SPOTLIGHT: Precocious Pre-Code Hepburn (III)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unforgettable Katharine Hepburn. Though her greatest fame would occur after 1934, Hepburn nevertheless made several important and interesting pictures in the Pre-Code era. So far we’ve covered A Bill Of Divorcement (1932) and Christopher Strong (1933). Today…

 

Morning Glory (1933)

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A stage struck girl travels to New York determined to make it on Broadway. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Adolphe Menjou, Mary Duncan and C. Aubrey Smith. Screenplay by Howard J. Green. Based on the play by Zoe Akins. Directed by Lowell Sherman. Hepburn won her first Academy Award for her role as Eva Lovelace in this wonderfully theatrical film that has since been compared to the legendary All About Eve (1950). The plot of the picture will appeal primarily to those who appreciate a good backstager, or rather, a film crafted around the machinations of the New York theatre scene. The premise is ordinary, but allows room for the characters to play. Thus, in this picture about actors, it is the actors who make the film come to life. As an ensemble, the cast is strong. But it’s Hepburn who’s worth seeing here — not any surprise, given the talent we’d already evidenced in her first two pictures — but this is the first time in which she’s 100% believable in a role suited for her.

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“Newly arrived in New York from Vermont, aspiring actress Eva Lovelace makes her way to the waiting room of Broadway manager Louis Easton and introduces herself to actor Robert Harley Hedges. Taken with Hedges’ British accent, the wide-eyed, babbling Eva explains her ambition to become a great actress and begs him to tutor her in elocution. As Eva and Robert talk, Louis Easton and playwright Joseph Sheridan discuss casting for Joseph’s new comedy, Blue Skies , which Easton is producing. Because she is under contract with him, Easton wants tempermental star Rita Vernon in the lead, and she consents on condition that she be able to choose her next part. Consequently, when Rita hears that Sheridan is adapting a Ferenc Molnár novel, she insists on reading it, even though Sheridan feels strongly that the story is too serious for her talents. After Rita leaves Louis’ office, Robert introduces Eva to Louis and Joseph. Although Joseph finds Eva charming and provocative, Louis describes her as “nuts” and dismisses her. Later, on opening night of Blue Skies , Robert takes a starving, broke Eva to a party at Louis’ penthouse. Eva, who had been cast by Joseph in a bit role in Blue Skies but had left the show before its premiere, drinks champagne and quickly becomes intoxicated.

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“Made bold by drink, Eva flirts openly with Louis and performs two scenes from Shakespeare for him. While her performance moves Joseph, Louis remains dubious and distant. The next morning, Joseph returns to Louis’ and is stunned when Louis reveals that he slept with Eva but now wants to get rid of her. After Joseph confesses to Louis that he loves Eva, she leaves, unaware of either man’s feelings toward her. Several months later, Joseph’s new show, which stars Rita, is about to open. Minutes before curtain, however, Rita confronts Louis with excessive contract demands, and Joseph insists that Eva, who has been cast in a bit part, take over the lead. After Eva gives a show-saving performance, Louis visits her in her dressing room, and although he pledges to guide her career, he refuses her love. Joseph then confesses his love but is gently rejected by Eva. Alone with her maid, a fallen Broadway star whose career Robert compares to a “morning glory,” a flower that blossoms bright but quickly fades, Eva reveals her sudden loneliness. As she gazes into her dressing room mirror, Eva nonetheless vows not to be afraid of turning into a morning glory herself.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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The ascent of an ambitious Broadway wannabe is classic fodder, and this film takes upon a fairly routine trajectory. It is telegraphed from the start that Eva Lovelace is going to, at some point in the film, eclipse the vapid starlet Rita. And, since this is a backstager, we know Hepburn’s character is going to go on the stage and make a big splash. Even in 1933, this concept is overly predictable. The premise only works during the moments in which character beats drive the action. That is, the film is best when it has something unique to say. A lot of this rests on the shoulders of Hepburn’s character, who quite craftily — although with unrestrained gusto — makes her way up the ladder of success into Broadway stardom. Never a completely unlikable character, her actions and motivations, at times, do indeed raise an eyebrow or two. And this complexity of character, which is inherent on the page, drives the film and its story to success. To be fair, the surrounding characters are not rendered one-dimensionally, either, although their functions within the narrative are rather generic. (Although, perhaps this is the way Hepburn’s character would have them.) Fortunately, the performances from Fairbanks, Menjou, Smith, Duncan, et al. are all well-crafted and sensibly delivered.

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It is appropriate that a film about the theatre be concentrated on the acting. (And this is a stagy piece adapted, after all, from a stage play.) And certainly no one gives a better performance here that Katherine Hepburn, whose characterization can best be described as layered. Unfortunately, even this is an understatement. Her Eva Lovelace begins the picture with the eager directness with which we’ve come to associate the Hepburn persona, and indeed have seen in her earlier film, in which this rawness sometimes was a detriment. Here, it fuels the character: remarkably, logically, excitingly. Then we trace her ascent — along with the hows and whys. But never is she the villain that we would likely categorize Eve Harrington. No, Eva Lovelace has a vulnerability — so much that we want her to rise to the top. Hepburn plays the role with a startling mix of (raw and non-molded) calculation and naiveté, and it is never completely clear whether her character is meant to be loved or hated. That’s multi-dimensional — a great character and a great performance. The drunk scene in which she gives a brilliant performance of Hamlet is the highlight, and shows exactly why she received an Academy Award for her work here. So, check out Morning Glory for Hepburn. Though not without its flaws, the film’s 73 minute running time makes it an enjoyable and worthwhile watch.

 

 

Come back next Friday for another Hepburn Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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