“No other star has emerged with greater rapidity or with more ecstatic acclaim. No other star, either, has become so unpopular so quickly for so long a time.” (Britton on Katharine Hepburn 13)
Katharine Hepburn made her first three Hollywood films within the space of 15 months after arriving in California from New York. She rose to immediate popularity after her first film, A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932), which starred John Barrymore and Billie Burke and was directed by Hepburn’s long-time friend George Cukor. Hepburn then went on to make a success of Dorothy Arzner’s CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933), in which she plays an Amelia Earhart type aviatrix.
MORNING GLORY (1933) completes this trinity of films in which Hepburn portrays a woman whose sense of self-assertion is framed within a film text that presents the inevitability of her defeat. The very nature of Hepburn’s persona as a film star is developed in these films that require the contradictions of her characters’ desires. Not only does Hepburn’s Eva Lovelace in MORNING GLORY encapsulate the problematic nature of the Hepburn persona, but the film text itself operates as a portend both to Hepburn’s ultimate position within the legacy of great actresses and to her immediate downfall after the successes of her first few feature films.
The film opens with a waif-like Hepburn, only in her mid-twenties at the time, walking through the foyer of a grand New York theatre. She gazes admiringly up at large portraits of such legendary actresses as Ethel Barrymore, Maude Adams, and Sarah Bernhardt. Hepburn’s unconventional appearance and acting style was often mistaken as genius, and many critics of her early films insisted on her being classed in the great tradition of these leading ladies.
Many of Hepburn’s films throughout her career carry autobiographical undertones, whether deliberately or by coincidence, and MORNING GLORY is no exception. In many ways, the concerns and desires of the Eva Lovelace character directly parallel those of the actress playing her.
The first scene takes place in the waiting room of a theatre director’s office. Eva, with all the naïveté and confidence of her youth, enters into a conversation with an elderly actor (C. Aubrey Smith) seated near her (view clip here). Much of what she says to him can be read as a harbinger of Hepburn’s own career path. When Hedges (Smith) describes how “Bernhardt broke your heart – Ellen Terry mended it”, Eva responds with:
“I suppose I shall never be very wonderful – not wonderful like them. But I’ve something very wonderful in me, you’ll see… I shouldn’t be surprised if I’m a great actress.”
Like Katharine Hepburn, Eva is familiar with her texts; she knows and speaks Shakespeare and Shaw as one who has studied and is conversant with their work. Hepburn and Eva also share a similar New England background, though Eva’s beginnings in the humble local theatre in her hometown are decidedly more of the petit bourgeois than Hepburn’s privileged entrance into the theatre world via the elite Bryn Mawr College and the legitimate Baltimore theatre.
Eva had the same dogged determination to secure herself a role, although she was much less successful than Hepburn was at securing her part as Eva. MORNING GLORY first came to Hepburn’s attention when she noticed the Zoe Akins script on producer Pandro Berman’s desk. Without hesitating, she stole the script from his office and went to read it and talk it over with her good friend and confidante Laura Harding. The two decided then and there that the part was perfect for Hepburn and that she must do anything she could to win it.
“Went to Pandro and said I must do it. He said no. It was for Connie Bennett. I said No – ME. I won.” (Hepburn 147)
“For me it was like a red flag held up to a bull. I had to win, to get the part and to make them sorry they hadn’t wanted me in the first place and have them overjoyed by my brilliance.” (Katharine Hepburn to Chandler 76)
“Adolphe Menjou and I [Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.] were with her in the film, and we were asked to help her out as much as we could. She won the Oscar.” (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. to Chandler 74)
MORNING GLORY was indeed a stellar role for Hepburn. It set her up to be perceived as a young Bernhardt, not only in that its narrative was about a rising actress, but because it also gave her the chance to perform Shakespeare. Not only that, but it allowed her to play two strikingly different Shakespeare characters: the brooding teenage Hamlet and the romantic Juliet. One scene in which Hepburn and Fairbanks filmed the entire balcony scene in costume was cut from the final film. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. had been present at the filming, and many years later Hepburn admitted to a biographer that “it was one of the few times in her life that she had stage fright” (Berg 96).
These performances take place at a party hosted by the stage producer Easton (Adolphe Menjou) after one of his shows. Eva has formed a crush on Easton and feels she must prove to him that he should give her a chance in his next production. The combination of these sentiments, very little food, and a great deal of wine, leads Eva to unexpectedly perform in front of the guests.
The performances highlight the contrast between Hepburn’s feminine and masculine qualities. As the unscripted Eva, Hepburn represents “girl”, completely dependent on the approval of her male acquaintances. These acquaintances hold dominion over her in a number of ways. Easton is in a position of power as a producer and can either make or break her acting career. Eva is also infatuated with him, so he has emotional sway in addition to professional influence. Eva places Hedges in the position of her mentor. He twice saves her from starvation and is also responsible for shaping her into a marketable performer.
But when Hepburn transforms into an actress when reciting the Shakespeare monologues, she lays claim to masculine dominance. In one sense, she does so literally, by her impersonation of the Prince of Denmark.
