Katherine Hepburn won her first Best Actress Oscar for RKO’s 1933 film Morning Glory. There was something Hollywood loved about actors playing actors on the big screen and the industry still does. Bette Davis won her first Oscar for playing an actress in Dangerous. It’s a trend that continues to this day, with Michael Keaton getting nominated for his performance in Birdman.
Morning Glory, directed by Lowell Sherman, is a pretty straightforward and quick film, running just 73 minutes. Hepburn plays Eva Lovelace, a hopeful actress who just arrived in New York from Vermont. She figures that by hanging around the office of Broadway producer Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou), she can get a role in his latest show. The plan doesn’t quite work out, but she at least meets an older actor (C. Aubrey Smith), who is willing to teach her about acting; and writer Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who is instantly smitten by her. On the night of his big opening, Louis’ star refuses to go on stage and Eva steps up to perform beautifully.
What really won Hepburn the Oscar is a delightful scene she has while drunk. (Playing drunk also won Davis that Oscar for Dangerous.) There’s one beautiful shot of Hepburn in a chair, head resting in her hand and shadows highlighting her unique face, that instantly proves that she was a force to be reckoned with. It’s just odd to see her in the same shot with Mary Duncan, who looks like the typical actress from the early 1930s. But Hepburn establishes in Morning Glory that she is different. She is here to knock your socks off with a delightfully modern, wide-eyed performance. She’s not perfect in Morning Glory, but elements of what is going to make her great are right there.
The film also has another good performance from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I always feel like he gets the short shrift among leading Hollywood men of the 1930s. He was very good as a serious romantic lead and is paired well with Hepburn.
If there ever was an early 1930s movie that needed more time to flesh out its story, it’s Morning Glory. You get the feeling that Sherman had a stopwatch behind the camera, trying to make sure Fairbanks and Hepburn delivered their speeches in under a minute. The ending, when an older actress is suddenly introduced, also feels like a bit out-of-left-field and underdeveloped.
Still, it’s easy to say that Hepburn gave the first really great sound performance to receive the Best Actress Oscar. She’s wonderful and the film itself is pretty enjoyable too. It is only available on DVD in Warner Bros.’ 2010 set, 100th Anniversary Collection: Katharine Hepburn.