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.
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?
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 Divorcement, Christopher 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)