“Fired by genius she becomes the androgyne, her ‘masculinity enforcing itself in the peremptory, strident force with which she commands the room and it inhabitants, creating objects and persons as objects in her mise-en-scene, and in the appropriation of a male character’s speech, delivered in a vocal register and with an intensity strikingly different from the tones of the ‘girl’.” (Britton 65)
Unfortunately, the film requires Eva’s return to the feminine, although this measure also necessitates her demise. In short, the female actress is placed in a distinct no-win situation. If she maintains a façade of femininity, she may be forever relegated to the chorus line, or die of hunger, or be morally corrupted by producers like Easton. On the other hand, if she asserts herself as the androgynous genius described above, she risks being forcibly repressed by the men who manipulate her career.
Take for example the case of Rita (Mary Duncan), the actress who had the leading role before it was given to Eva. The film audience has witnessed conversations between the male producer and the male writer that Rita is “difficult” and “unreasonable.” The only evidence we have for this conclusion is that Rita negotiates her salary. The producers conspire to cheat Rita out of a proper salary in order to get rid of her. On opening night, Rita calls their game and makes demands for a higher salary and better career options.
Despite the fact that we have witnessed the producers screwing her over, the audience is expected to ally with Easton and Sheridan (Fairbanks, Jr.) when they express their disgust at her actions. This scene is representative of the systematic suppression professional women have had to endure for decades. It is so deeply ingrained in the social construct that it still seems valid, even in today’s world, to vilify a woman who is trying to hold her own in a business transaction.
At the end of the day, it is considered a triumph that the producers refuse Rita’s demands and instead offer the part to Eva. When she makes a smash hit in the part, their advice to her is not to become like Rita, a “morning glory,” but to remain sensible. Sensible or pliable, we might ask?
Significantly, Hepburn’s star text works against the film text of MORNING GLORY. As Britton points out, her performance presents femininity as a learned mannerism that is much less natural to her than the androgyny that her strident air of independence and self-assertion implies.
“Since Hepburn is a woman, this has the effect, conversely, of creating another model of femininity in which conventionally masculine properties are incorporated, and in relation to which the ‘feminine’ as defined becomes grotesque.” (Britton 70)
The film concludes with Eva confiding in her dressing lady, an older woman who had once been a great actress but had faded from glory. Eva has just been romantically rejected by Easton, who describes her as “the most valuable piece of theatrical property I ever had.” But Eva isn’t having any of it, as she vehemently declares (watch clip below):
“Nellie they’ve all been trying to frighten me. They’ve been trying to frighten me into being sensible, but they can’t do it. Not now. Not yet. They’ve got to let me be as foolish as I want to be… And they’ve got to tell me that I’m much more wonderful than anyone else because, Nellie, I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of being just a morning glory. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid. Why should I be afraid? I’m not afraid!”
We can believe, because Hepburn is Hepburn, that she can reject their advice and still find success. But the film would have us believe that Eva is doomed because of this self-confident assertion to make her own success. One critic even went so far as to claim:
“The striking and inescapably fascinating Miss Hepburn proves pretty conclusively in her new film that her fame in the cinema is not a mere flash across the screen.” (Richard Watts, Jr. New York Herald Tribune)
This almost proved to be untrue because Hepburn’s career turned fairly sharply downhill after she made LITTLE WOMEN (1933). She made a string of unsuccessful costume dramas which ultimately got her labelled “box office poison” by the late 1930s. Films that are today considered part of the essential Hepburn canon, like BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and HOLIDAY (1938), were not very well-received at the time and did little to return their leading lady to popularity. It wasn’t until she went back to the Broadway play and made a hit in Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” was she able to return to Hollywood as the conquering hero to make the film.
Although MORNING GLORY earned Hepburn her first of four well-deserved Oscars, the film has not stood the test of time. As biographer Homer Dickens points out, “Howard J. Green’s adaptation of Zoe Akins’ play was superficially theatrical, as was the direction of Lowell Sherman” (Dickens 48). This melodramatic style does not translate well to 21st century audiences who do not have the same theatre-lust of Depression-era audiences. Also, the very notion of Hepburn and Menjou being romantic together, on screen or off, is beyond repulsive. It is a major flaw that keeps this narrative from achieving any sense of credibility. The two actors had strongly opposing political views and by their fourth movie together, they weren’t even on speaking terms.
Despite its flaws, MORNING GLORY was a great coup for Hepburn, and it can still be appreciated for her acting merits alone. She modelled much of her performance on the style of stage actress Ruth Gordon, whom Hepburn had seen in a play called “The Church Mouse.” Hepburn would work with Ruth Gordon and husband Garson Kanin later in her career. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. remained a close friend, though there is evidence he would have preferred them to be something less platonic. Alas, poor Doug.
Without a doubt MORNING GLORY gave Hepburn the initial legitimacy she needed to establish her legacy in Hollywood. Its success and the notices her performance received boosted her confidence so that she, like Eva, would never fear fame in the future.
This post is written in conjunction with The Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. This post is featured, along with contribution from other participating bloggers, in CMBA Fabulous Films of the 30s eBook.