When I first saw Stage Door in 2006 it was because of my newfound interest in Ginger Rogers. Ginger was the comedic backbone of the movie and I became an admirer of hers from that day forward. However, the other major star in the movie, Katharine Hepburn, was already a longtime favorite of mine but her performance in Stage Door didn’t involve many of the comedic bits despite her great rivalry with Rogers’ character. In the many times I’ve watched the film since then, I’ve realized what a fine performance Hepburn gives. In fact, she’s the central dramatic focus of this already quite impressive ensemble cast of wisecracking dames.
The Plot: Hepburn is Terry Randall, the daughter of a business tycoon who has recently decided to become an actress. Terry figures that there’s nothing to acting—one just goes up on stage and speaks the lines. However, Terry wishes to succeed in theatre without her father’s powerful influence. Mr. Randall backs the production and makes a deal with producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou; who gives a delightful performance and gets some great lines) to get Terry the lead so she can fail miserably and get show biz out of her system. Terry’s wealthy background and shallow pursuit of stardom rubs the other girls of the Footlights Club boardinghouse the wrong way and she develops an instant rival in Ginger’s Jean Maitland character. The two have wonderful scenes together, trading caustic barbs in a see-saw battle of acid wits. However, Terry’s getting the lead over another roommate, the emotional fragile and creepy Kaye, leads to tragedy and Terry finally understands that being an actress involves more than merely reading the lines; one must feel the same things as the person they're playing.
Stage Door is best known as the movie with Kate’s line about the Calla Lilies being in bloom again. It’s often mentioned with amusement. In fact, the line is amusing when Kate speaks the words in rehearsal while oblivious to their meaning and then those same words take on a poignant, tragic meaning when she says them again during the performance of the play within the movie. Ginger Rogers may have gotten the bulk of comic lines but Hepburn gets more to do with the heavy dramatic scenes. Her scene in the dressing room just before curtain is Kate’s powerhouse moment. She’s sympathetic and devastated at the news of a tragedy concerning…no spoilers here, folks! The play begins and Terry’s previous ignorance of her character’s reading of the “Calla Lilies are in bloom” line has a poignancy and emotional impact that brings the Terry Randall character full circle.
Stage Door turned out to be something of a comeback for Katharine Hepburn, who was recovering from that ridiculous “Box Office Poison” label that dogged her during the mid-‘30s after a series of less-than-stellar films. When the issue of star billing arose, Hepburn was initially to be placed second under Ginger Rogers. RKO producer Pandro S. Berman reportedly told Hepburn that "she was lucky to have the 7th role in a star picture." Stage Door ended up a big box office hit and for Katharine Hepburn, was a first step back towards the top. Stage Door went on to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actress (Andrea Leeds; ironically the weak link among the cast).
Where Hepburn’s performance in Stage Door ranks among her career best is unclear. It's a fine effort, especially when one considers that she reportedly didn’t "get a handle" on her character until quite late in the shooting is testament to her ability, as Terry Randall is the one multi-layered character in the film. Hepburn also gets overshadowed by one of Ginger Rogers’ best comedic performances, and I never fail to be impressed at how she goes toe-to-toe with The Great Kate. Couple that with the energetic ensemble cast (which includes Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Gail Patrick, and Eve Arden), Hepburn still emerges with another fine role in her 1930s filmography.