Katharine Hepburn in the 1930's: 1932-1933

Today, I'm looking at Katharine Hepburn's first four films of the 1930's, including Morning Glory (1933), where she played struggling actress Eva Lovelace (photo above).

Katharine Hepburn is one of old Hollywood's most legendary actresses. She is often cited as one of the top actors in polls about American film, and her independent personal life and outspoken opinions have made her an icon for women's rights.

Today, I'm looking at Hepburn's first four films made in 1932 and 1933. As we shall see, this Connecticut Yankee was a star from the moment she stepped in front of the camera. These diverse roles -- Hepburn plays an English aristocrat; a pioneering aviatrix; a struggling actress, and a 19th century writer -- showcase Hepburn's ability to play comedy, tragedy, and everything in between. 

Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Conn. to a progressive, intellectual family that included her doctor father and suffragette mother. Hepburn grew up as a free-spirited tomboy who loved performing in amateur plays that she and her friends put on to raise money for the underprivileged. Hepburn attended Bryn Mawr College in 1924, and while she didn't really enjoy the academic life, her appearance in a play in her senior year cemented Hepburn's decision to become an actress.

After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Hepburn headed for Broadway. Although she had her ups and downs -- the opinionated actress was fired from a few productions -- she became a breakout star in The Warrior's Husband, a Greek fable that showed off Hepburn's natural athleticism by having her leap around the stage with a dead stag draped around her neck.

Sydney Fairchild in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), dir. George Cukor

Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932).
In the early 1930's, Hollywood had successfully made the transition from silent films to talkies, which meant that talent scouts were always searching Broadway for bright young things that could make the transition into movies. Hepburn's performance in The Warrior's Husband attracted the attention of super-agent Leland Hayward, who got Hepburn a screen test for the plum part in RKO Pictures' film adaptation of Clemence Dane's stage warhorse, A Bill of Divorcement.

Although producer David O. Selznick was initially turned off by Hepburn's idiosyncratic looks and mannerisms -- he was reportedly heard to groan, "Ye gods, that horse face" -- director George Cukor saw something in the young woman and fought to cast her in the role.

A Bill of Divorcement was the first of 10 films that Hepburn and Cukor made together, and although John Barrymore and Billie Burke are supposed to be the stars of the film, Cukor essentially hands the film to Hepburn from the first scene. In fact, the camera loves Hepburn, and she gives a sensitive performance that is much more nuanced than the stagey antics of her better known co-stars, especially Barrymore, who chews the scenery with abandon. YouTube.

Lady Cynthia Darrington in Christopher Strong (1933), dir. Dorothy Arzner

A Bill of Divorcement was a sizable hit with both audiences and critics, which led RKO to offer Hepburn a lucrative seven-year contract. The studio's next challenge was to find the highly individual actress the perfect follow-up. At first, RKO planned to star Hepburn and Joel McCrea in Three Came Unarmed, the story of the daughter of an alcoholic missionary, but that idea was quickly abandoned in favor of Christopher Strong, screenwriter Zoe Akins adaptation of Guy Frankau's 1932 novel about a pioneering female pilot -- aviatrix in the parlance of the day -- who falls in love with a very married British politician (Colin Clive).

Christopher Strong is probably best known to Hepburn fans as the one where she wears the silver moth costume, but it has a lot to recommend it, including Akins' sharp script and excellent direction from Arzner, who was one of old Hollywood's few female directors. Hepburn gives a fine performance -- she is perfectly at home striding around in her pilot's outfits -- but the movie does get bogged down in the romantic melodrama between the two leads. Hepburn isn't at her best while clenching her fists and reciting lines like "this is pure folly," although poor Billie Burke, who plays Clive's long suffering wife, gets the worst of it.

Christopher Strong was only a moderate success at the box office, but it almost immediately became a cult film among feminists for its frank depiction of the life of an independent, modern woman. Critic Regina Crewe was the movie's main champion, writing that Hepburn "gives a performance in Christopher Strong that leaves no doubt that we have a new addition to the talkie great ones." DVD.

Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933), dir. Lowell Sherman

After two performances as an English aristocrat, Hepburn was in danger of being typecast in drawing room melodramas. She badly needed a change of pace, and she found it in Morning Glory, a script from Christopher Strong screenwriter Zoe Akins about the life of a struggling young actress in New York City. RKO producer Pandro S. Berman originally intended the movie as a vehicle for Constance Bennett, but Hepburn fought for the part and earned her first of four best actress Academy Awards for her tour de force performance.

Hepburn is the only exceptional thing about Morning Glory, which despite having an excellent cast, including Adolphe Menjou, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and C. Aubrey Smith, is a creaky backstager that is loaded with plot points that were already cliches in 1933. Despite those drawbacks, Hepburn is never less than brilliant. In fact, she had quite a lot in common with Eva, including her New England background, her run-ins with Broadway producers, and her reverence for George Bernard Shaw (he was the favorite playwright of Hepburn's mother).

 Morning Glory showed audiences a different, softer side to Hepburn, and it gives her the chance to use her razor-sharp comic timing -- Eva is something of a kook who sleeps with a letter from Shaw  and entertains random strangers with tales of how she plans to kill herself on stage after her greatest performance -- and to show off her dramatic chops by reciting two Shakespearean soliloquies. DVD and video on demand.

Jo March in Little Women (1933), dir. George Cukor

By the mid-1930's audiences were tiring of racy melodramas like Christopher Strong. Plus, the stricter enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code meant that the movies needed more wholesome fare. Cukor, who was scouting around for his next project with Hepburn, convinced RKO to abandon its plans to film a modernized version of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, Little Women, in favor of a period piece filled with authentic 19th century details.

The 1933 Little Women is still the best screen version of Alcott's tale of four sisters growing up in genteel poverty during the Civil War, featuring a dynamic performance from  Hepburn as the second of the four March daughters, Jo. Cukor felt that Hepburn was "born to play Jo" and his instincts were correct. Hepburn is a force of nature, charging around in hoop skirts while yelling "Christopher Columbus," organizing amateur theatricals, and crossing swords with her formidable Aunt March (Edna May Oliver). In fact, several modern critics, including Leonard Maltin, feel that Jo March was Hepburn's best screen performance. DVD and video on demand.

Little Women made Hepburn a Hollywood superstar, but, as we shall see, she still faced many challenges in the movie industry.

Here's part two.