In early 1937, director Gregory La Cava sent an assistant named Winfrid Thackrey to embed herself in a home for aspiring actresses, the Hollywood Studio Club, to gather material for a movie about theater life. He told Thackrey:
Find me some dialogue that’s alive—get some case histories. Who are these kids? Why do they want to be in pictures? Where do they come from? What was their home life? Small town? Why did they leave home to come here? Are they having any success? Have they been to the “casting couch”? Was it worth it?
Thackrey moved into the Club posing as an actress who, realistic about her chances, was also trying to learn shorthand. She spent her days eavesdropping on the young women around her, compiling notes which helped give the resulting film, Stage Door, some of the richest dialogue of any classic Hollywood production. It also presents the era’s most compelling treatment of the deeply engrained sexual harassment women have faced in the entertainment industry, depicting the “casting couch” not as the popular myth used to malign female entertainers, but as a very real predatory tool of men in power over them.
The eighty-year-old Best Picture Academy Award nominee stars Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers as actresses who confront a producer who treats sex as the price of fame. It’s an eerily timely movie to encounter in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, and so many others. The casting couch is often called an “open secret,” and the story of Stage Door is a study in the kind of willful ignorance required to keep something so widely known from endangering those in power. It was just one movie, both at odds with widespread messages covering up the entertainment world’s harassment problem, and compromised by those messages to the point that its testimony could not even be heard.
Stage Door was not the first film to mention the casting couch, but others tended to bring it up only to exonerate those who wielded it. The 1923 film Souls for Sale was written as a rejoinder to the criticism the industry sustained in the wake of Fatty Arbuckle’s relentlessly publicized 1921 trial for the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe; though he was ultimately acquitted, it was suggested he’d sexually assaulted and accidentally killed her at a wild party. The movie presents a Hollywood where stars work tirelessly, have strong morals, and don’t even make that much money. And they keep their souls intact—never stooping to the casting couch.
Early on, the naïve heroine enters a crowded casting office and desperately flutters her lashes at the desk clerk. Educated by anti-Hollywood gossip, she assumes “the only way to succeed in the movies is to sell your soul.” On the contrary, an intertitle notes, “Beautiful women are no luxury to the poor casting director. He has about two jobs a day to give out and endures more wiles than King Solomon.”
She waits outside the director’s office and watches as a young vamp looks deep into the director’s eyes, puts her arms around him, and says, “I must have work. I know that I must pay ‘the price.’” The man is repulsed, casting her out and insisting neither he, the producer, nor the director would dream of touching her.
“It’s the public you’ve got to sell yourself to—not to us.”
Thus the notion of the casting couch is dismissed. The heroine avoids making the same mistake and instead finds stardom the “honorable” way. Even her anti-Hollywood preacher father comes to recognize the fundamental decency of the industry.
Later films such as They Call It Sin (1932) and Myrt and Marge (1933), are more honest about powerful men, the latter featuring one sneaking into an actress’s room wearing a robe, but usually the victim is presented as taking a foolish risk. In the Best Picture winner The Broadway Melody (1929), a woman is warned not to date one of her show’s funders, but she does so anyway, only to regret it when he demands favors. In Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), an actress’s boyfriend says of a producer across the nightclub floor, “I know the type: the minute he meets a girl, he starts feeling her ribs and talking about screen tests.” But she heads right over to him nonetheless. In All About Eve (1950), Marilyn Monroe does not enjoy courting producers, but she’s the one on the hunt. The industry doesn’t look good, but its victims don’t look any better. When the woman is rescued in The Broadway Melody, the rescuer chastises her before getting to the producer who has just been holding her captive.
Usually casting couch references are fleeting, relying on a savvy audience. In King Kong (1933), a director offers Fay Wray a job and she stammers an uncertain response before being assured, “You’ve got me wrong. This is strictly business.” In The Stand-In (1937), Leslie Howard instructs Joan Blondell to shut a pair of doors, and she says, “My my, you talk like a producer, but I can scream so you can hear it through more closed doors than this.” In A Star Is Born (1937), Adolphe Menjou tells Janet Gaynor, “I think I’m going to like you,” as he comes around his desk toward her, and Gaynor looks warily and shifts away in her chair, only to sigh in relief when it’s clear Menjou’s intentions are pure. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to gesture to the truths they knew of Hollywood, or perhaps they sought, like Souls for Sale, to render the casting couch myth.
