Monday, 1 April 2013

Mary Duncan talks, then walks… Morning Glory (1933)

Mary Duncan - blonde ambition
My wife wandered into the living room and, taking one look sighed: “isn’t she beautiful?” whilst I was thinking “isn’t she clever?”.

We were watching Katherine Hepburn in Morning Glory, the Lowell Sherman comedy drama which was to earn her the first of her four Oscars… and pondering the nature of her appeal. Like Ingrid Bergman and others, Hepburn had the kind of aesthetic beauty which one acknowledges without necessarily being distracted by (ooh, hark at him!) , leaving room to focus on the remarkable acting ability on show.

Katherine Hepburn
Lazily, this may be something other women respond to more than men but the only thing I can be sure of is the reaction in our house and we were both knocked out by Hepburn’s ability and charm. Another one of those “what have I been missing?” moments for me – sometimes you can take the “greats” for granted.

But, whilst Katherine Hepburn took me by surprise I was interested in this film primarily to see Mary Duncan in a talkie.

Adolphe Menjou and Mary Duncan
The star of City Girl and The River was a very powerful silent film actress and she retired not too long after this film. Before having success in the silents, Duncan had been an adept stage actress and she shows it here as the over-reaching theatre star Rita Vernon: all haughty self importance and peroxide pride. She’s almost unrecognisable from the brunettes of those earlier films but…that is indeed acting and very fine too.

It’s Hepburn’s film though and it’s easy to be impressed with her uncanny precision in delivering a vast amount of dialogue and rapid shifts in emotional charge - unpredictable!

Katherine Hepburn
Hepburn plays Eva Lovelace, a naïve but determined young actress who has traveled to New York to make it on Broadway on her terms: in plays she feels worthy of her talent.

She lands in the office of impresario Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou) who is busily casting for his new play alongside one of his writer s, Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jnr). Sheridan’s a bit of an intellectual who’s about to start work on a worthy German play to be entitled The Golden Bough.

Rita Vernon sweeps in and is assured that she will land the plum role in this worthy drama only if her next play proves to be a hit. She flirts with Easton and they obviously go back aways…a business partnership flirting with disaster…

C. Aubrey Smith and Katherine Hepburn
Meanwhile, Eva befriends old hand Hedges (the wonderfully one-paced C. Aubrey Smith) whom she convinces to be her coach. Hepburn throws out dialogue like so much molten rock and barely pauses for breath to appreciate what she’s just said but it’s done with such energetic control and controlled force. You feel you’re watching one of the great technicians film has ever produced.

Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Katherine Hepburn
Easton and Sheridan come out and encounter Eva who seems just like any other wannabe but there’s something more, not least her gently patronising letter from George Bernard Shaw… Sheridan in particular isn’t sure she’s a total whack-job.

Time passes and Vernon’s play is a smash. Hedges encounters Eva on her uppers in a run-down, Hopper-esque café. He takes her for some food and drink at Easton’s party where, indulging in rather too much of the latter, she lets rip with some impromptu Hamlet and Juliette… It’s impressive and embarrassing at the same time but you do wonder why it’s clearly going to take most of the film for the penny to drop – the kid can act!

To be or not to be...wherefore art thou...?
There’s some off-screen impropriety with Easton taking advantage of Eva… she’s still at his apartment the next morning when he enlists the help of a shell-shocked Sheridan to help “solve” the situation. Sheridan you see has developed feelings for the young woman who, remarkably, only has eyes for the older man… go figure.

Eva drops from view, still holding an unlikely candle for Easton as Sheridan prepares his great literary play for production. Rita has earned herself the right to star in the show even though Sheridan knows she’s not right.

Rita dictates her terms
But, having held off pushing her claims for a bigger contract, Rita tries to force the producers’ hand on the night of the first performance. Duncan is superb at this point, bullying the men with convincing ease… yet it doesn’t work. There’s a convenient under-study who is perfect for the role and just might prove herself up to the task!

This denouement is so obvious that the film spends little time on it, swiftly cutting from Eva’s dressing room doubts to her standing ovation. This much is taken for granted yet the film’s real point is about sustained success.

Reality bites...
Eva’s dresser is an ex-star who warns her against being a “morning glory”… Eva finishes the film fully aware of the pitfalls but swearing – like all the rest – that she won’t be afraid and will take her future as it comes.

It’s an uneven film with good performances over-coming a bumpy narrative. It doesn’t resolve the human aspects of career crash and burn with the clear assumption is that it’s better to be “in” success than out of it…Eve is defiant and yet the look on her dresser’s face suggests she hasn’t really headed her warning.

Mary Duncan hands over to Katherine Hepburn
In real life this was the start of Heburn’s long years of success and the end of Duncan’s moment as she married carpet tycoon (oh yes!) and polo player Stephen ("Laddie") Sanford. That’s show business, but we shouldn’t fret about Mary’s long life after film.

The future Mrs Sanford
She devoted herself to good causes and came to be described as the "Queen of Palm Beach society”… an epithet she disliked in deference to the many other ladies of prominence in the area such as Rose Kennedy and the Duchess of Windsor... You don't have to be in the movies to be a queen.

Morning Glory is available on reasonably-priced DVD all over the place. Buy it from Movie Mail where corporation tax is always paid.

Adolphe Menjou and Mary Duncan

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