On Tuesday January 29th, TCM is showing several films starring John Barrymore, including A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, which is mostly notable as Katharine Hepburn’s very first film.
According to the biography GEORGE CUKOR: A DOUBLE LIFE, the casting of the daughter role was initially a choice between Jill Esmond (then married to Laurence Olivier) and Anita Louise; however Cukor wanted a fresh face. Although no one was really all that impressed with Hepburn’s screen test, Cukor saw something in it—particularly in a moment when she picked up a highball glass with her back to the camera—that suggested something to him—“a sad lyric moment” and he convinced David O. Selznick to cast her. This was a plum part as it was opposite then-legendary John Barrymore (the same year he appeared in GRAND HOTEL).
A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT is about an institutionalized man (Barrymore) who returns to his family after fifteen years, having escaped from the asylum, who faces the harsh reality that time has past him by. Daughter Hepburn discovers that it wasn’t just shellshock that sent him there in the first place. The film is broadly dramatic, but has enough style and momentum to be reasonably entertaining— and worthwhile enough for one to devote the 70 minute running time.
The dated film is mainly marred by stage-bound-stiff dialogue in which each character TELLS us how he or she feels every moment. One scene follows another in a linear fashion but there’s enough suspense— about why Hilary (Barrymore) went to the asylum, his escape, how and when he’ll find out about his wife’s divorcing him, if he’ll let her and her new fiancé go, etc.— and tragedy, to keep things moving.
Katharine Hepburn plays her no-nonsense, headstrong, free-spirited role well, setting herself up for a career of the type. She holds her own completely opposite veteran Barrymore. Barrymore IS convincing in the film— quiet and sad one moment, angry at the world the next— as her not-so-cured father returning from his mentally ill haze but falling back with every other moment. Nice scene where Hilary says that he realizes that his wife Meg (Billie Burke) has changed, gotten harder, and how Sydney (Hepburn) is like Meg used to be (“she’s more you than you are”) and how Meg’s “grown right up, away, beyond me, haven’t you?” He then optimistically says that Meg will help him “catch up” but the audience knows that the world’s past him by.
In later scenes, admittedly, Barrymore does get a bit over-the-top. This was surely one of the starring parts that Barrymore felt should have won him the Oscar— but as he had been quoted to say, they would never give him one for fear that he’d show up drunk to the ceremony! Billie Burke’s technique is quite old-fashioned, but works for her part as the guilt-ridden Meg.
Again, a worthwhile movie in order to see Hepburn’s screen debut [the credits misspell her first name!] and as (another) showcase for Barrymore. Hepburn wrote in her autobiography ME: STORIES OF MY LIFE: “[Barrymore] was sweet— he was funny— and he could certainly act…. I was indeed lucky to be in the film. It was a showy part.”
A Bill of Divorcement (1932): Dated film with stage-bound-stiff dialogue has enough style and momentum to be reasonably entertaining at its modest length— plus a great showy performance by John Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn (in her screen debut) setting up a career of headstrong female parts.