Snap, Crackle, Pop

Gregory La Cava, Stage Door, 1937, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 92 minutes.

WISECRACKS RICOCHET at breakneck speed at the Footlights Club, the women-only theatrical boardinghouse in Midtown Manhattan that is the center of Gregory La Cava’s brilliant sober comedy Stage Door (1937). (A typical exchange: “Is the show closing?” “Like a tired clam.”) During many of his productions, La Cava, whose screwball paradigm My Man Godfrey was released the year before, drove studio heads nuts, pledging no fealty to the script and often encouraging overlapping dialogue and improvisation; Stage Door was no exception to this practice. Based, if only marginally so, on the 1936 play of the same name by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman (the latter of whom carped that La Cava’s adaptation, bearing little resemblance to the source material, should have been called “Screen Door”), Stage Door crackles with zingers ad-libbed by a cast that includes Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, and Lucille Ball.

That La Cava incorporated into Stage Door’s script (which was written by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller) the banter that his actresses—some of the finest comic talents of the era—shared during the film’s rehearsals only enhances the verbal pyrotechnics. The movie’s distaff ensemble provides not only a trove of 1930s slang, show-biz argot, and one-upping insults but also an invaluable lesson in sentence rhythm, as when the more seasoned housemates instruct a newbie on where the stress should fall in her sole line in her stage debut: “Let’s go UP to Westchester.”

Beyond the film’s deep empathy for this passel of aspiring but all too often dispirited performers—the Footlighters commiserate over demoralizing roles, sleazy agents, and the slop served in the dining hall—Stage Door scrutinizes class clash, a specialty of La Cava’s. Here the director pits Rogers, whose various shopgirl and assembly-line-worker roles gave her a kind of prole glamour, against Hepburn, a real-life Connecticut Brahmin. Playing world-weary hoofer Jean Maitland, Rogers—along with other Footlights tenants who often have trouble coming up with the thirteen-dollar weekly rent—ruthlessly mocks the lockjaw enunciation of her new roommate, Hepburn’s Terry Randall. The scioness (her father is the “wheat king” of the Midwest) tries to pass as a nobody, forswearing Dad’s dollars—but making no attempt to hide her ermine-coat-stuffed steamer trunks or curtail her habit of quoting Shakespeare. Yet Terry proves just as quick-witted as her cash-strapped housemates, calling Jean out for “that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.”

The incognito aristo’s ease with ripostes—and her willingness to stand up to a thoughtless producer on behalf of her sistren—earn her the begrudging respect of some Footlighters. But Terry will become suspect once again when she, a neophyte, lands the lead in a play called Enchanted April, a part desperately wanted by Kay (Andrea Leeds), a beloved housemate who, buffeted by the vagaries of the profession, is slowly slipping into madness. A tragic incident leads Terry to cry in her dressing room on opening night, “Does someone have to die to create an actress?” Uncannily, the line echoes another I had read—in an ingenious article by George Toles about David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive that ran in the fall 2004 issue of Film Quarterly—just the night before I revisited Stage Door: “The only earthly identity that might be strong enough to undo death is that of an actress on the verge of stardom.” Made sixty-four years apart, La Cava’s film and Lynch’s are highly dissimilar in style and sensibility. But they share a star—Ann Miller, who was only a teenager in Stage Door and who made her final screen appearance in Mulholland Drive—and a boundless compassion for women in the cruelest of vocations.

Stage Door screens February 18–20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “Acteurism: Ginger Rogers,” which runs through March 27.