Something remarkable happens within the first minutes of Stage Door (1937). Ginger Rogers rips the stockings off of Gail Patrick’s legs as a group of women gather and watch the spectacle unfold before them. The other women heckle as Rogers and Patrick exchange insult after insult. Who are these women and what has gotten into them?
They are, as we soon learn, aspiring Broadway actresses living in the Footlights Club, a New York City boarding house. These women are all fighting for their one shot at stardom. Most of them have been out of work for over year; it is the Depression after all and work is hard to come by. There is Kay (Andrea Leeds) who is clinging to the hope that her past success will land her the next big role. Linda (Patrick) believes her cushy relationship with a producer will get her somewhere fast. Then there is newcomer Terry Randall, played magnificently by Katharine Hepburn, whose pompous attitude quickly gets under the snarky Jean’s (Rogers) skin.
With Stage Door, Hepburn shows her tremendous range. In one scene her performance is absolutely horrendous and she is nearly unbearable to watch as she argues with a frustrated producer, playwright and director. Minutes later, Hepburn performs the same scene (“The calla lilies are in full bloom.”) and she morphs into something else. Her performance is profound and iconic. Ginger Rogers, whose screen persona is so heavily intertwined with Fred Astaire, even the most astute lover of classic cinema can forget her enormous talent. The sharp dialogue rolls off her tongue faster than she can tap dance. And Kay’s depression, thanks to some heightened lighting and camera angles, borders on extreme melodrama but it is given tremendous depth and poignancy in Andrea Leeds’ hands.
It is how Stage Door presents and embraces female solidarity on the screen that bolsters its lasting impression. From the outset, it is clear that Stage Door is just a women’s film. It is almost 20 minutes before a male is given a speaking role in the film and after that, only Adolphe Menjou exchanges heated words with a fiery Hepburn.
Female relationships in this film are not belittled to petty bickering (stockings aside) or melodramatic antics. The dialogue is smart and blisteringly funny. The insults tossed around by Rogers, Hepburn and company feels like banter among friends. It is through that feeling of connectivity that the women in Stage Door are given a leg up on any male in this fill. Their endlessly witty and intelligent conversations tower above anything Menjou gets to say.
The female relationships in Stage Door most often revolve around the women’s common passion for the theater and their desire for a career. Their lives are not solely centered on settling into marriage. Yes, Lucille Ball’s Judy winds up married and Menjou’s powerful producer Andrew Powell is very much a puppeteer. But at the film’s conclusion, it is not Judy’s marriage or Powell’s authoritative hand that matters. It is the relationship between these women that towers above. The Footlights Club is a family. That point is made time and time again.
The closing sequence, set approximately six months after Terry Randall first enters the Footlights Club, is a near-mirror image of the opening. Hattie is seen sweeping the floor before the camera pans up to reveal the other women sitting in the living room. They laugh, they celebrate one girl finally getting a bit part, and they move wildly about the room with the same rapid dialogue we have grown accustomed to. Judy struggles to leave the living room and to the taxi where her bridegroom waits. Symbolically Terry and Jean sing “Here Comes the Bride” as they carry her over the threshold and out the door. They are moving her from the safety and comfort of the boarding house, where there is boundless female solidarity, to the reality of marriage, family, and a male-dominated, patriarchal world.
Judith is leaving for that world yet there is comfort taken in when the next fresh-faced, starry-eyed aspiring actress arrives at the Footlights Club. She is ushered and welcomed in just as Terry was at the film’s start. The world of the boarding house will continue even if the women who live there cannot always escape what society demands for them.