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Unlike some other reviewers here, I did not find the acting stagy or
over-the-top melodramatic. Then again, most of the movies I watch are
from the 20s and 30s, so I am used to this style of acting.
I was surprised by this movie. It breaks your heart, then never lets up. There's no light comedy to offset the drama, and there's no happy ending.
John Barrymore was amazing. My favorite performances of his have for a long time been Dr Jekyll (1920) and Svengali (1931). I've seen many other films of his (including Counsellor at Law which many people claim to be one of his best performances), but after seeing Bill of Divorcement tonight, I think this might be my most favorite performance. Sure, it was hammy, but that doesn't make it bad. Barrymore emoted his heart out, and my heart did literally ache each time he expressed his own agony and pain on screen. I was shocked to find myself in tears over his character's pain.
Billie Burke was a wonderment as well. I know her best from her slightly comic roles, such as the supercilious wife in Dinner at Eight, or her various Mrs. Topper roles (and, yes, of course Glinda the Good Witch). I didn't know she had it in her to do dramatic stuff, but she had me in tears as well on more than one occasion. She really made me feel the agony and conflict she was in, being in love with Paul Cavanagh and yet feeling pity and obligation to Barrymore.
I found the writing and the direction to be superb. One particular scene was almost sublime in its pathos: Billie Burke sitting in a chair, John Barrymore on the floor with his arms wrapped around her, his head in her lap as he cries. He can't comprehend why she doesn't want him, he asks her didn't she vow to be with him through better and worse, through sickness and in health? He asked what he did that was wrong, other than to get sick? He reminds her of what a kind person she is, how he even noticed her once stepping around a "green crawling thing" so as to not harm the creature, and he wonders if she could show pity and compassion to the green crawling thing, then why couldn't she show the same kind of compassion to him? Three-hankie stuff for sure!
A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT is only one of the problems to confront a man
returning to his family after fifteen years in an insane asylum.
Although this George Cukor-directed soap opera is chiefly remembered now for Katharine Hepburn's film debut, its other strengths should not be overlooked. The film was primarily crafted to be a showcase for the histrionic talents of John Barrymore and he certainly does not disappoint his audience. Charging his way through the range of emotions from giddy elation to utter despair, Barrymore, left profile firmly planted towards the camera, gives a wonderful master class in ham acting. This is in no way to disparage his performance -- he makes leaping a bit beyond the bounds terrifically entertaining.
Hepburn is a sensation, of course, very fresh & unspoilt, giving real urgency to the plight of a headstrong girl who must make a wretched decision during a domestic upheaval. The viewer cannot help but think of the many decades to come in which she would continue to delight moviegoers. The trouble is that Kate's excellence makes it somewhat easy to forget the film's real female lead. In a rare serious role, Miss Billie Burke gives a splendid portrayal of a good woman torn between duty to a man she no longer loves and the possibility of joy with the man she now adores. In the scene where Barrymore forces her to make a commitment to him, Burke's body language painfully communicates the agony of her breaking heart.
A fine supporting cast adds to the film's enjoyment: sensitive David Manners, one of the ablest young actors of the era, as Hepburn's loyal boyfriend; gentlemanly Paul Cavanagh as Burke's fiancé; waspish Elizabeth Patterson as Barrymore's strict sister; and elderly Henry Stephenson as the wise family doctor.
Movie mavens will have to look fast to spot the excellent young English actor, Bramwell Fletcher, unbilled as the fellow at the Christmas party who opens the windows for the carolers.
When Hollywood was madly casting the ingénue in "A Bill of
Divorcement," they saw many, many tests of actresses but still weren't
satisfied. Katharine Hepburn took a look at the test scene and realized
immediately why no actress was acceptable - it was a terrible scene. So
she did another one and won the role.
Let's just say that Hepburn started her amazing career with amazing good fortune. Her director was the excellent George Cukor, marking the beginning of their marvelous collaboration; and she had the great John Barrymore as a co-star.
The story concerns a man who comes home from an insane asylum only to discover that his daughter has grown up, his wife has divorced him, and she is about to marry someone else. He's as much in love with her as he has always been and can't bear the thought of her leaving him.
