Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Calla Lilies Are In Bloom Again

Instead of complaining about the way Hollywood buys pre-existing works and then changes them beyond recognition, I will invite you to consider the case of Stage Door (1937). This is a movie that completely trashed the play it was supposedly based on. And it turns out that that was a good thing, because the movie is infinitely better than its nominal source.

First, some gushing about the film: Stage Door, the movie, is one of the best movies of the '30s. The director, Gregory La Cava, would have been one of the all-time greats if he hadn't been an alcoholic; as it was, he made several true classics, including My Man Godfrey and this one. La Cava and producer Pandro Berman assembled an extraordinary cast for the story of a New York boarding house for struggling actresses: the lead roles were for Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, both at their very best, and supporting players included Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, and Gail Patrick. La Cava was an improvisatory filmmaker who believed in shooting without a finished script (Leo McCarey was the same way). On Stage Door, before shooting started, he gathered the cast together for two weeks of rehearsals and encouraged them to ad-lib and improvise; he had a secretary take down the best lines that came out of these improv sessions, and incorporated them into the finished film. The whole movie has this loose, improvisational quality; it also has some real insight into the questions of what we have to do to "make it," in life or in show business, and into the cruelty of the fact that some people get the breaks while other, equally talented people, do not. It's an exceptionally rich, funny, affecting movie, and one of the fastest-moving and most concise movies ever made; there's not a wasted scene or an unnecessary line, and the movie takes only 91 minutes to tell a fairly complicated story with a number of subplots.

Now for the comparison of the film and the play. I'm going to spoil the plot of the film here, so if you haven't seen it, see it and come back to this later. Very briefly, the lead of the movie is Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), an heiress who is determined to make it on her own. She comes to New York and stays at the Footlight Club, a theatrical boarding house. She tells her father that she wants to find out whether she has what it takes to succeed as an actress; if she fails, she'll come home. Deciding to speed up the process, her father secretly makes a deal with producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou): he'll finance Powell's production of Enchanted April on condition that Terry be cast in the lead role. Kaye (Andrea Leeds), a "brilliant" actress who hasn't worked in a year and who had her heart set on getting Enchanted April, commits suicide on Terry's opening night. Terry's guilt over Kaye's death causes her to lose her emotional reticence and give a great performance. There are a number of little sub-plots, but the most substantial one involves Terry's roommate and Kaye's friend, dancer Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), who is wooed by Powell.

Now, the play. The play Stage Door opened on Broadway in 1936; it was written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, who had previously written Dinner at Eight together. The story of the play is as follows: Terry Randall (Margaret Sullavan) is an aspiring actress who has moved to New York from Indiana. Her father is a poor country doctor and her late mother was an actress before she got married. Terry knows that her mother always regretted giving up her acting career, and she is determined to have the kind of long, successful acting career that her mother never had.

Jean Maitland, "an opportunist; good-natured enough when things go her way; of definite charm and appeal for men," is dating David Kingsley, a producer who used to put on plays but gave it up to go to Hollywood and produce motion pictures. When Terry meets David, she tells him that his play Amaryllis was the first play she ever saw, but that she hasn't seen any of his movies: "I'm afraid I'm kind of dumb about pictures. Mother used to say the theatre had two offsprings -- the legitimate stage, and the bastard." At the end of the first act, Jean tells Terry that Kingsley has gotten both of them an opportunity to sign contracts with a Hollywood studio. But Terry refuses:

TERRY: That isn't acting; that's piecework. You're not a human being, you're a thing in a vacuum. Noise shut out, human response shut out. But in the theatre, when you hear that lovely sound out there, then you know you're right. It's as though they'd turned on an electric current that hit you here. And that's how you learn to act.

JEAN: You can learn to act in pictures. You have to do it till it's right.

TERRY: Yes, and then they put it in a tin can -- like Campell's soup. And if you die the next day it doesn't matter a bit. You don't even have to be alive to act in pictures.

Jean goes to Hollywood; Terry stays in New York, proclaiming her allegiance to the theatre: "It isn't just a career, it's a feeling. The theatre is something that's gone on for hundreds of years. It's -- I don't know -- it's part of civilization."

The second act takes place a year later. Terry is dating Keith, a young left-wing playwright who has finally sold his great play. She assumes she has a shot at the lead part, but the producer wants to cast a better-known actress, and Keith won't stand up for Terry for fear of not getting the play produced. Terry accepts it. Two months later, the play is a hit, and Keith sells out to go to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. Terry dumps him. Kingsley returns and tells Terry that she's a great actress but a lousy self-promoter; that's why she can't make it in New York. But in Hollywood, with a studio contract and the promotion machine behind her, "they'll know what to do with you out there."

In act three, Jean returns, having become a big movie star; now she's going to star in a play. Kingsley knows that Jean, having sold out, doesn't have what it takes to carry a good play, and is angry about it: "When picture people come into the theatre -- when they take a really fine play and put a girl like Jean in it -- when they use a play like this for camera fodder, that's more than I can stand. The theatre means too much to me."

Sure enough, at rehearsal, it turns out that Jean is simply not up to the part. Kingsley collars Mr. Gretzl, the producer of the play, and brings him to hear Terry do a reading. Gretzl isn't interested: "All I wanted it for was Jean Maitland, so she could make a picture of it." So Kingsley offers to buy the play from Gretzl: he's going to go back into the theatre, and produce the play with Terry as the star. And, of course, not only does Terry get the part, she gets the guy:

TERRY: David, oh, my dear, you mustn't do this just for me.

KINGSLEY: No, I'm not one of those boys who puts on a play just so that his girl can act in it... by the way, you are my girl, aren't you?

TERRY (brightly): Oh, yes, sir.

KINGSLEY: I just thought I'd ask.

(He takes her in his arms and kisses her.)

A subplot involves Kaye, a struggling actress who is running away from an abusive husband: "There's nothing else I can do and nobody I can go back to. Except somebody I'll never go back to." By the second act, Kaye hasn't worked in a year; she is broke, hungry and hopeless, and finally kills herself. The character of Kaye was retained in the movie, as was her lack of work, her suicide and that one line about "somebody I'll never go back to," but everything else about the character, including her reason for killing herself, was changed.

Was there anything else from the play that got used in the movie? Yes. One of Terry's lines in the play was given to Kay in the movie: "You're an actress if you're acting. Without a job and those lines to say, an actress is just an ordinary person, trying not to look as scared as she feels." And there may be a few lines I've missed that made it into the movie. Otherwise, the movie is a completely original work that uses the same setting, a couple of character names, and nothing else.

The play isn't bad; as always with Kaufman plays, it is well-constructed, does a good job of handling a large cast, and has some good lines. The anti-Hollywood theme of the play was probably dear to the heart of Kaufman, who detested Hollywood; he went out there to write one movie (A Night at the Opera) and direct another one (The Senator Was Indiscreet), but otherwise he was true to New York and the New York stage, and into Stage Door he poured some of his feelings about why live theatre is better. You could argue that Stage Door is more personal than most plays from Kaufman, a mostly impersonal technician whose plays are usually defined by the personalities of his collaborators. But, all that said, it's hopelessly phony and pointless. And the play proved the phoniness of its own theme from the moment the curtain went up on opening night, because the star was Margaret Sullavan -- an actress who had found equal success in film and on the stage, and whose appeal at the New York box office was undoubtedly helped by her success in Hollywood. The presence of Sullavan proved the falseness of the authors' thesis that doing pictures makes you unfit to be a stage actor; and her presence also made them look like hypocrites for arguing, through the hero, that plays shouldn't feature movie stars.

The play, in other words, is dated, creaky, and based on a premise that doesn't hold up. The movie is none of these things. (George S. Kaufman's only comment on the movie was that they changed it so much that it should have been re-named Screen Door.) Its very excellence was further proof that the play was based on a mistaken premise: the play is about the inferiority of Hollywood movies to the New York stage, yet it (nominally) inspired a Hollywood movie that was far finer than the New York stage original.

I'll close by pointing out a couple of mini-ironies about the movie. One: that this complete evisceration of a George S. Kaufman play was co-written by Morrie Ryskind, who had once been one of Kaufman's most frequent collaborators (they wrote Of Thee I Sing and several scripts for the Marx Brothers). And two: even though the play was co-written by a woman, it ends as a conventional love story where the heroine's fulfilment is largely contingent on her getting a man. While the movie, which was entirely created by men, is one of the most genuinely feminist movies ever made, in the sense that it is about women who don't define themselves by their romantic relationships with men (there is almost no romance in the film) and who are determined to be what they want to be rather than what society wants them to be. Most "women's" stories are about women who mostly think about men. Stage Door is a movie where women actually have other dreams, other priorities, other goals. Take that, Sex and the City.

1 comment:

David McGillivray said...

I'm astonished that nobody else has posted a comment about this great piece of research developed into a thoughtful and extremely useful essay. Well done!