June 25, 2020
Morning Glory – US, 1933
The 6th Academy Awards was a curious affair, taking place during the Depression and after the Academy proposed a temporary 50 per cent cut in wages for all studio employees and a cap on actors’ salaries, suggestions that no one took kindly to. The Academy nominated ten films for Best Picture, yet tradition still dictated that the acting categories were restricted to three nominees each. Best Actor went to Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII; the statue for Best Actress was awarded to Katharine Hepburn for Lowell Sherman’s Morning Glory. It was her first of four such victories, the others given for her roles in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond. Neither she nor Mr. Laughton were presented to receive their awards, so they missed the confusion when Will Rogers, announcing the award for Best Director, exclaimed, “Come and get it, Frank,” completely forgetting that two of the nominees had that first name.
Morning Glory is another example of Hollywood’s obsession with turning the camera on itself and telling rather self-serving tales about young people risking it all for a chance at fulfilling their dreams of achieving a career on the stage. Hepburn plays Eva Lovelace, a young aspiring actress with an impressive degree of confidence in her abilities and a mental blueprint of just how her career will transpire. All she needs, of course, is an opportunity to show what she can do. At least that’s how she puts it.
Hepburn plays Eva as a woman who overcompensates for her nervousness by talking incessantly about herself. I don’t say this as a criticism, for during my own time in the theater, I saw countless examples of such behavior; a few times I was even the over-explainer. I suspect that most of the characters she talks to have had similar experiences, for most of them have an incredible amount of patience with her, and it is this kindness that Eva misjudges. She even insists of barging into director Louis Easton’s office to say good-bye because she believes they shared a moment.
The film is well paced, in particular its opening scene in which we meet all of the principal players, Eva, Easton (Adolphe Menjou), a writer named Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), an veteran British actor named Robert Harley (C. Aubrey Smith), and star and diva Rita Vernon (Mary Duncan). In an early scene, we watch Easton and Sheridan tiptoeing around numerous fragile egos and superstar demands with grace and calm, and it reminded me of the multiple skills that producers and directors need when putting on a show.
The film peaks midway with a scene at a cast party to celebrate the opening night of Sheridan’s play, “Blue Skies.” After having what appears to be her first drink on an empty stomach, a drunk Eva decides to prove her talent by spontaneously performing Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy; as a follow-up, she dons a tablecloth and begins one from Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, only Joseph seems to truly recognize her talent. Of course, that doesn’t stop the film from ending with an improbable stab at stardom and the rapturous applause of an unsuspecting audience.
Morning Glory was not nominated for Best Picture, nor should it have been. However, there is a lot to commend here. The role of Eva allows Hepburn to display her numerous talents. In a lesser actress’s hand, Eva may have come across as simply annoying, yet Hepburn allows us to view her as an actress almost perpetually suffering from audition anxiety- whether she’s trying out for a role or trying to become acquainted with a stranger. For an example of this, watch the way Eva’s hands fidget as she talks to Easton early on in the film. It is clear that Eva’s confidence is a bit of an act. As Sheridan, Fairbanks Jr. does well with a fairly limited role. He almost single-handedly makes us believe in Eva’s talent. Menjou plays Easton with grace and dignity, and he cleverly drops subtle hints that the character may be a little less noble than he lets on. Duncan is perfect, capturing the ego and the cunning of a pampered star intent on getting what she thinks she deserves.
The film’s weakness is its script, especially its finale. It is all just too convenient. It also seems odd that the film waits until the last scene to introduce a rather somber theme, one that robs Eva of her accomplishment and makes the film a cautionary tale rather than a celebratory one. The film never truly finds the right balance between humor and drama. This is a film made and set during the Depression, yet it skirts that subject, reducing it to a few lines indicating Eva’s economic difficulty, yet never fully committing to it. Instead, we get drunken revelries and numerous examples of Eva finding employment, even if it is not entirely what she envisions herself doing. I wish the film had just slowed down enough to let us see Eva’s obvious pain and hardship, but then again it’s not surprising that it doesn’t. Few films do. Morning Glory has its moments, and Hepburn is certainly impressive. Still, the film could have been so much more, and you can clearly see the moment when its creators decided it wouldn’t be. (on DVD as part of Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection)