The Katharine Hepburn Film ‘Stage Door’ Was Surprisingly Queer for 1937
Looking for a sweet-hearted queer film that you haven’t already seen a million times already? Consider the film Stage Door, made in 1937. It stars Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden. And though motion picture rules forbade openly queer characters at the time, the subtext is hard to miss.
Stage Door tells the story of a women’s boarding house catering to actresses in New York, all of them struggling to build a stage career. Katherine Hepburn arrives, all bluster and stuck-up, rich and naive. She’s immediately paired with down-to-earth Ginger Rogers as a roommate, and the two immediately pounce into screwball banter, flirtation and competition. Their scenes are filmed exactly as movies of the time would frame romantic leads, with intrigued glances at each other and probing gazes.
Times being what they were, movie studios were forced to heavily censor their scripts; there’s no telling how much more explicit the queer context could have been. But none of the women in Stage Door have any interest in marriage for the sake of male companionship — what courtship does exist is purely business. When making dates, the women’s faces are contorted with unease and distaste. It’s their relationships with each other that truly matter.
Katherine Hepburn’s character in particular is disinterested in male company. She has little time for her father’s pleading to come back home, and she certainly never seeks a husband — highly unusual for a film of the time. Her only dates are pretenses to secure work, and even then, she asserts herself as a professional and keeps her affections out of reach of men.
Ginger Rogers, for her part, reluctantly accompanies a few men on outings, but never expresses much desire for them. To her, they’re merely a necessary means to an end, whether that end is dinner (hard to come by when you’re a struggling actress) or a job.
So with little emotional investment in heterosexual coupling, what does that leave? Each other. The women of the film are all deeply connected, a chosen family in which they all look out for each other. When one falls on hard times, the others look out for her. When tragedy strikes one of them, they’re all heartbroken.
Films of this particular era often ended with the male and female leads reunited and sent off to marriage, but not in this case. There simply isn’t a male lead. Instead, the major reconciliation at the end of the film is between Rogers and Hepburn, whose characters are rendered vulnerable by the loss of a woman they cared for. In the final reel, they run to each other, tearfully embrace, and solidify their union while urging each other not to speak because words are insufficient for what they feel. A montage informs us that they’ll remain together, a conclusion worthy of any other heterosexual screwball comedy of the time.
Stage Door went through a lot of creative changes during its making. First it was a stage play, though little remains of that work; rehearsals involved extensive improv and re-writes. The affection between women was surely not missed by those who made the film, despite social pressure preventing them from making it explicit. But at least now it’s possible to watch the film with an openly queer eye.