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After spending fifteen years in an asylum, Hilary Fairfield escapes from the institution after regaining his sanity. He finds that things at home are different than when he left them. His wife has divorced him and is already planning her next marriage, and his daughter has grown up throughout the years and is planning to marry as well. Written by
A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (RKO, 1932), directed by George Cukor, from the play by Clemence Dane, is a dramatic story about a shell shock victim of the World War coping with the lost years of his life separated from his family, and his homecoming on Christmas Day. Starring the legendary John Barrymore, the film is notable for the motion picture debut of Broadway actress, Katharine Hepburn, whose career has become legendary, as well as the sound debut of comedienne Billie Burke, better known at the time as Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld, in a rare dramatic performance.
The setting is England where the Fairchilds are hosting a Christmas Eve dinner party. Sydney (Katharine Hepburn) and Kit Humphreys (David Manners) are in love, plan to get married and live in Canada where they hope to become proud parents of lots of children. Her mother, Margaret (Billie Burke), is engaged to Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanaugh), a man of honor, whom she's going to marry on New Year's Day in spite of Aunt Hester's (Elizabeth Patterson) reminder that her brother, Hillary, a shell shock victim of the war having spent 15 years of his life institutionalized, is still very much her husband. The next morning, Christmas Day, Sydney is notified by telephone that her father has disappeared from the asylum and possibly on his way home. Upon his arrival, Hillary (John Barrymore) meets with a young girl whom he doesn't know (Hillary: "Who are you?" Sydney: "I believe I'm your daughter."), and soon discovers something even more startling, that his wife, "Meg," through arrangements with Gray, has secretly divorced him with intentions on remarrying. The truth about insanity in the family is brought forth by Doctor Aliot (Henry Stephenson) of the asylum, leaving Sydney with a harsh decision whether to marry as planned or give up the man she loves with the possibility that her children might be afflicted as her father and other members of the family. As for Meg, who fears her husband, even though he's cured, she's told that to take Hillary back would be more out of pity than love, and an extreme sacrifice if she intends on abandoning all hope and happiness with Gray.
Obviously a big success at the time, thanks to the fine direction by Cukor and his principle players, first time viewers might find A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT disappointing due to its age and "filmed stage play" premise. Naturally, with the exception of Hillary and/or Sydney playing the piano, there's no underscoring. Much of the story is set inside the Fairchild home with few instances where scene(s) shift out of doors. The cast is relatively small and dialog plentiful, but what's said is something to consider, especially when Doctor Alicot confronts Hillary by saying, "Face it man! One of you must suffer. Which is it to be? A healthy woman with her life before her or a man whose children ought never to have been born?" With mental illness as its subject matter, there's no harrowing scenes involving patients going berserk inside the institution. The film itself can be categorized as a "soap opera," but in reality it's a character study about family loyalty and sacrifice, and the bonding between two perfect strangers, the father and his daughter, both having a lot in common, each being musically inclined and outspoken individuals. To view it this way is to understand the circumstances involved and the outcome during its 69 minutes of screen time.
Remade in 1940 (retitled NEVER TO LOVE to avoid confusion whenever shown on television), and starring Maureen O'Hara, Adolphe Menjou, Fay Bainter and Patric Knowles in the Hepburn, Barrymore, Burke and Manners roles, it's not exactly a scene for scene replay, but the theme remains the same while not quite as powerful as the original. Menjou's big scene as he goes on his knees begging "Meg" to take him back, comes off more naturally than Barrymore with his theatrical method of overacting, but overall, an agreeable story.
Director George Cukor obviously loved Miss Hepburn, giving her the opening shot as she comes down the stairs to dance with her fiancé. David Manners, an underrated actor best remembered as the romantic hero in several Universal horror (DRACULA, THE MUMMY, THE BLACK CAT, etc.), gives a sensitive performance as the suitor fearing of possibly losing the one woman he loves (Hepburn), unless she reconsiders.
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