Six months later, Menjou would again play a producer in Stage Door. However, this time he wouldn’t be helping Hollywood deny the performing world’s dirty secret, but laying it bare.
The Hollywood Studio Club was created in 1916 to be a home for the young women then flooding Hollywood, whose lack of money or connections put them at the mercy of unseemly men. It didn’t solve the problem, but it offered positive public relations, assuring the public that Hollywood had sincere concern for vulnerable women. By the mid-thirties, 150 were living there.
In March of 1937, Thackrey consulted with the Club’s director, Marjorie Williams, who allowed her to pose as an aspiring actress. While the girls would chat in the large social room after dinner, she would sit on a couch with her back to them and take careful notes, listening in as they detailed their daily efforts to get parts.
During the days, she went with actresses to studios, or ventured elsewhere in Los Angeles: “I loitered in pick-up bars evenings, filing my nails or seeming to practice shorthand outside the girls’ room, waiting for two girls to come in together—one to the toilet, one to powder her nose at the mirror—their voices loud, their comments colorful, often hilarious.” She spoke with others on set, or at a bus stop, or working a soda fountain. “I never relied on my memory,” she wrote in her 2001 memoir. “Lines were exactly as spoken, colloquial, slang ridden, all faithfully recorded in shorthand and transcribed the following morning. The girls probably thought I was a bit cracked, and certainly snoopy, but my interest in them as persons was genuine.” She adds:
Much of the dialogue was used in the picture. Much of it was not. Some of the case histories found their way into the picture. Many did not, but the whole project established a mood that worked and that did carry over to the film itself. Conversations, comments, opinions were interrupted, questions were overlapped with other questions and never answered: my notes recorded faithfully the way people actually talk.
The 1936 play the movie was based on, by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, was largely jettisoned, as were scripts by Morrie Ryskind and Tony Veiller, but, as Thackrey says, many of her gathered bits of dialogue survived. When the actresses arrived on set in June of 1937, La Cava had them sit around and talk to see how they interacted and to develop more natural dialogue. Rogers’ ad-libs were so good she later received a telegram from the producer suggesting she work as a gag writer. In addition to the stars and up-and-comers like Lucille Ball were five girls from the Studio Club, picked by La Cava after they performed the play for him in the Club theater.
Each night after shooting, the writers would craft the next day’s script and then they’d encourage improvisation around it on set in the morning, not coming up with a final draft until the lunch break. That free-flowing spirit is evident in the opening scene as the camera roams across the parlor of the “Footlights Club,” picking up on a fight between Rogers and her roommate Gail Patrick over borrowed stockings, and then a phone call from some Seattle lumbermen asking Ball out for a date, and then the Club manager emerging from the hall to exert order. All the while, a dozen young ladies lurk in the background, pursuing their own conversations or tossing in wisecracks. It all flows so effortlessly, with each character’s dialogue as enticing as the next, that you hardly notice the whole course of the movie is being set up.
Rogers finds herself standing next to Ball, who asks if she wants to double date. Remembering how the oafish Northwesterners stepped on her feet last time, Rogers refuses and Ball responds, “Alright, you can stay here and gorge yourself on lamb stew again.” This changes everything. The mere mention of a chance at a decent meal has Rogers on board. Then Hepburn arrives. She’s obscenely rich and obnoxiously out-of-touch, and the ladies let her know it. As she waits for the manager who will soon assign her to be Rogers’ new roommate, the old one comes downstairs. A car has arrived for Patrick, sent by an important producer, and on her way out the door she has some parting shots for Rogers.
Patrick: You know, I think I could fix you up with Mr. Powell’s chauffeur. The chauffeur has a very nice car too.
