All this talk of Harvey Weinstein and now Louis C.K. has me thinking about Stage Door (1937), that fascinating film featuring a dormitory of smart-talking women clamoring for parts on the stage, and suffering the sexist overtures of a very slimy producer along the way. The film was produced the same year the words “casting couch” were first published in Variety, according to Matthew Dessem. How the film got made is clear: it’s a feminist anthem against sexual predation, yes, but it’s carefully camouflaged as one of the funniest comedies of its era. Critics praised the witty, fabulous dialogue, ignoring or underplaying the blatant warning directed at female aspirants to stage or screen.
The story begins with Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) trying to oust roommate Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick). Jean’s a sarcastic gal from the wrong side of the tracks, too proud and ethical to give into seductions in exchange for parts or furs. Her roommate, however, is an opportunist, and has given up her reputation in exchange for gifts from her wealthy keeper, sables and sapphires she rubs in Jean’s face.
The two separate to achieve peace, but Jean isn’t long for a solitary room; enter her new roommate, heiress Terry (Katharine Hepburn), who wants to star on the stage too. She thinks her peers haven’t made it big yet because they lack ambition. Her slow recognition of her own privilege will become the axis around which the plot revolves. Initially mocked by the dorm residents who resent her for slumming, she does make one friend, Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), the acknowledged talent of the bunch.
Sympathy and admiration for Kay will lead Terry to understand that her poverty-stricken companions aren’t slackers, but cynics battered by experience. They face obstacles she doesn’t, and have no safety net if they fall.
While Katharine Hepburn’s Terry is learning how the hungry half lives, Jean encounters Linda’s lover, Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), who eyes her in an audition. The fact that finding prey is his goal in being a producer is clear, as when he says to a dancing school director, “I very likely won’t produce anything unless I can find an angel. You haven’t seen any flying around, have you?” After an uncomfortable amount of leering at a dancing pair, he asks about “the little blonde.” His pal obligingly offers the information, of course, and soon Jean has unwittingly taken a job given to her so that Powell has access to her charms. We can see in all of these moves a clear pattern: he’s after/has sex with the girl, she gets the role. Jean’s response when she sees Powell and Linda at the club where she’s been hired says everything:
Jean’s barbs at Powell (and at his choice of a mistress) have no effect.
But then Jean decides it’s time to teach her former roommate Linda a lesson, steal her guy. Jean doesn’t plan to have sex with him, but what’ll it hurt her to drink a little champagne, have a meal or two that isn’t stew?
But the bigger reason for dating an undesirable man is evident: If Jean doesn’t play nice, what happens to her job? Her dancing partner, Annie, suggests as much multiple times. When Jean complains about his creepiness, saying she needs a “tin overcoat” as protection, her partner responds, “You should be glad he looked at you at all.” Jean doesn’t need her partner’s pestering; she knows full well that “…if I don’t go out with him, I’ll probably lose my job, and so will Ann, and I’ll be right back where I started from.”
Of course, Powell has plans of his own: ply Jean with alcohol, tell her a sob story about his life, talk about her name in lights and himself as the reason, and get what he wants. If she isn’t exactly sober enough to consent, what does he care? Creepily, his butler knows just how to disappear. As Linda warns her (to protect her meal ticket), the butler is “deaf,” so she “really won’t have to bother to scream for help.”
Luckily, Jean gets too sad-drunk on the first trip to his penthouse to make his “seduction” fun. He decides she isn’t worth the trouble, but she (too buzzed to catch the drift of their last talk) thinks she’s beginning to like the guy. The next night, when Terry is having an actual business meeting with him in the penthouse (as Weinstein’s actresses thought), Jean charges in.
Terry fakes drunkenness and sexiness to keep Jean away from the predator, and it works.
Jean realizes he’s as worthless, creepy, and unfaithful as she initially thought, and leaves. The audience is grateful for Jean’s escape, having seen the disaster Powell leaves in his wake: poor Linda has nothing but trinkets in exchange for sexual favors–gifts not even sizable enough to get her out of that dorm. (How thin is her arrogance!) We know how short Jean’s casting-couch career would be after her favors, given that roving eye. The actress in the story with true talent (Kay) who doesn’t succumb to (and apparently was never offered) the producer’s embraces is literally starving as he puts off her auditions for his dalliances, and will soon reach an even sadder fate.
I kept thinking of Terry when the Weinstein revelations came out, not just because she was brave in the story, but because she could be. Of course, Terry too is the object of male manipulation. The only reason she’s up for a part is her father’s secret meddling (He’s finagled her starring role so that she’ll fail and realize she should come home and marry a rich boy like a good little girl. Nice support, huh?) Although she does have a disgustingly condescending father, Terry is safe. That money gives her power of her own, and she can afford to confront the Anthony Powells of this world. It’s really the lesson of the Weinstein story, isn’t it? Predators go after those with no power, so those with it have to be the ones to stand up. And not just men, but female stars, the Meryl Streeps, who have status of their own and can be immune from predators’ hushing machinations. Several media outlets have justifiably called out the male actors and directors who did nothing about Weinstein, and the employees, like that pal in Stage Door, who abetted the behavior. But I’m disappointed too in the prominent women, those who weren’t personally affected, but could have done something…and didn’t. (Streep claims she didn’t know; even if she didn’t, others with star power did.)
At first I thought that the sexual predator storyline and feminist response to it were from Edna Ferber, a friend of Hepburn’s and the original play’s cowriter. Ferber may have been inspired by memories from childhood, I reasoned. According to Janet Burstein, Ferber learned about men’s less pleasant side in her youth, when everyday wants meant she “had to run a gauntlet of anti-Semitic abuse from adult male loungers, perched on the iron railing at the corner of Main Street, who spat, called her names, and mocked her in Yiddish accents.” That disgust on Jean’s face when she spots the way Powell looks at her? Yeah, that’s written by an author who knows. But the play Ferber cowrote was completely redone for the screen by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller. And according to some sources, the movie’s verisimilitude has less to do with the screenwriters than with Gregory La Cava, who sought the stories of and the funny dialogue of the women he directed, and encouraged improvisation. But then again, the stories of such men were everywhere, then and now, and needed no writer to reveal the behavior. Anyone watching and listening–as La Cava apparently did–could hear and expose them.
I hope one day this film–and La Cava–get more credit for the kind of heroic feminism we see so rarely on the screen or in life. Eighty years ago, this film exposed the terrible repercussions of sexual predation, and instead of suggesting that victims should be blamed for not standing up–as even current headlines do–put the responsibility squarely on the man at fault. More, it gave a path for correction, by showing who could do something to fight back, and revealing the privilege that might blind him/her to what was really going on. How many films in the decades since have done the same?