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Stage to Screen: The Making of Gregory La Cava's "Stage Door"

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Posted: Saturday, June 30, 2012 12:38 pm

The 1936 Broadway play on which the film Stage Door was based was touted by the critics, and it was considered one of the hits of the season. However, when it was transferred to film, the likelihood of it becoming an enduring classic might have seemed slim. The director of the film version brought to the set an unorthodox working style and a proclivity for drinking. The cast included an aloof actress whose recent, sputtering career carried the odor of decline; a workaholic actress regarded as the lightweight half of a popular team; and a talented Texas teen, just-arrived in Hollywood, whose dark secret, if revealed, could land the studio's top brass in hot water. Sounds like some sort of disaster-in-the-making.

    It wasn't. Although, financially, Stage Door, (RKO, 1937), didn't lose money for the studio, it also wasn't a huge hit either, despite a very good reception from film reviewers and being nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture of the Year. Over time, however, this comedy-drama's reputation has only improved. Today, it stands as one of the best-loved ensemble films of the 1930s, a true gem of Hollywood's Golden Age. How it came to be is a story worth telling.

* * * *

    During The Golden Age, stage plays, whether first produced on Broadway or elsewhere, routinely served as inspirations for Hollywood. These shows did not have to be smash hits like Oklahoma! (2,212 performances), or Life With Father (3,224 performances). A modest run somewhere in the lower three-digit range of performances would more than suffice, providing the play offered a nice fit for one or two major stars under contract or available on loan from another studio. Occasionally, the property could even be unproduced; the most stellar example being Everybody Comes to Rick's which hit the screen as Casablanca (WB, 1942).

    Still, Hollywood did value name recognition, and in the 1930s few theatrical names were bigger than that of George S. Kaufman. With various collaborators, he was responsible for such plays (all quickly filmed) as Animal Crackers (Paramount, 1930), the Marx Brothers romp; Once in a Lifetime (Universal, 1932), a Hollywood satire; and, You Can't Take It With You, (Columbia, 1938), awarded the Oscar as 1938's Best Picture. Couple Kaufman's name with that of playwright and novelist Edna Ferber (Showboat, So Big, Giant) - the team that wrote, The Royal Family (filmed by Paramount in 1930), and, Dinner at Eight (M-G-M's star-studded 1934 treat) - and you had a truly impressive pedigree. Even before their latest effort, Stage Door, opened in New York City at the Music Box Theatre on October 22, 1936, Hollywood was interested.

    Receiving favorable reviews, the play drew decent crowds despite a small advance sale. In the lead role of Terry Randall, Margaret Sullavan scored a personal triumph, so much so that after she became pregnant (she was then-married to agent Leland Hayward), it was decided to close the show after 169 performances rather than to replace her with another actress. Producer Pandro S. Berman, secured the movie rights for $130,000 soon after it opened. To better protect RKO's investment, he insisted the screen adaptation should never criticize Hollywood. Berman hired Anthony Veiller, son of playwright Bayard Veiller, to produce a usable screenplay.

    In three acts spanning a period of over two years the play Stage Door looked at a group of struggling actresses who live at the Footlights Club, a theatrical boarding house for women somewhere in the West Fifties in Manhattan. Co-author Edna Ferber who had the original idea, based it on the Rehearsal Club, founded in 1913. Interestingly, Margaret Sullavan actually was a past resident of the house.

    Among the significant roles: Terry Randall, daughter of a country doctor, who has managed to win a few minor parts over nearly three years of trying as the play commences; Jean Maitland, a vivacious blonde of limited acting skill who quickly scores a screen test and makes it big in Hollywood; Kaye Hamilton, just-arrived in NYC as the first act begins and whose poverty and fear of returning home drives her to swallow poison at the second act's midpoint; Keith Burgess, a left-leaning playwright (patterned after Clifford Odets), initially only interested in art but whose continual compromises as the play progresses lead to financial success and moral bankruptcy in Hollywood; Kendall Adams, an actress from a wealthy, established New England family; David Kingsley, a Hollywood executive who functions as Terry's tempter, conscience and ultimate soulmate; Linda Shaw, an actress who finds her greatest success in bed with her gentlemen admirers; Madeleine Vauclain, an actress who hails from Seattle with an unwanted boyfriend in the lumber business; and Judith Canfield, actress and Terry's friend, described as "hard, wise, debunked."

