Ah, the theater. That wonderful thing out there, drenched in magic and lights, that only a handful of people will break into and conquer. It’s an everlasting institution that will never go out of style. And rightly so. And in my opinion, capturing the essence of the theatre and everything about it in film isn’t easy and Morning Glory (1933) and Stage Door (1937) have managed to do just that in their own way.
In Morning Glory (dir. Lowell Sherman), Katharine Hepburn plays Eva Lovelace, an aspiring actress with a dream in her heart and a goal in her mind. She arrives at the offices of the Easton Theater, hoping to speak to Louis Easton (Adolph Menjou) in order to get a role in an upcoming play. While there, she meets all sorts of theatre folks: Rita Vernon (Mary Duncan), the ‘diva’, Robert Hedges (C. Aubrey Smith), a veteran character actor, Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr), the young playwright, and, of course, Louis Easton, the powerful theatre producer that everyone wants to impress. As the events unfold, this little world is presented to us in unashamed fashion and Eva Lovelace is the perfect representation of the wannabe-actress at the center of it all: a wide-eyed, eccentric, ambitious woman, with a childlike innocence that is yet to be spoiled and the belief that she can and will make it. Katharine Hepburn won her first of four Oscars for this performance and you can see why. That wonderful Katharine Hepburn quality was there all along and Eva Lovelace was the perfect character for her to shine with.
In Stage Door (dir. Gregory La Cava), she plays Terry Randall, a well-spoken amateur actress who arrives at the Footlights Club, a theatrical boarding house in New York, hoping to get a room. The other aspiring actresses take a disliking to her straight away, because of her upbringing and superior attitude, which doesn’t go down too well in a house full of young, wannabe starlets. As is pointed out many times throughout the film, there’s never a dull moment at the Footlights Club. Amongst its many eccentric and dynamic characters, there’s Jean (Ginger Rogers), Terry’s cynical roommate, Linda (Gail Patrick), the ‘Queen Bee’, Eve (Eve Arden), the wise-cracking amateur, Judy (Lucille Ball), the loveably sarcastic one, Anne (Constance Collier), the aging actress and Terry’s supporter and, of course, Kay (Andrea Leeds), the tragic actress who wants a break-through more than anything in the world. Stage Door, to me, is the best depiction of not only the theater community and its never-ending struggles, but also of female friendships and their many nuances. It’s so true-to-life, relatable and poignant – particularly with regards to the sleazy producer Anthony Powell (Adolph Menjou), a character who is evidently still relevant – that it amazes me how it’s not more widely ackowledged for its efforts to depict both of these worlds so accurately.
Both of these films do a terrific job with their subject. Morning Glory relies on a few stereotypes to get the point across, even if for comedic effect, while Stage Door deals with these stereotypes in a more human way. However, both of them are unafraid in their quest to showcase showbusiness and nearly all of its elements, including the abhorrent exploitation and abuse of power. And this was in the 1930s!
Although Stage Door is the better movie of the two and certainly one of the greatest movies of the decade, you can’t go wrong with either of them. They hold a mirror up to showbiz and it ain’t going to be pretty. But damn, it’s going to be good.