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Ginger Rogers, left, plays Jean Maitland and Katharine Hepburn, right, plays Terry Randall in Stage Door, 1937.Courtesy Everett Collection

After Harvey Weinstein turned himself over to New York police in a blaze of publicity, his defence lawyer told reporters the disgraced Hollywood producer “did not invent the casting couch.” It didn’t sound like a winning PR strategy that morning back in May, but Benjamin Brafman went on to distinguish between mere bad behaviour and a criminal act, and legal analysts were soon debating whether a jury would buy the notion that sex extracted in return for professional advancement is consensual. Whatever eventually happens in a courtroom, there’s no doubt Brafman is right: The mere existence of the term casting couch is evidence that trading sexual favours for roles has a long history in the entertainment industry.

Exhibit A is the 1937 movie Stage Door, a prewar comedy that is surprisingly frank about what an aspiring actress can expect if she wants to see her name in lights. It includes a scene where Jean Maitland, a tough-talking hoofer played by Ginger Rogers, bargains drunkenly over the exact size of those lights as she sits on the actual couch of Tony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), a powerful Broadway producer who is trying to seduce her. This was 81 years ago. A time-traveller from the #MeToo moment just has to shake her head at the parallels.

I came across Stage Door in a pile of DVDs on a recent weekend in the country without benefit of broadband. I had never seen it; the alternative was To Have and Have Not and my husband let me pick. Well, nothing against Bogey and Bacall but … a script based on the play by Edna Ferber, one of the Algonquin Round Table wits, and George S. Kaufman, who also co-wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can’t Take it With You. Starring a solo Rogers, during her years with Fred Astaire (a duo whose every movie I have seen, mainly between the ages of 12 and 13.) And Katharine Hepburn in the lead. … It must be the only movie those two so different actresses ever made together.

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We settled back for some cozy entertainment, but within minutes we were straightening our spines and pinning back our ears. Although screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller rewrote the whole plot, they kept the tight theatrical setting for their first act: the action is mainly set in the living room of the Footlights Club, a boarding house for ladies of the stage. Director Gregory La Cava encouraged the cast to ad lib and the zingers fly, revealing a group of hard-pressed troupers who are desperate for parts – and not above using men to make ends meet. Listen to this exchange between Jean and actress Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick), who is Powell’s current girlfriend and contemptuously offers her rival a date with his chauffeur. “I understand Mr. Powell’s chauffeur doesn’t go as far in his car as Mr. Powell does,” Jean replies to the offer. “Even a chauffeur needs an incentive,” Linda answers, to which Jean shoots back: “You oughta know.”

Stage Door dates to the early years of the Hays Code, those Hollywood morality rules that strictly limited how much sex filmmakers could show on screen; watching the movies of that period I’m struck at how scriptwriters would imply illicit behaviour, assuming the grownups in the audience would grasp their meaning. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, for example, assumed that everyone understood why it was a married woman who thought she was pregnant by her lover might be visiting a doctor. Similarly, in Stage Door, when newcomer Terry Randall (that’s Hepburn) places a picture of her grandfather on her bureau, Jean remarks that she probably wishes her grandfather were younger, implying the old man is actually a sugar daddy.

The movie is unusually female-centric, especially for its time.Courtesy Everett Collection

We had reached the 20-minute mark when my husband pointed out how unusually female-centric the movie is: We had yet to meet a single male character. The first men to appear are a pair of Seattle businessmen introduced to Jean by Judy (a young Lucille Ball, who had yet to adopt the squeaky voice of her I Love Lucy persona.) They are gauche lumbermen, portrayed as so undistinguished Judy can’t remember whether one is named Millstream or Millbank, but at least they will provide the women with a good dinner. The Depression is never mentioned here, but one actress does suggest they all might as well go on relief.

Another remarkable element of Stage Door is that it never offers romance as a solution – or even a desirable outcome. No big spoiler here, because Ball’s Judy is a minor figure, but she eventually decides to marry the guy whose name she couldn’t remember. Ruefully, her character accepts marriage as an economic alternative when the theatre fails her – even if Jean and Terry envy her the possibility of children.

Terry doesn’t know these financial pressures; that photo is one of her actual grandfather, the founder of the family fortune. This rich girl from the Midwest is determined to make a go of Broadway on her own merits, while her father pulls strings in the background to undermine her. His method involves paying Powell to cast her in a sorrowful part to which she is clearly unsuited and which should rightly go to another actress at the boarding house. That’s Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds), a desperate figure who, after one great success, has not worked in a year.

She is the saddest representation of the women’s profession and the only character depicted as a victim. The other women are smart and sassy, and using the men around them to survive. In the film’s boldest scene, Hepburn’s patrician Terry declines to be seduced by Powell: As he dims the lights and goes down on his knees, she tells him he is making her uncomfortable and insists he sit at a proper distance. Then, when Jean shows up, Terry pretends a seduction is underway so she can disabuse her roommate of any fond feelings she might have for the manipulative producer. Powell is a whole lot better looking and more charming than Weinstein, but in the end he is also defeated by female solidarity.

Each generation likes to think of itself as more enlightened than the ones before, but in 2018, it’s hard to image a contemporary studio making a comedy so refreshingly anti-romantic and so honestly sympathetic to working women. Meanwhile, a whole 80 years had to elapse between the release of Stage Door and the day Hollywood finally decided to banish the casting couch to the storeroom.

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