Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week: A new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull has us thinking back on stellar movies made from stage plays.
Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s original stage play Stage Door offered an in-depth portrait of several young actresses living in a theatrical New York boardinghouse while waiting for their big breaks. Curiously, this very popular play was transformed almost completely when moved to the screen. The characters’ names stayed the same, but Terry Randall, played by Katharine Hepburn, was no longer a simple Midwest farm girl but rather a rich heiress with an obnoxious self-assuredness that pisses off her new housemates. Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), second banana in the play, gets pushed to the forefront—she’s a streetwise dancer who’s fiercely loyal to her friends, and, as Hepburn’s Randall puts it, never sees past the next wisecrack. The cast is rounded out by a teenaged future dancing legend Ann Miller, and eventual CBS radio and TV stars Lucille Ball and Eve Arden, all at the earliest stages of their careers.
During production, it quickly became apparent that these young women were as talented off screen as they were on, so screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller hung out with them between scenes and wrote down their funny banter. Director Gregory La Cava also encouraged all the actors to ad-lib. The result is 92 minutes of effervescent dialogue, including withering conversations between Rogers and a snooty Gail Patrick, and witty asides from Ball and Arden. The exchanges come so fast and furious that you have to see the movie several times to collect them all. “Hey, you’re not gonna catch the opening tonight?” someone asks. The reply: “No, I’m going tomorrow to catch the closing.” When she’s told she must have heard of Hamlet, Arden’s response, perfectly delivered with a shrug, is “Well, I meet so many people.”
Rogers and Hepburn are at odds for most of the movie, which takes a melodramatic turn when one of the women, a former star, becomes severely depressed after failing to land another part. There’s also a plot thread with Adolphe Menjou as a lascivious theater producer who’s primarily there to be fought over. (Jean: “He kinda makes you feel like you ought to run home and put on a tin overcoat.”) But the plot is almost immaterial compared to the electricity of the dialogue, as all the best scenes just involve the girls volleying wisecracks back and forth from the tattered couches in the Footlights Club’s living room.
Rogers made Stage Door in the midst of her streak of musicals with Fred Astaire. While those movies offered glamorous escapism from the Depression, this one delivered a more accurate depiction of the time period, of hungry young people eating boardinghouse dinners (“If that vegetable soup had been just a little thicker, it might have made great hot water”), trying anything to get a job. It also showed that Rogers was a better actor than many of her musicals suggested, and predicted the long comedy careers of Ball and Arden, wittily dropping bon mots while hanging around that communal living room. You wind up feeling like you’ve crashed an intimate, familial, and funny party, and leave wishing you could spend more time at the Footlights Club.
Availability: Stage Door is available to stream from the major digital services. It can also be obtained on DVD or Blu-ray from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.