    To those readers well-acquainted with the film version of Stage Door, the preceding plot and character summary must seem somewhat bizarre. George S. Kaufman got that same feeling, but in reverse after he saw the movie, slyly referring to the film version of his play as, "Screen Door." The blame, or perhaps, more rightly, the praise, for these changes must ultimately be laid at the feet of one man, Gregory La Cava, the film's director. A talented, sad soul, he utilized an alcohol-fueled improvisational style with his collaborators that powered his better films but also hastened his decline and death.

    One of four children, La Cava grew up in Rochester, New York where the family had moved after his father, an Italian immigrant who had been a shoemaker and a gold seeker in Alaska, had died. Gregory showed talent as a painter working in oils, but money woes forced him to become a newspaper cartoonist. In 1916, he easily transitioned into William Randolph Hearst's animated film department and headed it the following year. By 1921, he shifted to live action projects and joined Paramount's Astoria studios in New York in 1924, soon directing feature films with the likes of Richard Dix and W.C. Fields. Inclined to create movies his own way, by the early sound era La Cava elected to freelance, making Hollywood films at RKO, Fox, Columbia, Universal and even M-G-M, wherever he could find the freedom to tear up the script and take the time to develop the story and characters as a team with the actors and writers.

    Berman, who knew La Cava from when he directed such RKO films as, Symphony of Six Million, and The Half-Naked Truth, (both 1932), was so confident in his director that he gave him six weeks of story preparation time and the right of first preview cut. La Cava then engaged Morrie Ryskind (who had worked with Kaufman on Animal Crackers) and the two of them began revising Veiller's script. They knew that Berman intended the film as a way to fix the problems of two of RKO's biggest stars: Katharine Hepburn whose recent films did not resonate with the public and badly needed a hit; and Ginger Rogers who always enjoyed proving that she could act as well as she could dance, and also draw an audience without Fred Astaire's name beside hers. As the script was being revised, La Cava and Ryskind began casting the secondary roles based largely on how the actresses sounded and interacted, whereupon "all resemblance to orderly moviemaking ceased."

    Eve Arden, who played Eve, one of the struggling actresses, recalled a meeting with La Cava after he saw her badly-made screen test. "My writer and I write most of our scenes as we go so I can't offer you a specific part," she had La Cava say in her warm memoir, "The Three Phases of Eve", "but I like certain qualities I see in you and want very much to use you in the picture." At one point, the director asked Arden for ideas on how to make her developing character distinctive. Since she had just acquired two cats from the pound, why not let her character have a cat who is called Harry but turns out to be a pregnant Henrietta, she ventured. La Cava chortled at that idea and added it to the script.

    Eve unwittingly supplied another aspect to her role when one day while rehearsing a scene, she put the cat on her shoulder to free up her hands to eat peanuts, and that caught La Cava's eye. In the film, we see her walking about the boardinghouse wearing the cat as if it were a fur collar. Arden, known in films for her pitch-perfect delivery of tart comebacks and ego-deflating putdowns, spouts several of the film's best lines. (See sidebar). According to her, she won many lines in rehearsals when other actresses either didn't like the line or failed to deliver the laughs, provoking Katharine Hepburn to warn, "She's the one to watch out for, girls."

    In the film role of Kay Hamilton-the movie drops the "e" from her character's name in the play-was newcomer, Andrea Leeds, described by Gregory La Cava as "the best natural actress" he had ever worked with. Born Antoinette Lees in Butte, Montana, the daughter of a mining engineer, she went to UCLA where an interest in writing and acting led to the movies. After some bits in a few shorts and features from 1933 to 1936, she landed a major supporting role in, Come and Get It (United Artists, 1936), a contract with producer Samuel Goldwyn, and a new stage name.

    La Cava, obviously impressed with the sensitive, childlike presence she brought to her roles, transformed the Kaye of the play into the Kay whose "mad scene" as she ecstatically makes her final ascent of the stairs earned her an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Unfortunately for audiences, she made only seven more mostly pleasant but lesser films, before marrying a wealthy horse breeder and retiring to raise a family. But she did not entirely forget her past. Eve Arden fondly remembered the Christmas presents Andrea sent her girls every year, "starting with dolls complete with wardrobe and on to lovely necklaces and bracelets."

