Hepburn’s first obstacle to stardom arrived at Bryn Mawr, when her poor grades kept her from performing in school plays. Her difficulties stemmed in part from her having been privately tutored after the apparent suicide of her older brother Tom. Hepburn discovered the body, and she never fully recovered from this trauma. Once she re-acclimated to being in the company of peers, her marks improved and she landed — what else? — the lead role in the college’s production of John Lyly’s “The Woman in the Moon.”
Hepburn made her Broadway debut in 1928 in Katharine Clugston’s “These Days,” a flop that closed a little over a week after opening. Hepburn found work in East coast summer stock, where she gained instant disfavor from playwrights who objected to her mannerisms. What these artists failed to understand was that Hepburn was still figuring out her labor-intensive process. She had a captivating, self-assured presence, but she was not a natural actor. She devoured each script, learning everyone’s lines so that she could be at ease in every moment. According to Charles Higham’s “Kate: The Life of Katharine Hepburn,” after directing her in 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Stanley Kramer said, “She can work until everyone drops.”
Hepburn finally made good on her promise in Lowell Sherman’s hoary, pre-code hit “Morning Glory,” wherein she emotes to the back of the theater as a small-town girl who hits the Big Apple with dreams of Broadway stardom. It’s a lot of acting, but this is a cliched melodrama that demands all the sawing of the air. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Adolphe Menjou glaze every inch of the ham, but this is Hepburn’s showcase, and she dazzles with her rapid-fire line readings. Her deeply inebriated interpretation of the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet” was probably the scene that earned her the Best Actress Oscar and turned her into an overnight sensation. This was only her third movie, and she’d summited the industry’s mountaintop. A backlash was certain, and it hit with stunning swiftness.