Stage Door Notes

Best known perhaps for a 1937 movie starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and future stars like Ann Miller, Lucille Ball, and Eve Arden, Stage Door tells the story of several would-be actresses who live together in a New York City boarding house.

The movie was adapted from a play of the same name co-written by two legendary writers: George S. Kaufman, who was also a director, producer, humorist, and drama critic, and Edna Ferber, who was also an acclaimed novelist and short-story writer.

George S. Kaufman
George S. Kaufman was born in 1889 in Pittsburgh, PA. He studied law intermittently and worked in the family hat-ribbon-making business before starting a writing career as a humorist in various newspapers.

In 1915, he became the drama critic for the New York Tribune before moving to a similar position at The New York Times from 1917 to 1930. In 1918, Kaufman’s play Some One in the House was produced at New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre, the first of almost 100 plays and musicals he either wrote or directed on Broadway.
Kaufman’s next play, Duley (1921), was a collaboration with Marc Connelly, the first of his many successful partnerships for the stage. Like many other playwrights at the time, it was through collaboration with other writers that the best work was often generated. Indeed, throughout his life Kaufman would work with such other great dramatists as Ring Lardner, Moss Hart, Alexander Woolcott, and Robert Sherwood.

Although Hollywood beckoned, it seems Kaufman was never comfortable there and he said he preferred the reality of “real, mortal” people and their stories. Nonetheless he is probably best remembered for A Night at the Opera (1935), a work he wrote with Morris Ryskind for the Marx Brothers. Throughout his long and successful career, he shared two Pulitzer Prizes: with Ryskind and Ira Gershwin, for the book to the musical Of Thee I Sing (1931), and with Moss Hart for the play You Can’t Take It With You (1936). He also won the 1951 Best Director Tony Award for the musical Guys and Dolls.

Edna Ferber
By all accounts, George S. Kaufman was also an expert bridge player who clearly knew the importance of good partners. His collaboration with Edna Ferber, whose literary imagination had been steeped in sprawling dynastic dramas of struggling American families, started with an adaptation of her novel Old Man Minick for the stage. Over the next 24 years, Kaufman and Ferber would go on to write five more plays together.

The daughter of a Hungarian-born Jewish storekeeper, Edna Ferber was born in 1885 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A talented child, she secured her first job as a newspaper reporter at the age of 17 after having impressed the editor with articles she wrote for her high school newspaper.

Combining her new job with a passion for acting, Ferber decided to become a professional writer. While recuperating at home from exhaustion-induced anemia, she wrote her first short story and first novel. In 1910, she gained attention for a series of stories published in national magazines.

Her first play, Our Mrs. McChesney, was produced in 1915, starring Ethel Barrymore. In addition, she became a prolific and popular novelist. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for So Big, the story of a woman raising a child on a truck farm outside of Chicago. Other popular works included Showboat (1926), Cimarron (1929), Giant (1952), and Ice Palace (1958). At one time, she was among the best-read novelists in the country, and critics of the 1920s and 1930s did not hesitate to call her the greatest American woman novelist of her day.

Throughout her life, anti-Semitic persecution endured by her family in her youth remained firmly in her mind. She suspected that, as a child, her pride as a Jew might have reflected her pleasure in self-dramatization, in feeling herself “different and set apart.” In her writing, we see a plethora of characters from high society to the lowest of the low, and of every creed and color. Indeed, in her comedy of manners Dinner At Eight (1932), co-written with Kaufman, she writes a painfully poignant and precise portrait of society during the Depression that no doubt drew from her own challenging past.