Rogers: Yes, but I understand Mr. Powell’s chauffeur doesn’t go as far in his car as Mr. Powell does.
Patrick: Even a chauffeur has to have an incentive.
Rogers: Well, you should know.
Patrick: I hope you enjoy your lamb stew again tonight. I’ll be thinking of you while I’m dining on pheasant bordelaise.
Food preoccupies the women of the Club. There’s endless lamb stew, flavorless vegetable soup, and meatloaf the cook “must have gotten…from the Smithsonian Institute.” Ball’s not excited about her dates, but says, “To me, they’re meat and potatoes.” Unable to find work as an actress, Andrea Leeds is starving herself to save money. To all of them, the producer is a “meal ticket,” gateway to elegant eating like “bordelaise,” a word the women like the sound of even if they don’t know its meaning. The association of men and meals goes further when a butcher arrives for a date with the house cook and Ball flirts aggressively with him, trying to convince him to sneak some chicken in with their lamb. The women are in love with the theater, but that love is qualified by baser needs. Their hunger makes them vulnerable.
The next day, Rogers and Ann Miller are at dancing school when the producer, Adolphe Menjou, arrives, leering at all the dancers before settling on the pair. Miller hopes he’s eyeing her, but Rogers is disgusted with him. When he comes over, she serves up some insults and then hurries away. Alone with the much older man as he looks her over, Miller loses her enthusiasm and makes a hasty exit too. But then back at the Club she criticizes Rogers for blowing an opportunity. Her vacillations suggest the predicament of all these women, both repelled by the men in their lives and beholden to them in order to get work, or simply eat.
Moments later, a phone call comes in offering Rogers and Miller jobs dancing at a nightclub. It would seem Rogers did the right thing, eschewing the sleazy road to success, being rewarded for her merits. But then after her first performance Menjou enters her dressing room. He has a stake in the nightclub, she realizes: he got her the gig and expects a reward.
Menjou sits behind her and describes the woman of his dreams, one just like Rogers, and she ridicules his come-ons. But then, once more, she changes her attitude upon hearing a single word: “dinner.” When Menjou offers to take her out the next night, she responds, “I’m very fond of dinner.” In moments they have a date, but Rogers has little appetite for it. Her face drops as Menjou steps out the door. She’s spent the first act mocking Patrick for trading her affections for this guy’s wealth, and now she finds her only hope of success lies down the same path.
In his omnipresence in Rogers’ life, and in the way the women fixate on this single producer, Menjou seems to epitomize the predatory men keeping the gates throughout the industry. In the next scene, the other women wait outside his office, hoping in vain to be seen. Soon half-starved Leeds arrives. Menjou has ignored her since he last gave her a part; perhaps she’s another conquest he’s cast aside. As she begs for an entrance, she faints, leading an outraged Hepburn to burst into Menjou’s office. There, she berates him and he answers in kind. Then she departs just as his lawyer arrives. It seems Hepburn’s wealthy father will bankroll the play if she gets a starring role.
Hepburn, who has hitherto suggested the ladies’ lack of roles stems from laziness, remains tin-eared as she returns home. “It’s so silly of her to have gone without food,” she says of Leeds. When she hears Rogers discussing her date with Menjou, she tells her, “Why don’t you stick to your ideals? They’re rather crude, but they’re alright.” Rogers doesn’t answer, just points to the photo of the rich grandfather Hepburn keeps on her dresser.
Hepburn can’t see how her privilege insulates her from the dilemma Rogers faces. For Hepburn, acting seems like a lark, something she tries out secure in the knowledge her family riches await if she fails. She won’t have to pay for her part because her father already did, but if Rogers spurns Menjou, she’ll lose not only her chance on stage but also her dancing job.
Before her date, Rogers awkwardly tells her sometime boyfriend that she has to stop seeing him, but without giving any reasons. Then we cut to Menjou’s apartment where he and a drunken Rogers have just finished dinner, a meal she professes she didn’t dare enjoy because it would make it too tough to return to lamb stew. From there, things play out as Patrick predicted in an earlier scene—Menjou encouraging her to keep drinking champagne, dimming the lights, dropping to his knees and declaring himself a little boy in love. It’s all aided by an assistant, Harcourt the butler.
