The Golden Age of Hollywood

STAGE DOOR (1937): A Feminist Perspective

on July 2, 2012

Because Katharine Hepburn’s star text in so many of her film roles reads as a liberated feminist, the audience becomes tempered to the idea of whole groups of women being autonomous. Before STAGE DOOR (1937), she had made such films as CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933), LITTLE WOMEN (1933), ALICE ADAMS (1935), MARY OF SCOTLAND (1936), and A WOMAN REBELS (1936), all playing autonomous and powerful women. By 1937 her particular brand of female independence had been accepted by the general public to the point that it became something attractive rather than repulsive. Therefore, the film text is able to portray communities which highlight this new type of empowerment because her star text has already proved its possibility and potential.

In the famous moth costume for CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933)
These communities of women have a unique departmentalized position in relation to the society in which they function. In Gregory La Cava’s STAGE DOOR (1937), the community is almost completely separate from the rest of society; the actresses, because of their choice of profession, are exceptions to the traditional gender roles of society, although they are not entirely exempt from the pressures of those societal expectations. By the 1930s, actresses had been accepted by society as commodities necessary for the continuation of a profession very important to that society: the field of entertainment. The romanticism of the stage had caught fire while audiences witnessed the blossoming of the Golden Age of Hollywood. 
Director Gregory La Cava works on a scene with Hepburn and Gingers Rogers
However, the women in STAGE DOOR have been departmentalized in that they are put into a community of their own rather than integrated into the traditional societal structure. The women cannot be wives and actresses at the same time. Nor can Hepburn’s character be a daughter and an actress. Their relationship to society is one of complete marginalization. Because they reject the traditional heterosexual relationship structure, they must find a substitute for what that structure fails to provide – professional support. This support is supplemented by the energies of the female group.

            STAGE DOOR presents the audience with a group of more liberated women. Like the rest of the country, the theatre district was hurt by the Depression and the women who had chosen a life independent of a husband and family instead struggle with the alternative. 1930s audiences connected to this film in a number of ways. Susan Ware notices that “the snappy tone of Stage Door is in keeping with the self-confidence of the screwball comedies which flourished in the 1930s, bringing comic relief to their Depression-weary audiences” (Ware 184). The rhetoric of the community of women both reflects and relieves the dominant emotions of the country at the time.

Rogers and Hepburn outwit Adolphe Menjou
The male characters in STAGE DOOR hold a rather ambivalent place within the film text. They are seen mostly as unnecessary necessities. Although the men hold the upper hand in the business, and though marriage seems to be a logical alternative to professionalism for many of the women, the men fail to manipulate this group of women who have chosen to excuse themselves from the expectations of patriarchy. The incredulity of the idea that Hepburn’s character could be manipulated by any male characters is promulgated by Hepburn’s star text. The audience reads her character as one who is independent of the pressures endured by the other members of the female group. Her character must be strongly independent in order to support and sustain the legitimacy of that group. If every member of the group is continually trapped, manipulated, and defeated by the patriarchal order, it has no reason for existing and the argument for female independence from men must disintegrate. The audience’s understanding of the Hepburn text as independent and autonomous substantiates the continuation of the group while simultaneously discrediting the patriarchal community of the film.
Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Ginger Rogers
STAGE DOOR is unique in that today’s audience is able to retrospectively apply reading of the star texts of other member of the cast besides Hepburn: “[the film] is also related, through the brilliant repartee of its dialogue, and the presence of an extraordinary array of distinguished female comic actors (Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Kennedy), to ‘thirties comedy” (Britton 71). Two of these women, Eve Arden and Lucille Ball, eventually come to epitomize two forms of American womanhood in the twentieth century, particularly the 1950s. Eve Arden’s most starring role as Miss Brooks in the TV and radio program “Our Miss Brooks” (1949-1956) is the essence of the witty spinster-schoolteacher. More famously, Lucy Ricardo in “I Love Lucy” became the image of the American housewifery. STAGE DOOR seems almost prescient when one realizes that Eve Arden’s character has lines like “I’ll never put my trust in males again,” and Lucille Ball’s character is the only one of the female group who gets married.
Eve Arden’s (far right) wit
These two personas provide the bridge of our understanding of star text between the 1930s and the 1950s. When the nation’s heroes returned from World War II, the women of America returned to hearth and home to take care of their families. However, as Eugenia Kaledin points out in her book Mothers and More: American Women in the 1950s, “When Rosie the Riveter handed her goggles to the men who were returning from World War II, she did not rush to put on an apron.” Although women hoping to return to work faced open public hostility, many women who had had a taste of independence through careers were not so keen to spend the rest of their lives in the kitchen.
The research department in DESK SET (1957)
Katharine Hepburn, Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill
Because of the extreme gender departmentalization of the job market, “men rarely replaced women in the vacated jobs” (Ware 28). Women became respected for their unique skills, characterized by efficiency, meticulousness, and dexterity, thus forming an “important group of loyal and conscientious producers” (Kaledin 66-67). Just such a group is presented in DESK SET (1957). The women in the community of the research department at the Federal Broadcasting Company have certainly “identified with the heritage of alienation that ultimately enriches mainstream culture; they turned their frustrations into creative energy” (Kaledin iv). These women are so prodigious that they have become invaluable to the company and to the patriarchal society at large which has tried to segregate them into more conservative roles as wives and mothers. Stay tuned for a post about the community of women in DESK SET.

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6 responses to “STAGE DOOR (1937): A Feminist Perspective

  1. Bette says:

    Really enjoyed this article! I love Stage Door, it was interesting to see ho you thought the way her independent attitude changed the way her audiences thought of her throughout the years – you run a great blog!

  2. Thank you! Glad you like it!

  3. Lots of food for thought here – thanks!

  4. I haven't seen Stage Door in many years, but your post really gives a fascinating perspective on it, particularly on that of a community of women existing on their own, and defining themselves outside the bounds of patriarchy; so I want to see it again. And you make an interesting point on how both Eve Arden and Lucille Ball seemed to 'fulfill' their characters in this film in their later tv series. Thanks for your insights!

  5. Thank you! Glad you liked the post. It is certainly a very interesting cast. And I love how there's so much fast dialogue that every time I watch it I catch something new!

  6. This is a comment Kristen left to me on her own blog, "Journeys in Classic Film" (http://journeysinclassicfilm.com/2012/06/02/stage-door-1937/):"Wow Margaret, I might need to have you start writing my film essays for me lol. Your discussion on Stage Door is brilliant. The community of women angle is strong but I love your discussion of the male characters. In an industry where women are seen as exploitable figures, content to sell their bodies for a leg up, the women in Stage Door generally don’t allow men to manipulate them, especially not Hepburn or Rogers. Going even further and analyzing Lucille Ball and Eve Arden’s eventual careers is a great extension. Love this article!"Thanks Kristen! You've made my day!

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