Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Morning Glory

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Morning Glory (RKO, 1933) – Director: Lowell Sherman. Writers: Howard J. Green (s/p). Zoe Akins (play). Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Adolphe Menjou, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Mary Duncan, C. Aubrey Smith, Don Alvarado, Fred Santley, Richard Carle, Tyler Brooke, Geneva Mitchell, Helen Ware. B&W, 74 minutes.

In 1932 a new trend took hold in Hollywood: the “backstage” film, usually about an “aspiring small-town actress” who starts small but eventually makes it big. Aimed at the female audience, the plots of these films were as thick as a gummy milkshake. Of the many that were made, the most notable was RKO’s 1932 What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor and starring Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett; and 42nd Street, a 1933 musical from Warner Bros. that moved the story to Broadway, where the unknown Ruby Keeler must take over for leading lady Bebe Daniels after Daniels breaks her ankle.

A few months later, Morning Glory, adapted by Howard J. Green from an unproduced play by Zoe Akins, and – interestingly enough – directed by Lowell Sherman, made its debut. Today it is chiefly known as the film for which Katharine Hepburn won the first of her four Oscars. It would not be the last of the genre, followed and greatly overshadowed in 1937 by A Star is Born and in 1950 by the ultimate backstage story, All About Eve.

Hepburn is Eva Lovelace, nee Ada Love, a young actress who was the star of the local theater in her small Vermont town. Now she has come to New York, where she intends to meet powerful producer Louis Easton (Menjou) and convince him to take a chance on her talent. 

While in his office she meets one of Easton’s regulars, Robert H. Hedges (Smith), an elderly English actor who takes kindly to her, and agrees to become her mentor (and good luck charm). 

But despite his attempts to help her career, Eva is going nowhere fast until one night when broke and starving, she accompanies Hedges to a party at Easton's home. There she gets totally drunk and makes a spectacle of herself, though she does excellent job of performing some Shakespearean monologues. Later, she spends the night with Easton in his bed. Still, that does nothing for her, until Easton’s playwright, Joseph Sheridan (Fairbanks), develops a crush on her and gets her a job as the understudy to the play’s troublesome leading lady, Rita Vernon (Duncan). When Rita does the expected and gets into a pissing match with Easton on opening night, Sheridan suggests jettisoning Rita and opening with Eva in the part. 

Of course, Eva is a big hit, saving the play and making a huge splash with public and critics. Afterward, in the dressing room, Eva learns a life lesson. Easton, with whom she is in love, turns her down flat, though he will continue to serve as her producer, describing her as “the most valuable piece of theatrical property I ever had.” Sheridan who had declared his love for her, is firmly, but gently, let down. Meanwhile, mentor Hedges warns Eva against letting this success go to her head. In other words, do not go down the road as Rita: 

Every year, in every theater, some young person makes a hit,” he tells her. “Sometimes it's a big hit, sometimes a little one … but how many of them keep their heads? How many of them work? … Youth has its hour of glory. But too often it's only a morning glory - a flower that fades before the sun is very high.”

After everyone leaves Eva is alone with her dresser, Nellie (Ware), one of those Hedges was referring to in his speech – a former toast of Broadway now reduced to a personal dresser.

In a little speech that closes out the movie Eva embraces Nellie, declaring that she will not share her fate: 

"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. I-I want to ride through the park. I want to, I want to have a white ermine coat. And I'll buy you a beautiful present. And Mr. Hedges! I'll buy Mr. Hedges a little house. And I'll have rooms full of white orchids. And they've got to tell me that I'm much more wonderful than anyone else, because Nellie, 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."

After all this, the life lesson Eva has learned is that she cannot have both fame and love. Hooray for us.


Morning Glory in reality is really nothing more than The Hepburn Show. The plot is serviceable but hackneyed, and a good deal of the dialogue was overripe. However, pick up a biography of the actress or her 2011 memoir, Me: Stories of My Life, and the parallels between Hepburn’s life and Morning Glory are startling; in many ways the concerns and desires Eva Lovelace character directly parallel those of the actress herself.

Like Eva, Hepburn had the same unflagging desire in pursuing a part that interested her. The film came to her attention when she noticed the script on producer Pandro Berman’s desk. Browsing through it, she became so enthralled that she stole it and read it. Afterward she had good friend and confidante Laura Harding read it as well. Afterward they agreed that it was a part that suited Hepburn to a tee.    

In pre-production, Constance Bennett was chosen for the role and the script was especially tailored for her. Hepburn met with Berman in his office, and in a meeting she recalls in her memoir, put forward quite strongly the case for her as the lead, telling Berman that she was born to play the part, She was so forceful that Berman ultimately decided to give her the role. As its turned out, Bennett was more interested in playing the co-lead in the romantic comedy Bed of Roses (1933) with Joel McCrea. Thus no harm, no foul.    

The role of Eva Lovelace was indeed a perfect one for Hepburn. Not only did it set her up to be seen as a young Bernhardt in that its narrative was about a rising young actress, but it also gave her the chance to do a little Shakespeare. During the party scene at Louis Easton’s place, while quite in her cups, Eva gives an impromptu audition performing two diametrically opposed strikingly different Shakespearian characters: the brooding Hamlet and the romantic Juliet. (A scene where Hepburn and Fairbanks played the entire balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in costume was cut during the final edit.)

Lowell Sherman’s direction was almost nonexistent, shooting it as if it were a play. His contribution to the film seems to have been in making sure the medium shots were firmly intermixed with close-ups of the new star looking absolutely fascinated.

Given the short running time, there is no room for a complicated narrative. We really don’t learn anything about Eva aside from the fact she is annoying to the hilt. Menjou and Fairbanks function almost as stage props, there to further highlight the star. The last scene, where Eva muses over her success, seems as if it were shot as a coda to give the star an extra boost for the Oscars, in case the drunk scene failed to move voters.

In the final analysis, Morning Glory is an undistinguished drama with a boilerplate plot, almost something Poverty Row studios might attempt in the ‘40s. Hepburn was better than the material, but that’s not saying much, given that the material is awful. As for Hepburn, except for the drunk scene, her performance was forgettable and monotonous. Neither it nor the film wore well with time and both stand out as a curiosity of sorts. However, by the reaction of audiences, who came out in droves, and critics, who were falling all over each other in their praise for the actress, it succeeded in its purpose, which was to showcase its star, which paid off when Hepburn won the Oscar for her performance. The TCM essay on the film notes that, 40 years later, evaluating her performance, Hepburn said, “I should have stopped then. I haven't grown since.” Truer words were never spoken.


The film was remade in 1958 as Stage Struck with Susan Strasberg in the lead.

Morning Glory earned RKO a profit of $115,000.

No comments:

Post a Comment