“He’s very discreet though. You know, one of those butlers that tiptoes backwards,” Patrick had said. “And he’s very deaf. You really won’t have to bother to scream for help.”
It’s a sinister note, a gesture to the reality of the casting couch experience that the film isn’t willing to represent. After explaining he can introduce Rogers to the right people, put her name up in lights, and ensure she never has to eat lamb stew again, Menjou clutches her hands and promises to be the Pygmalion to her Galatea. Drunk, Rogers fixates on the comparison, asking whether Pygmalion and Galatea ever married, getting weepy over it. Menjou tries to talk her back into romance, but—frightened by discussion of marriage—he soon ushers her out of his apartment. He shuts the door and pulls out his little black book to find a replacement. It all ends too quickly, Menjou’s sudden decency matching neither his eagerness to get her drunk, nor the ideas conjured by the mention of screams.
The same routine plays out the next night with Hepburn. Her father has bought her the part already, but Menjou seems intent on exacting payment from her, too. It doesn’t work, as she mocks his every ploy. Then Rogers bursts in angrily. Whether she’s decided she likes Menjou or is upset over the loss of opportunity isn’t clear, but her anger is exacerbated by Hepburn, who has uncoiled herself on the floor like an eager lover. “What is this?” Menjou asks “A frame up?”
The question is another hint of something sinister in Menjou’s life. The previous night, when trying to get Rogers to quiet down, he blurted out the non sequitur, “My lawyer will straighten the whole thing out.” Earlier, on seeing his lawyer, he lowered his voice and asked, “I hope this has nothing to do with that other matter; I thought that was all settled.” We don’t know what he could mean, but we’re continually reminded of a darker underbelly.
But it recedes from view in the final act. Hepburn proves a wooden actor in her new part, but just before she is to perform, Leeds takes her own life. Filled with grief, acquiring in an instant all the depth of feeling her fellow actresses develop through years of struggle, Hepburn gives a star-turning performance.
The film ends at the Footlights Club. The ladies welcome a new girl, congratulate another on a part, and say goodbye to a morose Ball, who has traded the excitement of the Club for the security of one of those Seattle lumbermen. Rogers is conflicted. Critics have often said the movie lacks a love interest, but in fact, there’s that guy she dismissed before meeting Menjou, and now, in the final seconds, she thinks of him. No longer courting a producer, genuine romance is available to her again, and watching Ball depart she wonders if the chance at “a couple of kids to keep her company in her old age” is better than a future of fruitless striving and “broken-down memories.” An earlier montage of theater marquees and newspaper headlines has assured us Hepburn has stardom in her future, but it’s not clear what to expect for Rogers, nor what to hope for. One of those newspapers describes Hepburn as Menjou’s “latest discovery,” reminding us that he and men like him stand in the way of success for any woman, and yet the sad look on Ball’s face has made it clear respectable marriage can also mean trading dreams for the certainty of a “meal ticket.”
As Rogers talks to her beau over the phone, Hepburn leans over the stair-rail to try to keep her priorities straight: “Don’t be sentimental. Remember, you’re a ham at heart.” She’s speaking from privilege again—the privilege of a steady career, and of her father’s money having preserved her from the casting couch. Passing her on the stairs is Patrick, out for a date with Menjou, dressed in finery but without a career. We’ve barely seen the guy Rogers is talking to, have no idea whether he’s an oaf, a wolf, or worthy of Rogers’ heart. And the fact that we don’t get to meet him means less that the film has no use for romance than that these characters exist in a world in which romantic and career aspirations are at odds, and doubly so because so often the men in a woman’s career demand roles in her private life too.
Stage Door leaves us pleased at the knowledge the effervescent life of the Footlights Club will continue, but also a little disheartened, knowing that supportive cocoon only exists because of the threats that continue to reign outside.
