skip navigation
Stage Door

Stage Door(1937)

Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (2)

DVDs from TCM Shop

Stage Door Women at a theatrical boarding... MORE > $14.36 Regularly $17.99 Buy Now


powered by AFI

teaser Stage Door (1937)


Terry Randall, daughter of a wealthy Midwest businessman, goes against her father's wishes to pursue a career in the theater. Although she can afford better, she rents a shared room in a boarding house for young women hoping to break into show business. Her roommate, Jean, is a sassy blonde dancer who, like most of the other girls in the house, doesn't think much of Terry's high-toned speech and superior attitude. Terry, in turn, thinks their banter and sarcasm prevent them from being serious about pursuing their careers. Only sweet, sensitive Kay seems to have made any real inroads into a life as a serious actress. Once a promising newcomer, Kay now struggles to survive. Terry's father pays a callous, womanizing producer to give Terry a leading role so she'll fail miserably in public and come back home, but it turns out to be the role Kay was hoping to get, leading to tragic circumstances that teach Terry, and all the girls, important lessons about acting and friendship.

Director: Gregory La Cava

Producer: Pandro S. Berman

Screenplay: Morrie Ryskind, Anthony Veiller, based on the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman

Cinematography: Robert De Grasse

Editing: William Hamilton

Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase

Original Music: Roy Webb (uncredited)

Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Terry Randall), Ginger Rogers (Jean Maitland), Adolphe Menjou (Anthony Powell), Gail Patrick (Linda Shaw), Constance Collier (Miss Luther), Andrea Leeds (Kay Hamilton).
Why STAGE DOOR is Essential

One of the most sparkling, entertaining movies to come out of a decade known for films full of witty repartee and fast-paced character interaction, Stage Door also has a justly deserved high reputation as a film about women--their relationships with each other being more important and real than anything going on with men.

RKO took a gamble pairing its two biggest female stars-- Katharine Hepburn, a dramatic actress whose career was on the decline and Ginger Rogers, half of the studio's hit musical team--in a picture that required both sharp comic timing and serious dramatic skills. Using a personal antagonism that existed between them to inform their on-screen verbal duels, the two proved themselves to be more than up to the task. Hepburn displayed an appeal that had dimmed over the course of a handful of unpopular roles and garnered her best reviews in years, while Rogers wowed the critics with her acting skills instead of her dancing talent (although the story was tailored to give her at least a few minutes of hoofing for good measure). It was not quite the turnaround Hepburn needed (that would come later at another studio), but Rogers's career was given a big boost that finally got her greater opportunities and recognition as more than just Fred Astaire's partner.

What really makes Stage Door work, however, and what makes it hold up through the years, is not just a double star turn. With a large cast of unknowns, second-stringers, and expert character actresses, this is ensemble work at its finest. Director Gregory La Cava's off-the-cuff, improvisational methods may have given producers and studio executives a bad case of nerves, but it worked to keep the story crackling and moving briskly. A few years before Howard Hawks's much-lauded use of rapid overlapping dialogue in His Girl Friday (1940) and decades before Robert Altman turned it into his trademark style, La Cava and company created a symphony of wisecracks, laughter, bursts of song and incidental sounds that had a greater impact than mere comic shtick. It also limned a portrait of ambitious, struggling, cynical yet hopeful young women trying to keep their spirits up and the wolf from the door, sometimes at odds with each other but ultimately all in it together.

As if all that weren't enough to land Stage Door a spot in cinema history, there is another remarkable feat. The script was adapted from a hit play by two of the leading lights of American letters at this time, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. RKO bought the screen rights for a considerable sum, then blithely threw most of it away, keeping only the basic premise and bare sketches of the main characters. What came from the efforts of La Cava and writers Anthony Veiller and Morrie Ryskind (a noted scripter for the Marx Brothers), boosted by dialogue taken down from an improvising cast, was something highly unusual for Hollywood--a film widely acknowledged to be head and shoulders above its original source material.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Stage Door (1937)

The play in which Katharine Hepburn as Terry Randall has her triumph (after a disastrous rehearsal) is a parody of The Lake, the 1933 stage flop Hepburn starred in, inspiring Dorothy Parker's memorable review: "Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." By the time she made Stage Door, Hepburn was confident enough to send up her poor performance in the play as her character walks stiffly through rehearsals. Hepburn later said La Cava's decision to use The Lake as the play in which her character makes her debut "was a brilliant idea because it allowed me to take my most miserable moment in the theater and turn it into something fun." The famous line, "The calla lilies are in bloom again," was supposedly lifted directly from the play. It became forever after the bit of dialogue Hepburn imitators and spoofers used, in her trademark Bryn Mawr accent, of course.