    Ginger Rogers' published recollections also support the free-wheeling nature of the script development process. She drew the greatly-changed part of Jean Maitland whose character was now a combination of den mother for the other women, exuding wisdom, warmth and caring, and the experienced professional, wise in the ways of theatrical agents and producers. La Cava, she explained, would "listen to the off-camera chitchat among the girls . . . and then incorporate these off-the-cuff exchanges into the dialogue." That aspect, she opined, is "one of the reasons Stage Door remains so fresh and snappy and why the dialogue rings so true." She also observed La Cava on the set most days with a teacup always at hand. "The Earl Grey was liberally laced with gin," she wrote knowingly. "However his alcoholism didn't affect his competence. As a person he was kind and loving; as a director he was masterful."

    Of her co-star, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger simply said, "I steered clear of her, not trusting what she might do if I in any way crossed her. I recognized she had little empathy for me." In a charming, lengthy anecdote, the origin of their friction is implied by Rogers to be when she secretly tested for the role of Queen Elizabeth in the 1935 film version of the play, Mary of Scotland, in which Hepburn played Mary Stuart. With director John Ford's help, a flawless accent, and a full-dress costume plus lots of makeup, she pretended to be Lady Ainsley, a renowned British theater veteran. When the time for the screen test came, Hepburn was the only other person besides Ford who was in on the joke (because, as Ford told Rogers, he realized at the last minute that he had to work with Hepburn and she'd kill him if she found out later). Rogers alleges that Kate kicked her, saying she was fooling nobody and who did she think she was to attempt such a charade?

    But there are other explanations for their cool relations on the set. Howard Hughes was said to be a former flame of Ginger's and now Hepburn was very much involved with the dashing aviator and film producer. Then, too, Ginger's popularity with audiences was never stronger, coming in third in a fan poll of favorite actresses compared to Kate's dismal seventeenth place. You might expect the studio to try to capitalize on any feud to promote the forthcoming picture, but one Hepburn biographer noted how RKO seemed to stage a friendly scene between the two of them, "laughing and chattering together," for the benefit of a reporter for Modern Screen.

    As for Hepburn, in "Me: Stories of My Life", her autobiography of carefully-constructed candor, she says nothing about working with Rogers or her fellow players but does offer some interesting scenes with Berman and La Cava. After two weeks of "sort of listening in on scenes instead of dominating them," she expressed her frustration to her producer. Supposedly, Berman dismissed her with a curt, "Listen, Kate, you'd be lucky to be playing the sixth part in a successful picture."

    She never warmed up to the spirit of improvisation, preferring a text she could analyze. La Cava called her "completely the intellectual actress. She has to understand the why of everything before she can feel. Then, when the complete meaning has soaked in, emotion comes and superb work." Upon approaching La Cava, saying that she didn't understand her character and asked who she was, the director retorted, "You're the human question mark." When pressed to clarify what he meant, La Cava, determined to make her ponder it awhile longer, simply lamented, "I'm damned if I know, Kate."

    Hepburn had been cast as Terry Randall, the lead role in the play, so her frustration is quite understandable. In the film version, she is the novice, arriving as the film opens. In the play, Terry is a superb actress who can't get the one part she needs to make her a star. In the film, Terry is very green with few technical skills and too haughty to care. Of course, with her father (Samuel S. Hinds) secretly paying the producer (Adolphe Menjou) to put on the play with Terry in the lead, she might be forgiven somewhat for her delusion about acting being easy. She doesn't know her father's goal is for her to fail miserably, get over wanting to be an actress, and come back to the family manse.

    La Cava's methods were not without whimsy or even a touch of sadism. The play that Terry rehearses and performs in the film, Enchanted April, likely resonated with RKO executives since that was the title of one of their biggest box office failures in recent years. In plot, the play-within-the-film seems close to The Lake, a notorious personal failure for Hepburn in 1933. She described performing the play night after night as "a slow walk to the gallows." Producer Jed Harris verbally abused her throughout rehearsals, she wrote, in part by telling her that he had really wanted Margaret Sullavan for the role. Remembering that in this film Hepburn was attempting a repeat of Sullavan's stage triumph, we must see that the pressure on Kate must have been dizzying.

    And it didn't end there. La Cava lifted the lines that begin, "The calla lilies are in bloom again . . . ," directly from the American production of The Lake. He had Hepburn recite them in the film's rehearsal scene in the most monotonous way possible that underscored how terrible an actress her character was at that point. But from all accounts, this type of delivery was not too different from what prompted Dorothy Parker, reviewing The Lake, to pen one of the most famous criticisms in theater history: that Kate's performance in the lead role "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." How did Hepburn like being reminded of that debacle at this point in her then-fragile film career?

