Forget All About Eve. The real masterpiece about women and theater is Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door, a film which casts Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and many other RKO women of the era as out-of-work actresses in a theatrical boarding house called The Footlights Club. 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.
La Cava didn’t like to stick to a script, and he took his improvisational methods radically far in Stage Door. For two weeks, he had his actresses rehearse on the Footlights Club set, and he engaged a stenographer to take down what they said during breaks. This loose chat was then incorporated into the film (Arden often took the lines no one else would touch).
Stage Door is the defining film about the 1930s working girl. However, the women who lounge around the Footlights Club don’t do all that much working, which means that money is always tight. When snooty Linda (Gail Patrick) sweeps into the main room in the opening scene, Rogers’s Jean Maitland marches in and peels the silk stockings right off her legs. “I didn’t go without lunch to buy you stockings,” she says, and when Linda calls her a “little hoyden” and a “guttersnipe,” Jean gives her a shove. The other girls watch this catfight jubilantly, throwing out the first of an endless series of bright remarks.
When Hepburn’s stage-struck heiress Terry Randall enters the club, everyone regards her suspiciously. Terry is a serious, lyrical type, and the girls immediately think that she’s a rich phony who will never fit into their world of wised-up badinage. Jean zeroes in on her and lets off one zinger after another, continually getting laughs from the girls. “Evidently you’re a very amusing person,” says Terry, arrogant yet vulnerable.
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