KATHARINE HEPBURN MONTH
A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT ( 1932 )
A Bill Of Divorcement might not be crowned a masterpiece, but it sure holds a mark of distinction. Not only did it introduce us to a new star on the horizon, it was the birth of a legend, that would soon become one of the greatest and most influential stars to ever grace cinema history, who would be known the world over as Katharine Hepburn or ‘Kate the Great’.
There is only one person you can thank for the movie debut of Katharine Hepburn in 1932, and that is George Cukor. If it weren’t for Cukor, “A Bill Of Divorcement” would have featured another young actress in the role of Sydney Fairfield, but with the strong demands of George Cukor, who had witnessed unique mastery in Hepburn’s screen test, twenty four year old Katharine was cast, and was about to take the world by storm.
On a warm Summers day on Sunday July 3rd, 1932, Katharine Hepburn had boarded the Twentieth Century Limited at the unknown little station of Croton- Harmon to depart for a long journey to Hollywood to start a new life. When the train reached Chicago, Hepburn noticed Billie Burke sitting with her daughter Patricia in another compartment. Little did she know then that Billie Burke was returning to Hollywood after a long hiatus to resume her film career with the role of Hepburn’s mother in “A Bill Of Divorcement”. For Billie Burke this was a career resurrection, but for Katharine Hepburn it was the beginning, the beginning of an illustrious film career, and the beginning of a professional and personal relationship with George Cukor.
A Bill Of Divorcement is a notable Pre-Code production starring John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn and Billie Burke, under the superb direction of George Cukor. It was based on a play by Clemence Dane, which was initially adapted to the screen in 1922 for a British film of the same title.
The film opens on Christmas Eve at a party at the Fairfield mansion in England. It is here where we get our first glimpse of Katharine Hepburn gliding gracefully down the stairs to join the festivities that’s taking place on the bottom floor. Minutes later the picture moves facilely to the following morning and the events leading up to the unexpected arrival of Hilary Fairfield ( John Barrymore) who escapes after fifteen years in a mental asylum to reunite with his family.
After a fifteen year absence, Hilary enters the house casually, only to discover that so much has changed but in so little time. His wife Meg ( Billie Burke ) has divorced Hilary and is on the brink of marrying Gray Alliot, and his daughter, Sydney ( Katharine Hepburn ) is all grown up and is planning to elope with her boyfriend Kit.
Hilary wanders around thinking “How could this happen to me”. His own wife has lost all affections for him and does not love him anymore, but Hilary on the other hand wants Meg back in his life. He fails to realize that her marriage with him ended long ago, and starts pleading to Meg to stay with him, which leaves the viewer intrigued in Meg’s decision. Will she stay with Hilary or will she go away with Gray that night to get married?
While watching “A Bill Of Divorcement”, it is true to say that John Barrymore is the star of the show. Like in all his films, it is Barrymore that keeps the viewer enthralled. In every role he’s played, John Barrymore always brought that little extra spark to the film, even when the film did not call for comedy, he added a comedic touch to his character that would make you laugh and root for that person, but on the other hand, he also knew how to be serious, and his role as Hilary Fairfield is a great example of the dramatic side of Barrymore.
Here we actually witness him emoting his heart out, while he expresses his agony and pain on screen. There is one particular scene that really showcases the pitiable state of his character, and that is the scene where Billie Burke is sitting on the chair, while John Barrymore is sprawled out on the floor with his arms clinging tight around her and his head on her lap while a flood of tears stream down his face. He wants Meg to remain in his life, but he can’t comprehend why she doesn’t want him, so he desperately pleads for her to stay. That entire scene is so poignant and heartbreaking, that you can’t help shedding a tear and crying along with him.
Apart from John Barrymore’s exemplary performance, the film also spotlights a stellar cast, who all add solid support to the movie. Katharine Hepburn is enchanting in her film debut, though at the time she was still inexperienced as an actress and her indelible talents were not quite maturated, but that is only normal since this was her first role. Billie Burke, who we all know for her memorable portrayal of Glinda the good Witch in “The Wizard Of Oz” is also commendable in a rare serious role, but the main focal point of the film for me is John Barrymore. He’s the one that totally hams it up with all the tears and mountains of emotion that make for a spectacular movie.
A Bill Of Divorcement has so much to offer. Not only does it feature the presence of my all time favorite actor John Barrymore, it also exhibits the sparkling Katharine Hepburn in her film debut, and what better star is there than John Barrymore to serve as your first leading man?
When Ms Hepburn was interviewed at length by Dick Cavett, she told a story. Most of her life, her favorite off-camera outfit was dungarees and whatever sort of comfortable top seemed appropriate. When she was working on this first film, the studio PR department kept trying to get her to wear the elegant costumes from the film off the set, instead of her dungarees and sweaters. (This was a fairly common practise, since photos of the actors at nightclubs and fancy restaurants in the gowns and clothing they would wear in the film made good PR when they appeared in newspapers and screen magazines.) She refused. They said that they’d hide her dungarees while she was on the set, so that she’d have to wear the fancy duds. She said that she said “Oh, I REALLY wouldn’t do that.” But they did. When Cavett asked “So what did you do?”, she said “What else could I do? I walked across the lot to the car waiting for me at the front gate in my underpants.” Her dungarees were returned the next day.
Hilary Fairfield: “Do you know what the dead do in Heaven? They sit on their golden chairs and sicken for home.”
Sydney Fairfield: “No, just go… as though you were only going into the next room.”
Hilary Fairfield: “Who are you?”
Sydney Fairfield: “I think I’m your daughter”
Hilary Fairfield: Daughter, Daughter. That’s good. My wife’s not my wife, she’s my daughter.”
John Barrymore: Born John Sidney Blyth on February 15th, 1882 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: May 29th, 1942 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 60.
Katharine Hepburn: Born Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12th, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. Died: June 29th, 2003 in Fenwick, Connecticut. Aged 96.