In the 1956 episode of I Love Lucy, in which Lucy Ricardo appears briefly (and disastrously) in an Italian movie, Lucille Ball ribbed her Stage Door colleague with the famous line, "The calla lilies are in bloom again."

In Stage Door , the name of the play Hepburn appears in is "Enchanted April," but bears no relation to the 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim or the 1992 film and 2003 play based on it.

"Lux Radio Theater" broadcast a shortened version of Stage Door on February 20, 1939, with Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou reprising their screen roles and Rosalind Russell stepping in to Hepburn's role. Eve Arden also returned but in a different part, playing Linda, Rogers's nemesis and rival for the affections of Menjou.

Adolphe Menjou and Katharine Hepburn appeared together previously in another play about the world of theater, Morning Glory (1933). As in Stage Door, she played an ambitious young actress and he a powerful producer. Hepburn won the first of her four Academy Awards for that film.

The ending of Stage Door, in which, after tragedy and triumph a new young actress arrives to begin the cycle all over again, is highly reminiscent of that other acclaimed comedy-drama of life in the theater, All About Eve (1950).

Adolphe Menjou and Andrea Leeds returned to the Broadway milieu of Stage Door a short time later as an aging actor trying to make a comeback and his aspiring actress daughter in Letter of Introduction (1938).

Katharine Hepburn played herself in the similarly named but unrelated Stage Door Canteen (1943), a celebrity-filled story set in New York City's famed club for soldiers.

Ginger Rogers guest-starred as herself in a 1971 episode of Lucille Ball's TV series Here's Lucy. In the story, star-struck Lucy practically stalks Ginger, who is finally talked into dancing a Charleston with her. As she leaves Lucy's home (upon retrieving a lost purse Lucy has found), she begs Lucy to "become a Katharine Hepburn fan."

The Rehearsal Club, the Manhattan rooming house for young actresses that inspired Stage Door, was in operation from 1913 to 1979. Carol Burnett wrote about her time there in her book This Time Together (Harmony House, 2010).

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Stage Door (1937)

The inside buzz about Stage Door was high, even while the picture was still in production. Hollywood correspondents visiting the set noted the film would be "the talk of the movie universe," and praised Gregory La Cava for presenting a new Katharine Hepburn whose inspired work would erase the memories of the "flat, mechanical performances" she had turned in of late. Predictions were also favorable for Ginger Rogers's career outside of Fred Astaire's spotlight. Observers also noted that La Cava was creating a new star in Andrea Leeds and revealing a new young comedienne in Lucille Ball.

Reportedly, the cast of Stage Door was delighted with the finished product, for the most part. Hepburn said later she cried with laughter when she saw the movie. According to one Lucille Ball biography, however, the young comedienne was glum and silent, unimpressed by her own performance.

Stage Door premiered at Radio City Music Hall on October 7, 1937. It was financially successful (some reports said a gross of $2 million; others claimed a mere $81,000 in profits), but certainly not the box office goldmine the studio expected, especially in light of its cost (nearly a million). Industry analysts put the blame for the low profits on Hepburn, whose career at RKO was steadily declining thanks to a string of unsuccessful pictures before this one.

According to Katharine Hepburn biographer Barbara Leaming, the actress lost the chance to play the lead in Stage Door on Broadway because her agent and reputed companion Leland Hayward was jealous of her relationship with director John Ford and did not push her for the role. It went to Margaret Sullavan, who married Hayward a month after the show opened, already pregnant with their first child Brooke.

According to Katharine Hepburn, she was initially billed second to Rogers, but preview cards were so enthusiastic about her performance, the studio gave her top billing. In the film's credits and posters on its initial release, Hepburn gets first billing, albeit side-by-side with Ginger Rogers. In the 1953 re-release poster Hepburn's name is on top but in trailers for the re-issue, Rogers name comes first. In 1937, Lucille Ball was billed eighth, but in 1953 she was already nearly two years into the run of her landmark television sitcom I Love Lucy, so she was given fourth billing, just below Adolphe Menjou.