Based on a play by Clemence Dane, "A Bill of Divorcement" doesn't hold up today. It's very talky, done in a stagy manner, and melodramatic. Some of the performances are melodramatic as well - it was the beginning of talkies, and many of the actors had not yet adapted to the technique of acting on film, Billie Burke especially. My big quibble with the story is that, due to the times, it can't distinguish between "insanity" and emotional problems or chemical imbalances, which makes the Hepburn character's ultimate sacrifice seem unnecessary.
You can really see in this movie how Katharine Hepburn would have been so unusual to audiences with her angular, athletic body, high cheekbones and austere looks. She once said of Angela Lansbury, "She was unusual in the wrong way, and I was unusual in the right way." It's certainly true. She's quite beautiful and interesting-looking. Ultimately she would tone down her acting. For a first film, she's wonderful.
The star is John Barrymore, who gives a timeless, heart-wrenching performance. What a wonderful actor and what a loss that his last film was made in 1941 and as early as 1938, he was playing his roles drunk.
Recommended definitely for Hepburn aficionados and to see the great John Barrymore being the magnificent actor he was capable of being.
A touching, very well done movie. Of course it sounds and looks stagy. Of course the acting seems melodramatic. This is the very early years of talkies, and the material is a play that was already 10 years old in 1932! That gives us some idea of how desperately Hollywood was searching for material with which to make talking pictures. John Barrymore, as other people have said, was on the slippery slope of alcoholism and lived only 10 more years, each more debilitated than the previous one. Yet he never lost his ability and it is a shame he didn't get to be in better films. He could always act! And he knew that his style was dated. He said that his was a 'middle' generation of stage acting, between the florid romantic style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the more naturalistic style that followed. Any time he worked with actors and directors he respected: Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo, Hepburn, Billie Burke, Carole Lombard, George Cukor, Howard Hawks --Barrymore turned in an excellent performance.
Though this is the second screen version of Clemence Dane's play A Bill
of Divorcement, it's the version that we all remember because it is the
film that gave us the director/actress combination of George Cukor and
Katharine Hepburn who would then rack up nine more joint ventures in
almost fifty years.
Sad to say the play is an old fashioned melodrama that dates pretty badly and it's not really good screen material with the nearly the whole short 70 minute film taking place on only one set. Neither Cukor or Hepburn have quite mastered the screen technique. But the talent and charm were there and it's no wonder Kate had the lengthy career she did.
Though he enters the film when it's nearly a third over, when John Barrymore comes in, he dominates the proceedings. He's a shell shocked World War I veteran returning home after years in an asylum. By that time his wife Billie Burke is in love with another man, Paul Cavanaugh, and is ready to serve Barrymore with divorce papers, hence the title.
Barrymore seems cured, but it doesn't take much to set his fragile psyche out of kilter. What are both Burke and Hepburn to do as it comes out that insanity is prevalent in Barrymore's family tree?
Though the story is very dated, the power of the performances will keep you interested. Quite a lot is packed into a classic film that has an unusually short running time.
Worth seeing for Katharine Hepburn. The film starts out in a
provincially normal household, a mansion complete with servants, and
aging auntie (sister of the patient) and a suitor (Canvanagh) for
The story is rather basic, Barrymore wishes to return after his long hospitalization. Of course, life has not stopped (except for him.) A tragic story in any sense, and well portrayed here, if not a bit melodramatic. Billie Burke delivers a dated and frilly performance as a woman re-marrying. For 1932 the topic of psychological disorders being addressed at all is to be commended.
My mother had always loved Barrymore, and he does have the obsessive qualities which would categorize a man who has been traumatized. Billie Burke as the rejecting wife who now wants to re-marry. The topic of mental illness and post traumatic stress is still rarely covered in any semblance of realism, so this film is noteworthy on this issue alone. 8/10.
VERY stagy but interesting film served as Hepburn's screen bow. She's a
trifle studied and Barrymore occasionally goes over the top but mixed
in with that is some excellent acting by both. Billie Burke, more
subdued than usual, delivers the film's best most consistent
performance. She does a very fine job of showing the anguish of a life
suddenly turned upside down. The three of them are really the whole
Considering the cast and the historical place in Kate's filmography as her debut the film is frustratingly difficult to see. Odd considering the relative availability of the rest of her canon, exempting the obscure Grace Quigley.
