In the history of the Oscars, there are few cases weirder and more impressive than Katharine Hepburn. Not only does she hold a record, unlikely to be matched and surely never to be beaten, of four competitive acting Oscars, all in the Lead category, but her first award came for her third movie role, in just her second year of acting (but all three were in the same eligibility period). That's the impressive part. The weird part is that the winning performance was in Morning Glory, a film which received otherwise no attention from the Academy, while Hepburn's fourth movie in that year's cycle (the 6th Academy Awards covered 17th months between the years 1932-'33, the only time this period stretched beyond 12 months; thank me if that ever wins you a trivia night), Little Women, received three Oscar nominations, showed up on that year's National Board of Review Top 10 list, and contains what virtually every modern commentator agrees is the best of Hepburn's performances across the four movies in play. The question naturally presents itself, why the hell did that nomination and win come for Morning Glory instead of Little Women? Better thinkers than I have failed to present an answer.

Still, the point remains: 1933 was Hepburn's grand debut year as RKO's exciting new contract player, and whatever role the studio might have had in cramming through an Oscar win (which I surely don't know happen; if she'd been with MGM, under the aegis of the bullying Louis B. Mayer, there'd be little doubt), or in picking the exact role she'd get on the history books for, the film provides us with a lovely little study in the star system of the '30s. For Hepburn, talented though she was (and I will confess up front that she's one of my favorite major Hollywood actresses of the '30s), could never be called a slam-dunk natural-born movie star. Her beauty was of a brittle, angular sort, not nearly as classically feminine as the big female superstars of the day; her speaking voice bespoke an unmistakable trace of a moneyed New England upbringing with a good education, always a liability in a country that has favored rural middle class values and mistrusted too much elitism for as long as it has existed. And she was a feminist long before it was "acceptable".

So anyway, Hepburn had to be kind of wedged into America's consciousness, and at first, it worked marvelously well (in 1934, the bottom fell out, in 1938, she was famously called "box office poison", and it took an heroic act of self-guided recovery on her part to regain her footing, upon which she remained a star and icon till her death). But that's how the star system worked: the studio executives decided who'd get the good parts in the major films, and marketed them as though they were already beloved faces that we all adored. That could work in the days of vertical integration, when the studios didn't merely control the movies that got produced, but how they were distributed and screened as well; more recent history is littered with the corpses of Hot New Things that went nowhere after a film or two (Taylor Kitsch, we hardly knew ye).

All of this, anyway, is more interesting to talk and think about than Morning Glory, which despite being Ground Zero in the legend of Katharine Hepburn is a pretty dry and mediocre affair. And not least because of Kate herself, but let's hold off on that a moment. The film, adapted by Howard J. Green from an unproduced play, is one of those "aspiring small-town actress" jobs that were thick as fall leaves back in the '30s. Eva Lovelace (Hepburn), née Ada Love, has come to New York from a tiny Vermont town where she was the star of the local amateur theater, convinced that she just needs to meet megaproducer Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou) to convince him to take a chance on her brash talents; this fails to happen, spectacularly. However, she does make the acquaintance of Easton's regular actor and good luck charm R.H. Hedges (C. Aubrey Smith), an ancient British thespian who takes kindly to her enthusiasm and agrees to be her mentor. That does nothing for her career, which continues to spin into the drain, slowly, until a fateful night when Eva accompanies Hedges to a party at Easton's home; she gets amazingly drunk, makes a spectacle of herself, nailing some Shakespearean monologues, and ends up in Easton's bed. Even that doesn't do anything for her, but writer Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), working with Easton, develops a crush on her and arranges for her to to serve as understudy to their play's prickly leading lady, Rita Vernon (Mary Duncan); when Vernon has a hissy fit on opening night, Eva has to jump in and makes quite a huge splash, but in the process realises that she can't have both fame and love, and Joseph is, like soooo cute...

This is, every inch of it, the Hepburn Show: director Lowell Sherman was not the most inspired or cunning or insightful director on the scene, and his treatment of the material largely consists of making sure that there are plenty of wide shots intermixed with the fascinated close-ups of the new star so that you can actually follow the plot. Assuming you wanted to; Morning Glory is undistinguished in its general shape and actively flimsy in its particulars, with no narrative complexity and a final scene that comes out of the clear blue sky, building off nothing that has gone before it, and utterly defeating Hepburn, whose focused, monotonous approach to building her character has left no room for the tacky sentimental developments of the climax.

And how about that monotony, now that I've brought it up? The secret hiding in plain sight in Morning Glory is that Eva is meant to be annoying, so the mere fact that Hepburn plays the character as an irritating little egotist isn't, in and of itself, a flaw. The staccato, inflexible accent and line delivery that she calls upon everywhere but the drunk scene is the sign of an insecure, semi-talented nobody who wants to seem very sophisticated, talented, and worldly; the robotic movements symptomatic of a young woman who wants everybody to notice how precisely she holds her body and thinks about every action she performs. On paper, the performance fits the part. In practice, though, it's wearying, grinding, redundant: what we know about Eva 30 minutes into the film is distressingly indistinguishable from what we know about her 5 minutes into the film. Whether that's a failure of Hepburn's flexibility, so early into her career, or an admirable proof of her commitment to a character reality (Eva would be utterly intolerable in real life, and nothing about Morning Glory pretends otherwise), I can't quite decide. But either way, it's enervating to watch, and that's what matters most.

The one place where Hepburn opens up and relaxes, and by most accounts the reason she picked up that Oscar, is the drunk scene; and it is a marvel. The Shakespeare bits especially: she perfectly depicts that place where someone with talent and smarts shows off a skill that requires all of their attention while enthusiastically intoxicated. Ebullience that's not quite under control, plus speech that comes out at lightning speed and still isn't enough to keep up with the chaotic thought process behind it; Hepburn gave a good drunk scene, beyond question, and anybody who's seen the later classic The Philadelphia Story knows it.

Still, one scene doesn't make a performance, and there's so little interior self to Eva that I have to admit to rank Hepburn third-best in her own coming-out party: I'd happily take both Menjou and Smith, a pair of actors whom I have grown to admire more and more as I have more experience with classical Hollywood cinema. Smith, in particular, is just about flawless in the role of an old man charmed, befuddled, and annoyed by the giddy ingenue: his unmistakably alarmed expression, communicating "what the fuck?" as clearly as anything could in '33, at her roundabout story of picking a stage name for herself is the most human moment and the film and easily my favorite beat of the whole thing.

Humanity, anyway, is in short supply throughout Morning Glory, an airless bit of boilerplate nonsense with workaday craftsmanship at best (the good news, at least, is that it's also workaday at worst). It's a movie with one goal - showcase Hepburn - that it achieves with undeniable clarity. But with 61 subsequent years of better, more robust and deeper films showcasing a more confident, subtle Hepburn, the film's value has only decreased from whatever it might possibly have been in the days of its birth.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1933
-RKO releases the groundbreaking effects extravaganza and giant monster thriller King Kong
-Choreographer Busby Berkeley breaks out with his complex numbers for the gritty urban musical 42nd Street at Warner Bros.
-Sexpot Mae West stars in her most lively film, introducing young Cary Grant in the process, She Done Him Wrong

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1933
-French director Jean Vigo makes the first narrative film of his bitterly short career, Zero for Conduct
-Rotund Charles Laughton becomes a major star with the success of the overheated British historical drama The Private Life of Henry VIII
-Fritz Lang makes The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, his last film before fleeing Germany during the rise of the Nazis