In some prints of the movie (particularly those shown on TV), the shot of Kay's grave is missing from the montage about Terry's meteoric rise to success.

"They should have called it 'Screen Door.'" - George S. Kaufman, co-author of the play the film was based on, noting how the new script removed all of the play's diatribes against Hollywood.

Largely forgotten and under-rated today, Gregory La Cava was a hard-drinking, rebellious craftsman (and close friend of W.C. Fields) who got on well with and earned the trust and respect of actors, turning out some interesting 1930s comedies with an eye to thorny social conditions and quirky personal relationships. Although known for throwing out the script and improvising (and giving his casts new pages right before rolling the cameras), he worked well with writer Morrie Ryskind. The screenwriter, who penned La Cava's best comedy, My Man Godfrey (1936), loosely adapted the latter into another Ginger Rogers vehicle a few years later, Fifth Avenue Girl (1939). La Cava also directed Rogers in a somewhat class-conscious romance, Primrose Path (1940). La Cava started as a cartoonist in the earliest days of cinema around World War I, moved to feature directing in the 1920s, and remained fairly prolific through the Depression years. In the 1940s, whether through excessive drinking or being at loggerheads with studio execs, his output dropped to only four films in eight years, with nothing at all between 1942 and his last picture, the minor Gene Kelly musical Living in a Big Way (1947). He died of a heart attack in 1952, just short of his 60th birthday.

Katharine Hepburn really needed a big hit when she made Stage Door. After bursting on the movie scene in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and winning her first Academy Award as a stage-struck young actress in her third film, Morning Glory (1933), her films at RKO began to slide in popularity and quality. Little Women (1933), with her friend and favorite director, George Cukor, was a critical and commercial success, and today Alice Adams (1935) is considered a high-point in her career (and the second of twelve Oscar® nominations), but a subsequent series of costume pictures found no favor with public or critics. Stage Door was hailed for bringing back the fresh, pleasingly different Hepburn audiences had once responded so well to, but when it failed to garner as much box office as expected, she took much of the blame. Her next two pictures are now classics: the supreme screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) and the eccentric romantic comedy Holiday (1938), both with Cary Grant, but they were not box office hits, and by 1939 she was considered washed up in Hollywood. She left RKO and went back to the New York stage where she had a huge success in The Philadelphia Story, a play written specifically for her. When MGM wanted the screen rights to the Broadway hit, they found Hepburn had a substantial stake in them, so they had to cast her in what would become one of the most remarkable comebacks of all time. Released in 1940, The Philadelphia Story restored Hepburn to her place as one of the top stars and most respected actors of her time.

Ginger Rogers' persistence in bugging the RKO front office for pictures outside her dance partnership with Fred Astaire paid off handsomely with her role in Stage Door. Her three movies previous to this had all been musicals with Astaire. After the success of Stage Door, she went into two more well-received comedies, Vivacious Lady (1938), opposite James Stewart, and Having Wonderful Time (1938), a highly bowdlerized adaptation of another hit Broadway play. It co-starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and reunited Ginger with Stage Door players Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Grady Sutton, and Ann Miller. Only then did she return to her dance partner for Carefree (1938) and their final RKO film together The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). Although she occasionally danced briefly in subsequent films, she didn't make another musical until Lady in the Dark (1944), preferring to concentrate on comedies and dramas such as Kitty Foyle (1940), for which she won an Academy Award. Rogers was reunited with Fred Astaire (as a replacement for Judy Garland) at MGM in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), her last feature film musical. In that, she played a Broadway musical comedy star who longs to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress.

Stage Door also boosted the career of Lucille Ball. In films since her bit role debut in the Wallace Beery drama The Bowery (1933), she languished for several years in uncredited bits and smaller roles, often in B pictures. After Stage Door, she renegotiated her contract with RKO and got more money ($125 a week), better parts, and higher billing. Despite good notices in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and The Big Street (1942) opposite Henry Fonda, her film career never catapulted her to A status. It took television to assure her place as one of the greatest stars with her landmark 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy.

