst, and I will never forgive Frank Capra for it.

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Also, considering the ease of access and mega-classic status of Bringing Up Baby, I hope some folks can join me in watching it between now and next Wednesday!

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Anne Marie, I am enjoying your witty and informative write-ups so much. I am learning so much about Kate and am starting to see how she grew into such a fascinating star. I haven't seen all of Stage Door, but this article makes me want to see it again.

I also appreciate how your deep admiration for Hepburn doesn't compromise your brutal honesty about her failures. I'm not sure I could be so objective about my beloved Bette. So hats off to you.

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I will watch Stage Door any time it comes onscreen. I've probably seen it half a dozen times. I think it was the first movie to really capture Kate in the way we know her now. Aware of her privileges and not apologizing for them. A combo of determination with occasional cracks in the confidence.

I also think that Stage Door was the first one to capture Kate's "look" in the right way. The loose hair, the thin and fit body, the pants and simple dresses.

It's interesting to know about Kate having a bit of a feud with Ginger. That makes the 1940 Oscar battle even more poignant. Here's a question - did Kate always not go to the Oscar ceremony or did it start somewhere? And if it did, could it be the 1940 race that made her give up on them?

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

bringing up baby is probably my favorite Hepburn performance so i will definitely try to watch it again before wednesday

March 27, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Anne Marie, did you ever read the Garson Kanin's Hepburn/Tracy memoir? Apologies for the backlinking but it features one of my favourite "memories" (you never know with Garson) of the era with a few ladies of the era (Rogers, Ball, Stanwyck) talking about Kate circa STAGE DOOR.

http://encorentertainmnt.blogspot.com/2010/05/conversation-piece.html

Anyhow,

I love Kate in this. I think the entire cast is uniformly excellent. When was the last film that had such a wide range of female actors doing good work? Shame those are so rare.

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrewK

AndrewK - thank you for that link! I have the Kanin book, but I confess I haven't had time to crack it open yet. Now I *have* to check it out.

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

andrew k -- well that's why people obsess on the Hours so much too.

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Ginger starts off promisingly, but Kate steals the show in the end w her touching monologue.
Its strange that neither o them get nom in best actress. maybe they crossed ea other out?

IMO, Gregory Lacava shld've won best director rather than Leo McCarey. The Awful Truth is classy & breezy but Stage Door is more fun & bitchy!

August 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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