Monday, April 11, 2016

A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932)

Christmas day -- all is calm, all is bright in the Fairfield home. Divorcee Margaret Fairfield is looking forward to her marriage to Gray Meredith. Meanwhile, her daughter Sydney is planning her marriage to Kit Pumphery. 

Then Margaret's ex-husband (and Sydney's father) Hilary drops by after escaping from the local lunatic asylum. And you think your holiday reunions are a pain.

Remembered solely as Katharine Hepburn's movie debut, A Bill of Divorcement is one of those rarely-screened "classics" that had a high pedigree back in the day, but is now creakier than a door that hasn't been oiled in 400 years.

It didn't have to be this way. Having been locked up in the cracker factory for 15 years, John Barrymore (as Hilary) makes his entrance to his former home with a look of confusion, excitement and wonder, without any dialogue to telegraph his thoughts. It's quite a moving moment. And, with few exceptions, it's also the last time anybody in the picture appears to be on speaking terms with the word "subtlety."

They look like they'd have
crazy kids even without
the insanity gene.
The story is actually fairly interesting. Sydney, having never met her father, is under the belief that Hilary's mind was destroyed by shell shock during World War I. She only learns (in a "shocking" Act III reveal) that he carried the insanity gene all along -- as does she.

Faster than you say "lithium," Sydney breaks up with Kit (because who wants crazy offspring?) before urging Margaret and Gray to elope. Sydney and Hilary will live together in happy insanity. 

Oh, and did I mention nothing makes sense in A Bill of Divorcement? Forty-seven year-old Billie Burke plays 34 year-old Margaret. Hepburn, 25, is supposed to be 19. Everyone speaks with American accents (since they're all American actors), only it isn't until about 20 minutes before the climax that we learn we're in a London suburb. And what's with Hilary and Sydney having names usually associated with the opposite sex? And what the hell kind of names are Kit and Gray? 

Barrymore wins the battle of the profiles.
Still, nothing is weirder than the climax -- Sydney and her dad sit down at the piano to finish a sonata he started composing before the War, looking less like father and daughter than a married couple looking forward to some hot times together. Interestingly, it's the only time that Hepburn -- who, as usual, possesses all the warmth of a woolly mammoth preserved in an iceberg -- shows any real emotion.

While A Bill of Divorcement's script is problematic, the ultimate blame must go to director George Cukor, whose instructions to every actor seems to have been, "More histrionics!" The leading stars ratchet up the melodrama as if they're playing to the back row in a theater for the hard of hearing (not to mention hard of thinking). Only David Manners, as Sydney's fiance Kit, skips the ham. 

"You don't mind if I have a better
look, do you?"
The low point, without doubt, is Hilary on his knees, emotionally blackmailing Margaret to take him back now that he's "cured." I have a feeling Barrymore knew the claptrap he was involved in, and decided to roll with it. 

There must have been a big audience for A Bill of Divorcement. Originally a 1921 Broadway play, it was produced as a silent movie a year later. Following the 1932 release, it was remade in 1940. A live television version aired on Kraft Theater in 1949. 

That's fewer bills of divorcements than you'd find in one Hollywood family. But far more Bill of Divorcement's than anybody needs.

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