Ball later noted about her co-star Eve Arden, "Eve and I competed for years, but it all started with Stage Door, where we both flounced around tossing out acid remarks. Later on, we'd be cast as a lady executive or the proverbial 'other woman.' They were the same roles, actually. You'd walk through a room, drop a smart remark and exit. They called us 'the drop-gag girls.' I didn't dig it at all, for in such parts you lose your femininity."

Ann Miller was only 14 years old when she made this movie, working under a falsified birth record, but could play older because of her height (5' 8"). She later admitted, "Lucille Ball and Ginger Rogers stuck by me and upheld my fake age and fake birth certificate so the studio would keep me under contract." She had been given a contract at RKO largely on the recommendation of Lucille Ball, who had seen her dancing in a nightclub while in San Francisco to promote Don't Tell the Wife (1937), Ball's movie just prior to Stage Door.

Andrea Leeds was a promising young actress in movies since 1933. Her supporting actress nomination for Stage Door was a good career boost, and she was considered for the part of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), which went to Olivia de Havilland. She ended up making only seven more pictures in the three years following Stage Door and retired from the screen after marrying a wealthy horse breeder.

The two biggest female stars at RKO almost worked together previous to this. When Katharine Hepburn was getting set to play the title role in Mary of Scotland (1936), Ginger Rogers lobbied heavily to make a cameo appearance as Mary Queen of Scots's nemesis, Elizabeth I of England. She even tested for the role in heavy disguise. One story says Hepburn wasn't immediately aware she was testing with Rogers and became furious when she found out. There are stills in existence showing Rogers in costume, and supposedly silent test footage that catches Hepburn kicking her rival in the shins. At any rate, Rogers didn't get the part.

Frances Reid, who played the matriarch of the Horton clan on the long-running soap opera Days of Our Lives from 1965 to 2009, has a bit role in Stage Door.

Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou appeared together again in Roxie Hart (1942), a comedy from the same source material as the Academy Award-winner Chicago (2002). Rogers played the title role and Menjou her slick lawyer Billy Flynn. They also worked together in Heartbeat (1946). Both were staunch right-wing Republicans and vocal supporters of the Hollywood blacklist.

Memorable Quotes from STAGE DOOR

JUDY (Lucille Ball): Do you want a date?
JEAN (Ginger Rogers): To some other lumberman?
JUDY: Am I supposed to apologize for being born in Seattle?
JEAN: Well, the last couple we went stepping with were made of lumber. Especially their feet.
JUDY: All right, all right, you can stay here and gorge yourself on lamb stew again.

JEAN: What's the matter, is the show closing?
SUSAN (Peggy O'Donnell): Like a tired clam.

TERRY (Katharine Hepburn): How many doors are there to this place?
JEAN: Well, there's the trap door, the humidor, and the cuspidor. How many doors would you like?
TERRY: Evidently you're a very amusing person.

TERRY: I see that, in addition to your other charms, you have that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.
JEAN: Hmm! Fancy clothes, fancy language and everything!
TERRY: Unfortunately, I learned to speak English correctly.
JEAN: That won't be of much use to you here. We all talk pig Latin.

MARY LOU (Margaret Early): Certainly you must have heard of Hamlet!
EVE (Eve Arden): Well, I meet so many people.

TERRY: It'd be a terrific innovation if you could get your minds stretched a little further than the next wisecrack.

EVE: A pleasant little foursome. I predict a hatchet murder before the night's over.

JEAN: We got off on the wrong foot. Let's stay that way.

ANTHONY POWELL (Adolphe Menjou): You girls rehearsing for a musical?
JEAN: No, we're just getting over the DTs.

JEAN: Wish I'd been born lucky, instead of beautiful and hungry.

JEAN: Hey, you're not gonna catch the opening night tonight, huh?
EVE: No, I'm going tomorrow and catch the closing.

TERRY: The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day, and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.

