A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

John Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn

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.

Katharine Hepburn and David Manners

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.

Billie Burke as Meg

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.

Barrymore and Hepburn

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.

The Italian DVD sleeve

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.

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21 thoughts on “A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

  1. I really thought I had seen this movie until I started reading your review. It doesn’t sound familiar at all. Now that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it. I forget movies all the time, but they tend to be forgettable pictures. The way you have characterized it, this doesn’t sound forgettable at all if only for John Barrymore’s performance. I stopped reading past where you warned spoilers be ahead, but from what you wrote before that, it seems this is a movie I need to see. There may be some performances that I overlooked for 1932. Thanks Judy!

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    • Thanks, Jason. This is definitely worth seeing for Barrymore’s performance – he had a fantastic year as an actor in 1932, with five films including this and Grand Hotel.

      It now strikes me that I’ve made a bit of a mess of things with the spoiler warning (not sure this is really the kind of film where you need to worry about spoilers, but I thought I’d be on the safe side!) as I’ve put a bit at the bottom about DVD availability, or lack of it – you might just want to look at my last couple of paragraphs, but, to sum up, this is only available on VHS in the US and UK, though there is an Italian DVD which sounds worth avoiding as it has subtitles which can’t be removed.

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  2. God! It’s maybe 25 years since I saw this film but I still remember bits and pieces of it. It would be nice to see it available and looking spruce.
    All of the Barrymore’s were worth watching and John especially was in a class of his own.

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    • The fact that you have remembered it for so many years really speaks for itself – definitely agree that this one deserves a proper release. I’m definitely a fan of John Barrymore – must agree with you that he was in a class of his own- and want to know more about the others too. I haven’t seen any of Ethel’s films yet, but must put that right very soon after just seeing George Cukor’s earlier film ‘The Royal Family of Broadway’, which spoofs both Ethel and John, but, oddly without a Lionel character. Thanks, Colin.

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  3. You’ve never seen a movie with Ethel Barrymore! I envy you in a way since you’ve got some good ones to track down and enjoy. Let me recommend a few for starters:
    (i) Portrait of Jennie – a real class picture all round.
    (ii) The Spiral Staircase – a medium to good movie that’s helped enormously by Barrymore’s presence.
    (iii) The Paradine Case – fairly humdrum Hitchcock fare, but EB has a small yet highly memorable role as Charles Laughton’s long-suffering wife.
    Happy hunting.
    Colin

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  4. I haven’t seen a whole lot of John Barrymore but have seen plenty from the other two, including the three Colin suggests. I did particularly enjoy John in 21st Century with Carole Lombard. It’s a rip roaring good comedy.

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    • Thank you for visiting and commenting! I’ve seen a lot of John and Lionel’s films and do agree that 20th Century is an excellent comedy – both JB and Lombard are great in it, and I also love Howard Hawks’ work in general.

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  5. I have this film (recorded it off TCM), and it very much uses its set-bound atmosphere. The anguish may be theatrical, but it’s still potent. Coincidentally, Cukor-wise, I just saw Royal Family of Broadway where Fredric March absolutely nails some of Barrymore’s theatrical mannerisms while also parodying them.

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    • Totally agree on all counts. As chance would have it, I’ve also just seen Cukor’s ‘The Royal Family of Broadway’ – hoping to write something about it here soon! – and agree that March nails Barrymore’s mannerisms. At one or two moments I had to remind myself it wasn’t really him. Many thanks!

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  6. “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.”

    Aye Judy, I quite agree, and I must commend you for a fantastic review/resuurection and a splendid consideration of John Barrymore, who is an actor who never was given the chance to become the superstar he was in terms of talent. The cinema did give him some great chances (like TWENTIETH CENTURY, GRAND HOTEL and DINNER AT EIGHT) but his greatest successes were with Shakespeare on stage. As to the discussion here in the comment section on Ethel Barrymore, I loved her in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, but I’d also add her Oscar-winning turn in NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART.

    Let’s hope we get a legitimate DVR release of this film, maybe even from Warner Archives?

    With the you tube clip, the posters and this exhaustively impassioned review, you’ve presented a truly magisterial post here Judy!

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    • Thank you so much for all the encouragement, Sam. As this is an RKO movie, I’m not sure what the likelihood is of it turning up in Warner Archive, but that would be great – as it is also Katharine Hepburn’s first movie, and with Cukor as director, there must be a chance of it getting a proper release.

      I love all the great John Barrymore films you mention here, and am also impressed by those of his silents which I’ve seen so far – ‘The Beloved Rogue’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ are both great, and I’m also a fan of the early talkie ‘Svengali’. It is sad that he never had the chance to play a Shakespearean lead role on film – there is a “screen test” for Hamlet which makes me wish I could see the whole thing, and he filmed just one speech as Gloucester, giving a brief taste of what his Richard III must have been like. Thanks also for the further Ethel Barrymore suggestion – I will definitely be catching up with her work too.

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  8. Why did Barrymore not try for a career in the movies? I assume he did not and that’s why he’s been forgotten. Hepburn had a long career in the movies and the occasional flops are forgotten. On her not looking the role, it was not common for young women to look teenagy in this era. They dressed older as did young men. So my feeling is she would be accepted.

    A recommendation: I’ve got a volume from a series you might be interested in Judy: not the volume but the series. The study is The Making of Marnie, a financial flop but a success d’estime (rather like The Ox-Bow Incident_). It’s based on a Winston Graham novel (my interest) but is one of these super film studies (going over every angle and participant). On the flap there’s a list of other Making of … films, all classics. It’s called Filmmakers Series and is published by Scarecrow Press. The book on William Wellman (its title) is by Francis Thompson (published 1983).

    Ellen

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    • Hello Ellen, John Barrymore did make a lot of great silent films and was still an important leading man in the pre-Code era, from 1930 to 1934. But he was an alcoholic and sadly after 1934 he lost his short-term memory, couldn’t learn lines any more and had to read them from cue cards, so his movie career really faded after that – although he kept on working nearly to the end – and he died in 1942. Although he is best-known for his silent movies and accounts of his great stage work, I especially love his performances in early talkies because he had such a wonderful voice, and I’m hoping to write about some more of his films in the future. Thanks for the comments on Katharine Hepburn’s clothes in this movie; that is interesting to know.

      Thanks also for mentioning the Scarecrow Press series – the Wellman book in that series seems to be hard to get hold of, but Frank Thompson is working on a major new biography together with John Gallagher, which will hopefully incorporate the material.

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  9. After so many years now of home video, it is a shame so many films, like this one, are still unavailable. Hepburn was one of the most talented a actors to ever grace the screen capable of being tough, tender and sophisticatedly sexy . Elizabeth Patterson, who you mention played Aunt Hester, is one of the finest supporting actresses, and fans of the TV show I LOVE LUCY will remember her as Mrs. Trumbull, Lucy’s elderly neighbor. Terrific review Judy , hopefully this will pop up on TCM or somewhere.

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    • I agree about what a great actress Hepburn was, and it’s fascinating to see how much of her screen personality is already there in this very first role. I’m quite surprised that it hasn’t been included in a box set of her work somewhere along the line, but it seems as if early 1930s movies are often overlooked by the studios when considering reissues. Thanks also for the info about Elizabeth Patterson – I’ve never seen ‘I Love Lucy’ although it was popular in the UK too, and when satellite TV first launched here I remember that repeats of the show were a major selling point. Thanks, John!

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