Some of the attitudes are dated but because of the star trio this is worth tracking down.
It's Christmas in England. World War I veteran John Barrymore (as
Hilary Fairfield) has been committed to an asylum for 15 years, due to
insanity brought on by "shell shock". The season has resulted in a
blessing for Mr. Barrymore, who is on his way home for the holidays,
after recovering his sanity. Meanwhile, wife Billie Burke (as Margaret
"Meg" Fairfield) has fallen in love again, received a divorce, and is
planning to re-marry. Barrymore's return throws the household into
turmoil. Daughter Katharine Hepburn (as Sidney Fairfield), also
planning to marry, begins to fear starting her own family, after
learning Barrymore's madness is hereditary.
It's admittedly not intended as such, and consequently not exceptional; but, George Cukor's "A Bill of Divorcement" should be seen as a filmed stage play. The story is thought-provoking; it mixes madness, marriage, and war with duty, self-sacrifice, and religion. The characterizations are, today, "outdated" in style, substance, and storyline. Still, they are interesting in context. The three lead performances are significant: Barrymore's theatrical skills are clearly evident; his performance is most enjoyable (the war duty scene is a highlight). Additionally, Ms. Burke begins a welcome "second career" in sound films; and Ms. Hepburn begins a welcome "second career" in films. With less to do, steadfast supporting actress Elizabeth Patterson (as Hester Fairfield) definitely holds her own.
****** A Bill of Divorcement (1932) George Cukor ~ John Barrymore, Billie Burke, Katharine Hepburn
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is obvious from the moment that Katharine Hepburn walks towards the
stairwell towards her English family home that motion pictures have
found an amazing new find. And when she first encounters John Barrymore
and says, "I think I am your daughter", there is no doubt about it.
While the idea of Hepburn playing a young British lady might seem
bizarre, she truly pulls it off. Barrymore, having spent many years in
a mental institution (apparently for shell shock), has arrived home
just as his ex-wife (Billie Burke) is preparing to marry another man.
He has no idea that during the time of his stay, Burke divorced him
because he seemed to have no chance of recovery. Now, Hepburn learns
from psychiatrist Henry Stephenson that she may have inherited the
potential of having a mental illness, or that her offspring might have
it as well. She is engaged to handsome (but dull) David Manners and
must make a decision of what to do. Burke, too, has doubts about what
the right thing to do is, and Barrymore's over protective sister
(Elizabeth Patterson) isn't any help.
With the exception of Manners, the entire cast is excellent. You really feel the pain and guilt everyone surrounding Barrymore feels, particularly Hepburn and Burke. Known mostly for his sometimes hammy performances and flamboyant personal life, Barrymore gives a wonderful theatrical performance that works in this case because of the nature of the character he plays. Even Patterson's meddlesome aunt has understandable motivation, which makes her really likable rather than a pain in the neck if played incorrectly.
Nobody will ever confuse Burke's sympathetic wife and mother with her most famous role as Glinda in "The Wizard of Oz" or her later feather-brained matrons. When given a serious role, Burke could deliver a very touching performance and keep the helium like sounds she had in lighter parts out of it. Hepburn's voice, too, is not the imitatable one she had in "Morning Glory" or "Stage Door" (especially every time she had to utter the simple word "really") or the shaky matronly voice of "The Lion in Winter" or "On Golden Pond". She is almost Garbo-like in her looks and demeanor, American royalty on celluloid. No wonder America had a love affair with her on screen for over 60 years!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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.
Television prints (and 2000 video release by Video Anchor Bay Enterprises) that have been circulating for many years are actually the reissue prints that bear the Selznick International studio name, as well as a few minutes of missing scenes. After its run on American Movie Classics (1997-2001), Turner Classic Movies premiered it in 2002, with its copy being the restored version with RKO Radio logo intact.
A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT goes on record as the motion picture where a new star is born, a morning glory named Katharine Hepburn. (***)
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