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Bill of Divorcement, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Katharine Hepburn arrives fully formed."
4 stars

Few performers get top billing in their first picture, and Katharine Hepburn is no exception; she's listed fourth in the credits for "A Bill of Divorcement", below at least one co-star who has a much smaller role. She'd be a leading lady soon enough, though, and it's no surprise, as she more than holds her own with a veteran cast, which helps a movie that is in many ways dated remain quite dramatic and watchable today.

The film opens at a party on Christmas Eve, circa 1930, a week before Margaret Fairfield (Billie Burke) and Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh) are set to marry, now that Margaret's divorce is finally complete. That's about the same time that Kit Humphreys (David Manners) is set to leave England for Canada, bringing Margaret's daughter Sydney (Hepburn) with him if she accepts his marriage proposal. Except that things change on Christmas morning, as Sydney's father Hilary (John Barrymore) shows up, having left the sanitarium where he has been since before Syndney can remember. He's shaky, but lucid enough to strongly object to to Margaret's divorce and remarriage - and what comes out as a result shakes Sydney to the core.

This film was released in 1932, and a modern audience will have to make some allowances even beyond Sydney's father being named Hilary rather than vice versa. Mostly, that comes from the depiction of mental illness; not only has "post-traumatic stress disorder" not yet replaced "shell shock", but saying "there's madness in our blood!" is probably only considered a little melodramatic. Hilary's exile - with neither Margaret nor Sydney having visited for at least fifteen years - is treated far more cavalierly than Margaret's decision to divorce. One probably won't look at and think his or her great-grandparents were horrible people, but things were a bit different then.

That certain attitudes were different then doesn't actually hurt the story, though; even if today's audience may be more accepting of divorce, the idea of coming out of a fog to find that your family has been treating you as effectively dead is rather horrifying, and Hilary's horror is mirrored on the other side by Sydney, who is intelligent enough to see what Hilary's problems mean for her future. Howard Estabrook's and Harry Wagstaff Gribble's adaptation of Clemence Dane's stage play gives each main character and interesting dilemma without ladling the misery on too thick; director George Cukor keeps things more interesting than depressing. He and the writers also do a nice job of keeping the movie as intimate as a stage play without ever making things seem constricted; the action never moves far from the Fairfield house, but never feels trapped there.

John Barrymoore is the above-the-title star of the movie, and he gives the sort of performance one expects from him - maybe emotive by today's standards, but clear; he communicates well, even if he is given to over-emphasis at times. Billie Burke is not quite so broad, but still a bit theatrical. She's good, though, making Margaret's guilt real and making her waver just enough to make the audience reconsider the character a couple of times. Interestingly, this was not just her first talkie, but her first role in over a decade, and in some ways she handles the transition better than Barrymoore, who worked through it. And while A Bill of Divorcement is perhaps Burke's second debut, it's Hepburn's first, and she shows up fully formed, feisty and witty and perfectly capable of showing Sydney gaining a sad maturity over the course of a day.

Nearly everyone involved would make legitimate classics; the collaboration between Cukor and Hepburn that with his insisting on casting her in this movie would become one of cinema's greatest. "A Bill of Divorcement" doesn't always measure up to them, but it's quite a fine movie; considering its place in history, it should be more readily available than it is.

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originally posted: 10/07/11 03:12:32
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