John Barrymore may be best-known for his work in the theatre and in films of the silent era. But, every time I see him in an early talkie, I’m struck by how great he was in these too – and A Bill of Divorcement (1932), a melodrama directed by George Cukor for RKO Radio Pictures, is no exception. Barrymore gives a heart-rending performance as a father coming home after 15 years in a mental hospital. However, although Barrymore was the star with his name above the title, these days the film is best-remembered (when it is remembered at all, that is!) as the debut role for Katharine Hepburn, playing the daughter whose world is about to be torn apart. She was fourth-billed and her name was actually spelt wrong in the final credits, but, even so, she is really a joint female lead with Billie Burke , and has several scenes where her unique film personality comes across.
The film is adapted from a play by British dramatist Clemence Dane, and set in England, although none of the stars worry too much about doing English accents. As with some other movies from this period, this is very much a filmed version of a stage play, with almost all the scenes taking place on the same set, so at times it gives a feeling of what it might have been like to see Barrymore on stage. I have seen some reviews suggesting that the film feels too static, but this is a movie where I think this works, as with Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930), because again the atmosphere is intended to be claustrophobic and intense.
The stage play was written in 1921 and, unusually, set some years into the future. However, by 1932 it was 18 years since Britain entered the First World War, so you could just about get away with Hepburn playing a 17-year-old born after her father went to war – although the actress was actually 25 and didn’t really look like a teenager. At the start of the film, her character, Sydney Fairchild, is seen living in a large country house with her mother, Margaret/Meg (Billie Burke). Margaret has divorced her mentally ill husband, Hilary, whom she admits she never really loved in the first place and hasn’t even visited for years, having found it easier to behave as if he is dead. (“He never recognised me anyway,” she comments.) She is now looking forward to marrying her lawyer, Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh). Meanwhile, Sydney is also romantically attached and agrees to marry Kit (David Manners), with the young couple planning to emigrate to Canada and have a large brood of children.
However, the happiness of mother and daughter is marred by Aunt Hester (Elizabeth Patterson), gloomily pious sister of the long-absent Hilary, who constantly warns about how Meg is breaking God’s law by remarrying and should stay true to her first husband. Hepburn has a great early scene where Sydney rejects her aunt’s Christmas present of a prayer book, offering to swap it for something more useful to her.
The family is thrown into confusion when Hilary escapes from the mental hospital, after suddenly recovering his reason, and returns home expecting everything to be as it was when he left. The greatest moment of the film has to be Barrymore striding into the house, blissfully assuming he is master of all he surveys, and taking Hepburn for the wife he hasn’t seen for so many years – until she tells him “I think I’m your daughter.”
The rest of this review contains spoilers, plus a video clip.
At first mother and daughter try to humour Hilary and keep the truth from him, but eventually he has to be told that his wife has divorced him and is about to remarry. There is an almost Gothic flavour to some of this, as he is told that, in effect, he is in the same position as someone coming back from the dead. “We cry for the dead and wish they would come back – but I sometimes wonder what we would say if they did?” muses Hester.
John Barrymore is always great in a part which gives him opportunity for passionate outbursts. As Hilary, he has plenty of that, playing a man trying to stay calm and cling to his newly-found sanity, but always teetering on the edge of anger or despair. There’s a scene between him and Billie Burke where Hilary tries to resign himself to his wife’s remarriage and say he will be all right on his own, but just can’t bring himself to do it. Their contrast in acting styles works very well here, as Barrymore is so stagey and desperate and full on, weeping out loud, while Burke, who seemed more in her element in the light-hearted opening scenes, looks quiet and overwhelmed and doesn’t have the large emotional gestures. One of the comments at the imdb refers to her giving “a dated and frilly performance” – I like that description of the character as frilly, which seems just right, but I think that’s the point, that in Meg you have a light comic character being forced to play tragedy, to go against the grain of her nature. I was impressed by Burke in Topper and like her in this too – it’s a pity she isn’t better-remembered as an actress. One scene between Burke and Barrymore is available on Youtube, so I’ll post a link for anyone who wants a taste of the film.
Although Hilary’s illness has previously been described as shell shock, it becomes apparent that there is in fact hereditary mental illness in the family, and for him the war was the trigger for something which was always there under the surface. Sydney decides she can’t risk motherhood and so cannot marry Kit, devoting herself to her father instead and so relieving her mother of the burden of caring for him. Hepburn’s best scene in the film (I keep wanting to write “play”!) comes when she breaks it off with Kit and at first tries to hide her reasons, picking a fight – she turns cold and sarcastic and plays the whole scene in a style which is unmistakably her own. The film’s whole attitude to mental illness (described as “a taint in the blood”) is obviously dated and is possibly one reason why this film has been largely forgotten, but at least it tackles the subject at all – and it also fits into the whole series of films made over the decades about soldiers coming home from war.
In terms of the actors’ changing reputations, it’s telling to look at the publicity material for this film over the years. I haven’t been able to find any of the original 1932 posters, but assume Barrymore dominated, as he did in the opening credits of the film. (I did find one picture online which looks as if it might be an original lobby card and only his name is on it.) Posters for the reissue made Hepburn more prominent, though Barrymore’s name was still bigger. By contrast, the cover for the Italian region 2 DVD issue (this is the only DVD officially available) has a large picture of Hepburn in a romantic scene with David Manners (whose part in the film is very small), and only a tiny shot of Barrymore in the top corner. All this has slight shades of A Star Is Born.
In any case, given the great cast, performances and director, it seems a pity that this hasn’t been issued on DVD in the UK or the US _ I’d say it is a must for anyone who likes either Hepburn or Barrymore and if, like me, you love them both, you’ll be in heaven. I watched it on an old VHS tape, which had a very good quality picture, but it is only 66 minutes long, whereas I believe the original was about 74 minutes – it seems some footage was removed for a reissue, as with the last movie I wrote about on this blog, Wellman’s The Call of the Wild. Comments at Amazon suggest that the Italian DVD is a poor-quality video transfer, and apparently it also has Italian subtitles which can’t be removed, so I won’t be rushing to buy a copy – but I would love to see a full restoration and English-language DVD, if possible with the deleted scenes added back in.