    According to Scott Berg in "Kate Remembered", Hepburn said of La Cava's inclusion of those lines: "It was a brilliant idea." Berg agreed, adding that La Cava had succeeded in finally removing the stink that came from The Lake. Now, we "forever remember Hepburn fondly, not foolishly, for uttering, 'The calla lilies are in bloom again.'"

    For Hepburn, eventually "shutting up and being jolly was the cleverest thing I ever did. La Cava got sorry for me playing the rich girl and handed me the whole last part of the movie." Such success was not exactly unlike what happened to her chastised character in the film as a result of Kay's suicide, so closely was La Cava having art imitate life. Further, after the film's preview, the audience response cards touted her performance so strongly that she was sure this was why the studio decided to switch her initial billing from second place (after Rogers) to first for the film's release. "Lucky me," she concluded.

    Kate's luck also extended to meeting Constance Collier, who played Miss Luther in the film, a once-famous theater actress now living in the boardinghouse. As a tutor and confidante to Terry Randall, she subsequently took on a similar role with Hepburn in real life, coaching her extensively in Shakespeare and other classics. Born in 1878, Collier hailed from a long line of actors and dancers. One of her good friends was the celebrated British actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. After playing a wide range of roles in the English theater, she drifted to Hollywood where she became a character actress and drama coach, basically her film character.

    Lucille Ball was another lucky member of the cast. Stage Door proved to be her entrance into major roles after years of background work (including as a lady-in-waiting in La Cava's 1934 film, The Affairs of Cellini) and bit parts (most recently in an Astaire-Rogers musical, Follow the Fleet). She benefited from two boosters who sang her praises to La Cava: Pandro Berman who had seen her acting strengths in a play, Hey, Diddle Diddle, that never got to Broadway; and Lela Rogers, Ginger's mother, who directed RKO's Little Theater where RKO contract players and promising ones from other studios were tutored in dramatics and got to perform various roles in live theater productions. Ball wrote in her memoir, "Love, Lucy", that La Cava "didn't particularly like me; he'd only given me the part, I'm sure, at Lela's prodding."

    Her role of Judy Canfield is pretty much what it was in the play, that of the realist, making sharp observations of the characters. She has some acting talent but spends more time dating than campaigning for a part. As the play ends, she's just another actress at the boardinghouse. The movie, however, appropriates the fate of another of the play's characters and hooks up Judy with Jack Carson's Seattle lumberman in a marriage that seems more practical than romantic. Ball makes the most of her screen time and it paid off. RKO renegotiated her contract, giving her a substantial raise, and began starring her in B films. In later years, Lucy would remember Katharine Hepburn as being "lah, dee, dah", or acting superior to others, on the set.

    Ann Miller credits her role of Annie, or, "String Bean," in the film primarily to Lucille Ball who while with an RKO talent scout, discovered her dancing in San Francisco. Feeling that Ann "could give Eleanor Powell a run for her money," she urged a screen test for the young girl who, though she easily passed for 18, the age she was claiming to be, was really just 14 years old. The sole support of her divorced mother, Ann was told that the studio wouldn't take her without proof of age, so she persuaded her lawyer father to furnish a fake document. That act, Ann sadly recounted, was "the only kind thing my father ever did for me."

    Miller remembered that "there was a quite a lot of tension between Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. Lucy helped relieve a lot of the strain because she would always joke and laugh and kid. Eve Arden was the same way and thank God for them." Ann was given a musical number, "Put Your Heart into Your Feet and Dance," to do with her idol, Ginger Rogers. When Ginger thought that Ann was too tall for her, the dream threatened to dissolve until Ann's enthusiasm won over Rogers and La Cava. She recalled, "I said, 'Oh, please, Miss Rogers, couldn't you wear higher heels and a higher top hat and I could wear lower heels and a shorter top hat.'" And that was what they did. Then a second issue arose, and this time Ann talked her way into the mess, not out of it.

    Growing tired about being kidded by the wardrobe ladies who had often commented on how flat-chested she was, Ann defended herself. She countered that it just wasn't the case at all; she was much younger than they thought. Instantly, fear swelled within as she realized that she had let slip something best left unsaid. Berman soon heard about the incident and, according to Miller, was "practically petrified" about what could happen to him and the studio if the union and the law pressed the issue. At 14, Miller would need a teacher on the set and reduced hours, or she'd have to be fired and the part recast and re-shot. Either way that would impact the budget. It was Lucille Ball and Ginger Rogers who rescued Ann by vouching for her to Berman that she was indeed 18-and it worked. Years later, when she was preparing her autobiography, Miller decided to ask Berman what he recalled of that incident. After confessing to her about "being vague about the details," he added: "I don't even remember who I was married to then."