TERRY: The person you should be applauding died a few hours ago, a young and brilliant actress who could no longer find a spot in the theater. And it was for her more than anyone else that I was able to go on. And I hope that wherever she is, she knows and understands and forgives.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Stage Door (1937)

In the heyday of Broadway, there were many theatrical boarding houses where young actresses could find safe, reliable, and relatively inexpensive room and board while they pursued their careers. Legend has it that a social worker visiting a sick actress found a pistol by the young woman's bed. When asked why, the actress explained that she needed it because the neighborhood was so dangerous but was the only place she could afford. The social worker decided then and there to change all that and provide a safe haven for young stage hopefuls. That may or may not have been the origin myth of any of these clubs (and it's not clear which one was founded first). What is known for certain is that the most famous of these, Rehearsal Club, was founded in 1913 by Jean "Daisy" Greer, daughter of New York's Episcopal bishop, and deaconess Jane Harris Hall on West 46th Street in the heart of the city's theater district. When its residency swelled beyond capacity in 1920, the club relocated first to West 45th and a few years later to two brownstones on West 53rd purchased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and donated to the club. It remained there until financial difficulties forced its closing in 1979.

Author Edna Ferber had a niece, Janet Fox, a young actress who piqued the older woman's interest in the lives of women with dreams of success on stage. Ferber decided to write a play about them and went to the Rehearsal Club for atmosphere and research, turning it into the fictional Footlights Club. She and fellow Algonquin Round Table wit George S. Kaufman collaborated on the script, and Stage Door opened at the Music Box Theatre on October 22, 1936, with Margaret Sullavan in the lead as Terry Randall, Phyllis Brooks as Jean Maitland, and Frances Fuller as Kay Hamilton. The play enjoyed a sell-out run through March 1937 when Sullavan's pregnancy forced her to leave the show.

The original story bears only a passing resemblance to the one that made it to the screen. Kaufman and Ferber used their vehicle as a diatribe against Hollywood, a place where they believed no serious actress would ever consider working, and had their characters say as much, repeatedly. Oddly, the play was reportedly financed at least in part by MGM.

By the time the play closed, RKO had already purchased the screen rights for $125,000. (There is no indication of why MGM didn't make a film of the play it may have financed.) Margaret Sullavan would have been chosen to recreate her role but for her pregnancy. RKO decided to turn it into a vehicle for its two biggest female stars, Katharine Hepburn as Terry and Ginger Rogers as Jean. Although both were important contract players at the studio, the casting was still risky. Hepburn's popularity had dropped considerably after a string of unpopular roles, many of them in period pictures, and Rogers was an unknown quantity in terms of her acting ability and familiar to moviegoers primarily for her dance partnership with Fred Astaire.

In the original play, Terry suffers all manner of setbacks but sticks to her guns and becomes a legitimate actress while roommate Jean goes to Hollywood and squanders whatever talent she had. RKO brought in two writers to refashion the script, noted wit Morrie Ryskind, who was responsible for the hit screen comedy My Man Godfrey (1936) and some of the Marx Brothers plays and movies, and Anthony Veiller, who had worked on two previous Hepburn pictures (Break of Hearts, 1935, and A Woman Rebels, 1936) and one for Rogers (Swing Time, 1936). The writers expanded Jean's role and tailored it for Rogers, making her a wisecracking dancer.

The writers also eliminated the anti-Hollywood rants, keeping the story focused on the relationship of the women in the boarding house and their struggles to make it on stage.

Director Gregory La Cava was enjoying a good deal of success in the mid-1930s, especially after the enthusiastic critical and commercial reception for My Man Godfrey, a comedy with a sly, socially conscious edge to it. La Cava was also well liked and respected by the actors he worked with and seemed a natural to handle the production's combination of witty banter and dramatic moments as well as the large female ensemble cast.

Some accounts of the script's genesis claim La Cava, Ryskind, and Veiller sent studio stenographers to casting offices throughout Hollywood to take down the conversations among the women waiting for their break. Other accounts note that La Cava had the cast play improvised scenes at the studio drawing from their own past experiences as struggling actresses. In his biography of Lucille Ball, Charles Higham quoted cast member Andrea Leeds stating, "He had a script girl take down our conversations and he would adapt these into dialogue. He rewrote scenes from day to day to get the feeling of a bunch of girls together--as spontaneous as possible."