I first happened to watch Stage Door with my mom the day after the LA Times published its report on director James Toback, and we exchanged knowing looks at every expression of Menjou’s lechery. From the characters’ references to the dangers the producer presents, to the way he looks the actresses over, to the assistant who aids his maneuvers, it felt like what we’d been reading.
Then I read the original reviews of the movie and began to doubt my understanding of what I’d seen. To critics at outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor, this was not a story of women subjected to predatory men. Many of the reviews don’t even mention the producer, focusing instead on the rivalry between Rogers and Hepburn, the remarkable dialogue, and the superiority to the play. When Menjou comes up, it is quite briefly, as though he barely figured in the plot. Even stranger is how he’s described.
The character is said to be “suave,” “amorous,” and “gay.” He “has a way with the ladies,” and “a weakness for dimples and knees.” He “changes his affections with bewildering rapidity but is always polite and always ready with his little book of telephone numbers.”
Some descriptors are more negative, including “sly and wily fellow,” “roué,” and “lowlife producer.” The most common label is “philanderer.” None of it suffices.
Reviewers simply didn’t see how pernicious the character is. The Christian Science Monitor calls him a “semi-villain.” The New York Times review calls him a “villain” but for the wrong reasons, saying, “the villain of all serious acting fledglings is the Broadway producer who is too busy to look and listen.” But it’s his attentions that are the bigger problem.
A piece in the trade journal Hollywood Spectator gets at why they all so eagerly miss the mark. In praising Menjou’s performance, the piece says, “There is no hero in Stage Door, no romance, and Adolphe is the nearest approach to a villain it has. The real villain is life, fate, the refusal of the wheel of fortune to stop at the right number; but Adolphe, who plays a theatrical producer, controls a spoke or two in the wheel, so to him the blame for its heartless stoppings.” The reviewer casts Menjou as another kind of victim, as though, once placed in his position of power, he has no control over how he operates—as though there is no other way to operate in that position.
The critics would have the movie as a fable of the human condition, of how we all suffer under the vicissitudes of fortune. They take the casting couch as understood, not a scourge but a spoke in the wheel of fate, an open secret but only in the way that death is an open secret—something we abhor but must nobly accept as inevitable.
It’s a painfully wrong reading, but not necessarily unintended. The film’s censorship records reveal changes seeking to obscure the theater world’s sordid undercurrent. Head censor Joseph Breen demanded Patrick’s character be presented as “a golddigger rather than a ‘kept woman’.” The latter puts a degree of moral opprobrium on the man, the former all on the woman. A corrupt woman is more palatable than a corrupt system. The earlier scripts were less vague about Menjou’s dark past too, with references to a diary he sought to suppress, an allusion to the previous year’s scandal entangling Stage Door co-writer George S. Kaufman.
Finding the fruits of Thackrey’s excursions into the Studio Club “replete with loose, and suggestive, dialogue” the censors demanded heavy changes. A complaint about a handsy date had to go, along with phrases like “on the make,” “facts of life,” and “nuts to you.” So did a reference to mirrors above the producer’s bed and anything else that hinted at the casting couch. Menjou’s declaration, “It’s guys like me that make dames like you” was rejected, along with repeated references to actresses who only perform offstage: “Did you say producers?” “They produce taxi fare and dinner—and the girls produce as little as possible.” “Officially, she’s an artist’s model. But all her posing is done in apartments.”
Over fifty “unacceptably suggestive” lines were cut, rendering the film a bit too equivocal. Some critics weren’t even sure whether they were supposed to read between the lines and assume Rogers slept with Menjou. The producer was not fully the villain in earlier scripts, but in removing the debauched atmosphere surrounding him his menace is further obscured.
To contemporary viewers, the film was less in dialogue with the history of monstrous men of the entertainment world than with movies like Souls for Sale, where women are as dangerous as men. The critics missed what was right in front of them because they had continually been trained to direct their attention elsewhere, onscreen and off.
