Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Calla Lilies Bloom Again for "Stage Door" and Jean Rouverol

Hollywood, particularly in the 1930s, loved movies about what it was like to work in live theatre. For movie audiences who lived far from the Great White Way, it was a chance to peek behind the scenes at a glamorous world they wished they knew better. And, of course, movies featuring  gaggles of pretty girls were always in fashion. Which is partly why Stage Door was a popular as well as a critical success. The film was based on a play by two Broadway legends, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, but the Oscar-nominated screen adaptation veered so far from the original that the witty Kaufman quipped it should be renamed “Screen Door.”

 Stage Door takes place mostly in the showbiz rooming house where scores of aspiring Broadway babies lounge, bicker, and banter, while waiting for their big break. Three of them stand out. Andrea Leeds scored an Oscar nomination for playing  the tragic Kay, a talented actress desperate for a leading role she doesn’t land, for reasons that have nothing to do with her ability. Ginger Rogers is Jean, a perky dancer quick with an opinion or a wisecrack. Katharine Hepburn, starring in her first box-office success after four big commercial flops, is Terry, who first seems like a stuck-up socialite but proves her humanity when the chips are down. (Her on-stage entry line, beginning “The calla lilies are in bloom again,” is apparently a knowing reference to an actual Hepburn line in a Broadway play that Dorothy Parker had wittily panned.) The male lead is the always-oily Adolph Menjou, as a producer and seducer who controls the women’s fate.

 Stage Door proved to be a star-making vehicle for several other actresses. Lucille Ball scores as one of the rooming house’s dizziest dames. The acerbic Eve Arden and dance phenom Ann Miller have modest roles, but both make a definite impression. As for all the others, it’s hard to sort them out, especially since they’re all young, pretty, and Caucasian. But the end-credits told me that one of them, playing the role of Dizzy, is Jean Rouverol, a then-actress whose importance to the film industry was to lie in a very different direction.

 Jean, whom I once met briefly at a writers’ party, moved on from her acting career  in 1940, when she married Hugo Butler. He was a prolific screenwriter who in 1941 was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Edison, The Man. His screenplays, ranging from Lassie Come Home to a western called Roughshod, held him in good stead in Hollywood.  Jean meanwhile was churning out episodes of TV’s Search for Tomorrow while being a supermom to her kids. (She ended up having six.)

 Both Butler and Rouverol were politically leftwing, which meant that in 1951 they faced being subpoenaed by the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Their solution was to self-exile in Mexico City, where they spent what turned out to be a fairly delightful decade, living next-door to Diego Rivera and enjoying the company of other HUAC refugees, like Dalton Trumbo. Of course they could no longer write under their own names, but Hugo formed a creative partnership with the great Spaniard Luis Buñuel (The Young One) while also writing and directing a well-regarded Little League baseball documentary, Los Pequeños Gigantes.  

 Refugees from Hollywood, published in 2000, is Rouverol’s memoir of her blacklist years. While not forgetting how many fellow writers truly suffered, she captures the excitement of her family’s HUAC years. saying, “I wouldn't change a moment of it. We were periodically terrified. But we felt like some curious kind of pioneer.”

 Dedicated to Susan Henry, who discovered Rouverol's memoir in a book box and gifted it to me.


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