La Cava had worked with Lucille Ball when she was just a bit player in The Affairs of Cellini (1934) but he really didn't know her until she was cast in Stage Door. He used his impression of her to tailor the role of Judy Canfield to her personality, a character who is snappy in both dress and banter but without the talent or drive to really make it.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Stage Door (1937)

Director Gregory La Cava gave producer Pandro Berman fits. For one thing, La Cava was a notorious alcoholic constantly in danger of blowing his entire career over his drinking problem. By many reports, he was drunk throughout the entire production of Stage Door, and during the filming of one scene he fell off the stage of the Biltmore Theater in downtown Los Angeles. According to Ginger Rogers, he always had a cup of tea liberally laced with gin. Also, he was generally cavalier about scripts, considering them mere blueprints to be reworked and improvised during principal photography. Berman recalled him saying, "Forget about the dialogue. I can always spit that out at the last minute." In an article in Life magazine about the production, it was noted that La Cava would frequently stop shooting for rewrites with Morrie Ryskind, burning up a lot of time and money but adding to "the spontaneity of the action and the crackle of the dialog."

Despite his alcoholism and "wing-it" methods, the cast members had high praise for La Cava, as did most of the actors he worked with through the years. Andrea Leeds once noted, "He would talk to each of us like a life-long friend. That gave us a feeling of intimacy." Rogers wrote in her autobiography: "La Cava liked me and knew how to get the best from me and the rest of the actors. I liked him immensely, too, and felt great confidence in him....His alcoholism didn't affect his competence. As a person, he was kind and loving; as a director, he was masterful."

For much of the shoot, Hepburn was moody and feeling excluded, aware that the picture was mainly intended to showcase not her but the as-yet untapped dramatic talents of the studio's other major female star, Ginger Rogers. Hepburn had gone from stardom to being just another actress in an ensemble, and by her own admission she was terrified by the extent of improvisation on the set. She sat by and watched the other actresses, even those in minor roles, steal every scene while she had little idea of who her character was. La Cava's heavy drinking frightened her at first (although later she said she warmed to him when she realized it was simply part of what made him "a very talented, artistic man"), so she went to producer Pandro S. Berman and asked, "What am I supposed to do? I don't know what my part is or anything about it." Berman told her she would be lucky to play even a sixth-billed part in a successful picture at that point and to just do what she was told. She finally approached La Cava and told him she had no clue who this Terry Randall was. La Cava told her, "She's the human question mark." Hepburn nodded and walked away, but came back a short time later to ask him what that meant. "Damned if I know," he replied.

La Cava was able to use Hepburn's feelings of isolation to the advantage of her performance as a woman who is shunned and teased by all the other women in the boarding house. He also had the "brilliant idea" (Hepburn's words) to mirror her own stage disaster of 1933 in The Lake to show Terry's struggles to bring some full human emotion into her acting. Over the course of the production, Hepburn's part was enlarged to give her more to do.

By most accounts, studio rivals Rogers and Hepburn did not get along well during filming, although the tension between them helped the on-screen antagonism between their characters. "Kate always wanted her way and usually got it," Rogers wrote in her autobiography. "I steered clear of her, not trusting what she might do if I in any way crossed her. I recognized she had little empathy for me." According to Rogers, she sent Hepburn a platinum suit pin for her birthday but never got any reply from her. Years later, she visited Hepburn backstage during the run of a Broadway play and asked whatever became of the gift. Rogers said Hepburn's reply was, "Oh I don't remember. I must have given it to someone."

Despite the on-screen camaraderie of the female cast, Ann Miller recalled, "It was like dog eat dog on that picture--even though everyone was very friendly. They were writing the script on the set and I remember there was quite a lot of tension between Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. Lucy helped relieve a lot of the strain because she would always laugh and joke and kid. Eve Arden was the same way, and thank God for them."

Rogers was reluctant to be paired with Ann Miller in their dance act in the story because the younger woman was 5' 8" tall, compared to Rogers's 5' 4". Miller begged her and swore she would wear flats while Rogers could use high heels and a top hat: "Anything, but I want to dance with you!"

According to Rogers, Eve Arden became friendly with a cat that hung around the set and discovered the animal liked to be draped around her neck. La Cava apparently worked that into the story.

Stage Door was shot by Robert De Grasse, who had been the cinematographer on three previous Hepburn movies. Perhaps this is why Rogers later noted that although she considered him an "expert," she didn't feel he did his best work on her behalf for Stage Door. De Grasse would receive an Oscar® nomination for his next film, Vivacious Lady (1938), starring Rogers and for which she said he finally "understood the kind of lighting that produced a better quality close-up for me."

