The following is my entry in the 3rd Annual Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, being hosted May 12-14, 2016 by the blogger who is surely the biggest KH fan on the planet, MargaretPerry.org. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ insights into the movies and life of this legendary actress!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
A Bill of Divorcement always seems right on the verge of collapsing into sudsy soap opera. But the movie is always pulled back from the precipice by the sterling acting of John Barrymore and, in her sizzling film debut, Katharine Hepburn.
The movie is based on a British stage play that was written as (to quote Wikipedia) “a reaction to a law passed in Britain in the early 1920’s that allowed insanity as grounds for a woman divorcing her husband.” In the case of this play-turned-movie, the unlucky fellow is Hilary (Barrymore), who has been committed to an asylum for the past 15 years after experiencing shell shock in World War I.
Hilary’s wife Meg (Billie Burke), having given up hope of Hilary regaining sanity, has taken up with Gray (Paul Cavanagh), had herself divorced from Hilary, and is now due to marry Gray on New Year’s Day. Meanwhile, Hilary and Meg’s daughter Sydney (Hepburn) is madly in love with Kit (David Manners), and as the story begins on Christmas Eve, Kit proposes to Sydney, who happily accepts.
But darned if old Hilary doesn’t get better again, come home, and ruin everybody’s Christmas.
First of all, Meg is beside herself and doesn’t begin to know how she’ll tell the truth to Hilary, who has not received the warm welcome home that he’d expected from his spouse. (Truth to tell, Meg’s dithering isn’t made easier to take by the fluttery Billie Burke, who is easily the weakest cast member here. And hindsight doesn’t help either, knowing you’re watching the future Wizard of Oz’s Good Witch of the North trying to portray a cuckolding wife.)
Secondly, Hilary’s return causes Sydney’s aunt Hester (Elizabeth Patterson) to reveal to Sydney that it was a bit more than just shell shock that brought her daddy down; in fact, both Hilary and another family member had mental problems, so it’s possible that insanity runs in their family. This just might interfere with Kit’s plan to have Sydney birth a few dozen kids.
Other than Burke, the movie’s major debit is director George Cukor’s penchant for TV-style close-ups (20 years before TV became popular) of actors giving overly long speeches. Given all of this, you’d think you’d be laughing this movie off the screen. But we’d be forgetting that intangible element called “star power,” and Barrymore and Hepburn have it here in spades.
From his first entrance, Barrymore is thoroughly believable as a man who has just escaped after nearly two decades in an asylum. The sentence seems to have worn down his physical being. Barrymore walks through the entire movie resigned, with slumped shoulders, as though the memory of the asylum was a weight pressing down on him.
And Hepburn is simply dynamic. Sydney doesn’t make a point of telling us what a carefree, independent spirit she is; she simply is — is a force of nature — and it makes the sadness that occurs later in the movie that much more heartbreaking. It’s easy to see how Hepburn’s performance must have captured moviegoers’ attention and imagination.
Some movies go straight past the rational side of your brain and hit that primal spot where you’re still willing to respond to unabashed emotion — and when that response is earned, it’s a gratifying time at the movies. That’s what A Bill of Divorcement is.