Consider the 1934 Hollywood fan magazine article, “Are Pretty Girls Safe in Hollywood?” The title promises a direct engagement with a serious—if poorly framed—question. The subheading makes it clear such a question would not be seriously pondered for long:
The question is deemed “moot” because it’s misdirected. If anyone is a victim, according to the experts in this article, it’s the poor producers. “The men who make pictures are human, just as other men are,” says a woman working in central casting, an office invented to forestall predatory behavior. “If a pretty girl shows a willingness to dally along the primrose path with them, they won’t refuse.” That is, the casting couch exists, but it’s actresses who control it.
So while it is possible to trade sex for roles, the article insists it’s rare and unnecessary: “the girl who wants to travel straight will find her virtue as much respected and her person as safe in Hollywood as in any other city in the world.” In fact, the story insists, “Hollywood is the most sexless town in the world,” with movie people working too long or being too caught up in outdoor pastimes to bother with lascivious encounters.
The piece quotes a “famous musical picture director” accused of leering at dancers and answering, “To me a leg is merely something to stand on.” It was surely hard to believe even then, but the idea still sows doubt, shifts one’s moral focus. Encouraged to see producers as mere men and Hollywood women as temptresses, why should Menjou be any more than a “half-villain”?
Seen through this lens, Menjou is relentlessly pursued—by Leeds, by Patrick, and by Rogers, who only requires mention of “dinner” to drop all sense of being harassed. Rogers becomes a seducer. The moral choice is all hers. The viewer readily agrees with Hepburn that she’s making a big mistake and never considers the bind that puts Rogers in the producer’s apartment.
Focusing on the women as pursuers, it’s easy to miss Menjou’s subtle predations, the power he wields behind the scenes so that he doesn’t need to stoop to aggressive actions. He instead becomes a decent romantic prospect, not a cretin but a suave philanderer. Indeed, in discarded scripts, Rogers ended up with him. Lacking a script during shooting, everyone on set assumed one of the two leads would get him, and it became a point of rivalry between Hepburn and Rogers. That was the Hollywood they’d worked in, the Hollywood they’d been subjected to, the Hollywood they’d sold.
Some critics thought Rogers’ character genuinely wants to marry Menjou, and her drunken fixation on marriage could support the interpretation. Likewise in other movies that mention the casting couch, there’s an uncertainty about whether the women would prefer a domestic role to a stage one. Young women in Broadway Melody, They Call It Sin, and Stage Mother (1933) pursue dalliances with lecherous producers as surrogates for the unavailable men they really desire. It’s easy to see Menjou not as the man standing in the way of Rogers’ career, but a welcome alternative to having one.
Viewers of the film were accustomed to seeing women not only in charge of the couch, but also of their own victimization. As Joan Blondell sings of a wealthy man in Gold Diggers of 1937:
I’d encourage his bold advances.
And if he got reckless, I’d get a necklace.
A sudden love attack, and I’d have all his jack
For love is just like war.
Agency is off-loaded onto women precisely where men find their own power at its most self-destructive. Every misdeed of a character like Menjou’s can be re-framed as some woman’s secret design. Every truth has a counter-narrative. Everything was conspiring to keep audiences from seeing on that screen what is now so frightfully clear.
In 2017, Stage Door is the story of the horrors women encounter while trying to pursue a career in acting. In 1937, it’s the story of the whims of fate, or the wiles of women. It’s the same awful events, just a difference in context and sympathies, in what we’re prepared to see and be appalled by. It’s taking something everyone in both eras is well aware of—an open secret—and treating it as a problem to be remedied, not a fact of life to look past. It’s taking women’s claims seriously, not assuming unscrupulous motives.
“Are Pretty Girls Safe?” concludes with the perspective of Marjorie Williams, the head of the Hollywood Studio Club who let Thackrey in to gather material. “We have 150 of the nicest girls you ever saw in the club,” she said, “and they never complain about their virtue being menaced.”
Perhaps had she listened in, listened when they weren’t talking on screen, but quietly among themselves, or in their jokes, their banter, their asides, she’d have heard their screams.
Andrew Heisel is a writer living in New Haven, CT. Follow him @andyheisel.