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Stage Door
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The Big Idea Behind: STAGE DOOR

Tuesday March, 26 2019 at 04:30 PM
Monday May, 6 2019 at 06:15 PM

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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

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