The RKO art department, justly famous for the gleaming art deco look of the Astaire-Rogers pictures and other films of the 1930s, eschewed the studio's typical glamour to create a suitably dumpy, shabby look for the interior of the Footlights Club, where most of the action takes place. The famed RKO Manhattan style is only evident in one scene set in the apartment of wealthy producer Anthony Powell.

La Cava insisted his cast wear their own everyday street clothes and not something unduly glamorous from the costume department. Studio files show Lucille Ball billed the front office for use of her personal wardrobe, causing a number of arguments among executives and certain crew members. Finally, the studio agreed to pay Ball $50 but then reneged on it, saying in a memo, "I think the girl has a terrific nerve to expect us to indulge in any such irregularity."

The final cost of the Stage Door production was about $900,000. Life magazine broke the budget down as: $100,000 for La Cava, $75,000 each for Hepburn and Rogers, $150,000 for the remainder of the cast, $50,000 for the writers, and the $125,000 for the screen rights.

by Rob Nixon

back to top
teaser Stage Door (1937)

In a ribald theatrical boardinghouse, a cross-section of ambitious stagestruck girls, Southern belles, hard-edged working-class dames and pampereddebutantes struggle to make their mark on the New York stage in Gregory LaCava's show biz drama Stage Door (1937).

Like other behind-the-scenes tales of the theatrical life, StageDoor follows the personal and professional ups and downs of the diverseresidents of the Footlights Club: an extraordinarily talented actress, KayeHamilton (Andrea Leeds), who may never experience another moment in thespotlight after an impressive performance 12 months ago; a wisecrackingworking-class girl, Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers); a spoiled beauty, LindaShaw (Gail Patrick), whose illicit relationship with a Broadway stageproducer gets her furs and jewels but little more; and the stranger whoenters their midst, heiress Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), aclassically trained, Shakespeare-obsessed thespian. The cutting remarksand tension that could only be fostered in an all-girl dormitory areunleashed when Terry meets her new roommate, the spirited and feisty Jean, whoobjects to Terry's theatrical pretensions and rich girl slumming.

Determined to make it in the theater without financial help from herwealthy father, Terry ends up stealing a coveted role from the talented,dejected Kaye in a production of Enchanted April which, unbeknownstto Terry, has been bankrolled by her father. This blow to Kaye'sfloundering career turns out to have devastating consequences that set upthe moving, emotional denouement to the movie.

A frank, beautifully realized backstage film about the competitiveness and solidarity fostered in this household of actresses, Stage Door captures the energy and promise a life on the stage holds for these eager young starlets. Many reviewers at the time of the film's release remarked on the absence of a love story in Stage Door, though most felt the feminine camaraderie and wisecracking more than made up for that lack.The film was adapted from a stage play by Edna Ferber (Giant (1956)) and George S. Kaufman (Animal Crackers [1930], Dinner at Eight, [1933]), a theatrical hit which many considered inferior to the crackling dialogue and quick-paced plot offered in screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller's revamped screenplay.

Terry's stage debut, Enchanted April, was, in fact, a rewrite of theBroadway show The Lake, in which Hepburn also starred. Hepburn'sperformance in The Lake was notorious for prompting Algonquin RoundTable writer Dorothy Parker to famously quip that she "ran the gamut ofemotions from A to B."

Though Hepburn had recently fallen into a typecasting rut, playing inelaborate costume pictures like Little Women (1933) and Mary ofScotland (1936), and was later called "box-office poison" by movieexhibitors, she holds her own against some notable talent in StageDoor. The film helped demonstrate Hepburn's actorly range via theshow-stopping performance in Enchanted April that gives the film itstragic resonance and dramatic power. Though its expensive production costof $900,000 meant the film never quite lived up to its economic potential,it was a certified critical success, garnering Academy Award nominationsfor Best Picture, Screenplay, Director and Supporting Actress (Leeds). Thefilm boasted impressive acting work not only from Leeds, Hepburn andRogers, but from a strong supporting cast of rising talents including AnnMiller as Rogers' dancing partner, Lucille Ball, comedian Eve Arden, GradySutton and future screenwriter Jean Rouverol.

Called "a brilliant picture" by the New York Times, StageDoor was singled out for its ability to wed very different moods, fromthe wisecracking irreverence of Rogers and her boardinghouse sororitysisters, to the genuinely heartbreaking pathos of professionaldisappointments and the make-or-break demands of the acting profession. Oras the New Republic enthused in 1937, Stage Door is a"delight" with its "extremes of making you laugh and tearing your heartout."

Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Gregory La Cava
Screenplay: Morrie Ryskind, Anthony Veiller and Gregory La Cava, based on the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Production Design: Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Terry Randall), Ginger Rogers (Jean Maitland), Adolphe Menjou (Anthony Powell), Gail Patrick (Linda Shaw), Constance Collier (Catherine Luther), Andrea Leeds (Kaye Hamilton), Lucille Ball (Judy Canfield), Eve Arden (Eve), Ann Miller (Annie), Gail Patrick (Linda Shaw), Samuel S. Hinds (Henry Sims).
BW-91m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Felicia Feaster

back to top
teaser Stage Door (1937)

Awards & Honors

Stage Door won Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Andrea Leeds)

The New York Film Critics Circle Award to Gregory La Cava as Best Director

In its November 1937 issue, Photoplay magazine rated Stage Door one of the ten best pictures of the month and included both Katharine Hepburn and Andrea Leeds in its list of the month's best performances, adding "Amazingly, here is a magnificently entertaining picture without a love story."

Critic Reviews: STAGE DOOR

"Katharine Hepburn has never been better cast, not even excepting Morning Glory [1933, her first Oscar®]. As a daughter of wealthy parents, trying acting as a pastime, Miss Hepburn plays with true sincerity. Audiences will see and like a new Ginger Rogers.... It is excellently done." - Hollywood Reporter, September 8, 1937

"It is funny in spots, emotionally effective occasionally, and generally brisk and entertaining. ... [Andrea Leeds'] performance is one customers will talk about. ... [Ginger Rogers] clearly demonstrates her ability to handle comedy with the same agility she handles her feet. In a slick role she is surefire." - Flin., Variety, September 14, 1937

"The twists and turns of the narrative are sensibly motivated, the direction of Gregory La Cava has given it zest and pace and photographic eloquence, and the performances are amazingly good.... Miss Hepburn and Miss Rogers, in particular, seemed to be acting so far above their usual heads that, frankly, we hardly recognized them." - Frank S. Nugent, New York Times, October 8, 1937

"The film is more logical than the play and it also has more vitality." - Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, October 1937

"In acting, directing, writing, it represents the finest flower of movie craftsmanship." - Bland Johaneson, New York Daily Mirror, October 1937

"Cinemagoers welcomed the return of Katharine Hepburn from farthingales and tippets, were agreeably surprised at Ginger Rogers' versatility. But the actress who nearly stole the show was Andrea Leeds." - Time, October 18, 1937

"Miss Ginger doesn't dance, or at least not more than a step or two, but never has she given a prettier comedy performance. As a little blonde snippet with her way to make in the world, she is always easy and delightful. I must say her lightness in the role is made easier for her by the contrasting presence of Katharine Hepburn, for alongside the handsome Hepburn, most girls seem mere moths." - John Mosher, The New Yorker, October 1937

"It proves that Miss Rogers is a talented comedienne and that Miss Hepburn really is, as her early pictures indicated, potentially the screen's greatest actress." - Life magazine, October 1937

"When you think of Miss Rogers' former song and dance appearances, it seems as though this is the first chance she has had to be something more than a camera object and stand forth in her own right, pert and charming and just plain nice, her personality flexible in the actor's expression." - New Republic, 1937

"One of the great sassy-women comedy-dramas of the '30s...a bitchy, pacy slice of sociology. ... The casting is perfect. ... Individuals and darker moments apart, however, it's the crackling ensemble pieces that remain in the memory, expertly timed by La Cava's civilised, generous direction, and located in lovingly authentic sets beautifully shot by Robert de Grasse." - Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide, 2000

"One of the flashiest, most entertaining comedies of the 30s, even with its tremolos and touches of heartbreak. ...Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers are terrific wisecracking partners. ... The cast includes the supremely regal (and supremely funny) Constance Collier as an aged actress who does coaching...." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt and Company, 1984)

"What keeps the film from dating is the camaraderie exhibited by all the would-be actresses. Their bond--in a film in which no one is serious about a man--is based on their common need to cover up their fear that they'll never get a break." - Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic (Simon & Schuster, 1986)

"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. - Dan Callahan, Slant magazine, March 2, 2004

by Rob Nixon

back to top