    Finally, there was Adolphe Menjou, in the principal male lead of theatrical producer Anthony Powell, a role not in the play. He had played a similar character with Hepburn a few years earlier in Morning Glory, for which young Kate was heralded with her first Best Actress Oscar. As Menjou recalled in his delightful memoir, "It Took Nine Tailors", his first scene on this film was with her. As the set was being lit, La Cava kept insisting, "There's too much light on Menjou. Take it off Menjou and put it on Hepburn." A bit concerned, the actor questioned the director's action. La Cava simply quipped, "Why should I show you up? Next to all the kids in this picture your face looks like an aerial shot of the Rocky Mountains."

    But don't think that this exchange was the first volley in an ongoing battle between them; not in the least. Calling La Cava, "one of my favorite directors," Menjou observed that the "banter on a La Cava picture is incessant. If a person doesn't have a quick answer he's dead." He felt La Cava possessed "a grin that is second only to Joe E. Brown's . . . [and] would have been a great low comic" had he opted for acting instead of directing.

    Menjou's role in the movie had the potential to come off as a simple blackguard but La Cava's sense of fun and humanity will have none of that. For the first half of the film, Menjou's scenes are mostly with Gail Patrick and Ginger Rogers as the soon-to-be-discarded mistress, and the replacement, respectively. Once Terry Randall enters his orbit and exposes his carefully constructed charade about marriage and family, the producer's actions are not so much despicable as they are amusing, even slightly endearing, dissipating any lingering menace in the audience's mind. There were also now three ways to have a romance but, wisely, La Cava wouldn't take the bait. Someone, perhaps he, perhaps one of the two official writers, realized that how the play ended (Terry's pending theatrical success) might be a more interesting way to resolve the picture's loose plot threads than tracking to a conventional love story.

    Filming had started on June 7, 1936, the day that Jean Harlow died from uremic poisoning, the news of which led to a bonding of the actresses. By then, the script largely "consisted of index cards and a loose leaf notebook containing the life stories of all the characters." To further the identification of the actresses with their roles, the director even had them wear their own clothes rather than costumes. (It should be noted, however, that Renee Conley is credited with creating costumes for the film.)

    The long preparation paid off and La Cava shot quickly and within budget. La Cava benefited from several uncredited writers who assisted him late at night, giving the director a fresh supply of snappy lines for the next day, if needed. Future screenwriter and director George Seaton (1947's charming fantasy, Miracle on 34th Street) was one of La Cava's nocturnal authors.

* * * *

    Once Stage Door hit the screen, it was obvious to those in the know that the whole seemingly crazy process had worked beautifully. The New York Times named, Stage Door, to its Year's Ten Best List, as did many other publications. In his review in the Times, Frank S. Nugent vindicated producer Berman's intention of boosting the film's two stars when he wrote, "Miss Hepburn and Miss Rogers, in particular, seem to be acting so far above their usual heads that, frankly, we hardly recognized them." The film went on to be nominated for four 1937 Academy Awards - and lost them all. Best Director went to Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth; Best Screenplay was given to The Life of Emile Zola; Best Supporting Actress was presented to Alice Brady for In Old Chicago; and The Life of Emile Zola was named the year's Best Picture.

    La Cava's second Oscar nomination would prove to be his last. (His first was for the screwball classic, My Man Godfrey, the year before.) The year 1937 was good to him financially, earning a reported $145,916. He would go on to make two more enjoyable but minor RKO films, 1939's Fifth Avenue Girl and 1940's Primrose Path, both with Ginger Rogers. He would win a brief burst of popular and critical acclaim for Unfinished Business (Universal, 1941) with a scintillating Irene Dunne performance, but his two films that followed were critical and financial busts.

    In the final analysis, it wasn't his maverick directing style that undermined him; it was his unfortunate alcoholism. In the years since, the positive aspects of his directing approach have become more commonplace in making films. Embracing many of his techniques, La Cava's spiritual heirs have included such recent diverse talents as Elia Kazan, and Sidney Lumet. Gregory La Cava's Stage Door is both a testament to his artistic talent then at its peak, and to the Golden Age of Hollywood when such enduring classics were produced with a regularity that seems a marvel today.