TB: Our first theme in April is an interesting one. We’re going to turn the spotlight on John Barrymore and look at two of his precodes. Both were made at RKO in the early 30s when Barrymore was still a very well-known and highly respected actor. He hadn’t been totally defeated by alcohol at this point, so his performances are a bit more sober, you might say.
The first one we’ve selected is Katharine Hepburn’s motion picture debut. She plays Barrymore’s daughter, Sydney Fairchild. Years later, in a sit-down chat with Dick Cavett, Hepburn talked about how starstruck she was when she first met Barrymore. According to what she told Cavett, she had not met him until after she was hired and took the train west from New York to Los Angeles.
She said that while en route to L.A., she had gone out on the deck of the observation car and something sharp flew into her eye. I believe she said it was a tiny sliver of metal from the train, or some such thing. It was removed from her eye, but when she arrived at the studio the next morning, her eye was still a bit red and swollen. Barrymore mistook this for drinking and instantly bonded with Hepburn, even going so far as to recommend a certain kind of eye drop to clear up the redness!
The somewhat tragic story that plays out on screen, about an impressionable girl and her former mental patient father, requires that the actors be perfectly in sync. And fortunately for us, Barrymore and Hepburn are indeed perfectly synchronized, even if their combined acting styles are somewhat theatrical. Though I must say for Barrymore, he gives a rather subdued and tender portrayal of vulnerable Hilary Fairchild.
Part 1 of 2
TB: A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT is based on a British play and it had already been filmed in 1922 in England. David Selznick secured the rights for the American version at RKO and hired George Cukor to direct. Cukor is the one who discovered Hepburn by noting something unique in her screen test, though Selznick often took the credit for discovering her. Cukor and Hepburn formed a very close friendship during the making of this film, and they would work together on many more productions, up through the late 1970s.
JL: I should start out commenting here on the title, much like THE DIVORCEE made earlier that was also tantalizing at the time. It all seems mundane today due to the fact that half of all marriages end in divorce and nobody bats an eye over it. Yet in 1932, the D-word still had some degree of “scandal” to it since most had to go to specific states like Nevada just to get one. Note too how the difficulty of getting one became a major subject in George Cukor’s later THE WOMEN, made at the more conservative-minded MGM during the production code era.
In all of these films, divorce is something to be ashamed of regardless of the circumstances or how “right” it feels to those getting one. Billie Burke’s Meg comments on how church bells (symbolizing of authoritative religious teachings she may have endured in her youth) stop suddenly after a telephone rings that her more 20th century and less traditionally minded daughter Sydney answers. These sounds are also viewed by her as “wedding bells” and that call is the first signal that Meg’s husband will be back to cast any future wedding (to another suitor) in doubt. There is much hesitancy in Meg’s behavior with future husband Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh) that is full of guilt, a.k.a. “Is it too good to be true?,” with some ominous dread of being punished by Fate from Above.
One way this film got over hangups with certain religious groups (and this was the time when Father Coughlin had one of the highest rated radio shows, often accusing Hollywood of its “sins”) are frequent religious references that make all of these characters express a willingness to atone. As John Barrymore’s Hilary Fairchild states “I was in the garden lost. I could never make anyone understand. You know, I was never really like the rest of them. I was always really sane…but the face was turned away.” When asked “what face?,” he responds “the face of God.”
TB: Let’s talk specifically about the acting styles of Hepburn and Barrymore. There is one scene where they both become very overwrought then smartly “dial it down.” As I said, this was Hepburn’s motion picture debut. Her first of many films with director George Cukor. She does not seem like a neophyte or amateur at all. From her very first moment on camera, you can tell she is made for the movies.
JL: First, an observation on how each is introduced. Hepburn literally runs down a staircase in her opening shot, a signal that she is no shy wallflower. She also seems very idealistic and free spirited in her introduction, but gradually we see her “dial down” not so much as an actress but as the character of Sydney slowly unravels secrets through Elizabeth Patterson’s Aunt Hester and others.
With Barrymore, our first shot is curiously a photograph that Hester is holding when Sydney apologizes after her criticism over a Christmas gift. The photo showcases the “Great Profile” that Barrymore was famous for…and the image Hollywood fans knew him for before the tabloids started leaking he was having problems in his personal life.
When Barrymore as Hilary arrives in the house unexpectedly, he is smiling with hope (since Sydney learns he left the asylum thinking he is well) and then that grin mutes to befuddlement as he notices how much change has taken place with the original house décor, a suggestion that time passed him by and he is now a stranger to the world he used to know.
Sydney first observes him through the garland-wrapped staircase as if observing some dangerous “beast” behind leaves of foliage in a jungle.
We then cut to another shot of her head rising above the staircase rim after she sees a look of softness and sadness in his expression, making him less threatening and mysterious. I can’t resist comparing the way Barrymore as Hilary touches the more familiar aspects of the house, like the bookcase and mistletoe, to Greta Garbo’s most famous scene in QUEEN CHRISTINA the following year as both performers were flawless in expressing a particular emotion just with their overall movements. Likewise, Sydney asks “what are you looking for” when she is, again, behind the safety of more…you guessed it… foliage within the house. He responds “Meg, my darling” since his own daughter reminds him of her mother grown up.
Under Cukor’s direction, Hepburn seems very willing to altar her performance if he felt she was coming across too dramatic or over-the-top. One minor flaw is that both she and Barrymore still occasionally get a bit “theatrical” at times. It does not cause any specific problems here since I was quite engrossed in their performances, but I sometimes felt this is a stage adaptation more than a movie. Maybe the problem is more about the dialogue than the actors since certain lines seem a bit more poetic and preachy than common everyday speech.
TB: We should point out that this was Billie Burke’s first significant movie role in the sound era. She had made silent films in the teens and early 20s, but then focused on her marriage to Florenz Ziegfeld. (Ziegfeld died during the production of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT.)
As the mother…this is a “straight dramatic” part for her…so her usual scatterbrained comedy routines are absent from this picture. She was 47 when she made A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT and is technically old enough to play Hepburn’s mother (Hepburn was 24 at the time of filming). But Burke looks young, at least ten years younger than her actual age.
JL: DINNER AT EIGHT was the following year and I consider that a dramatic rather than comic role despite it being a semi-comedy. She is quite exasperated and emotional in that one. They really made her look young as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in a much later film I need not mention. She was a Leo who took great, um, pride in her appearance and performances. “Age is of no importance unless you are a cheese.”
TB: That’s funny. I’ll have to remember that one!
JL: An interesting curio that is irrelevant to anybody except to me– but Burke in this film and others reminds me of my paternal grandmother when she was young, just in her overall appearance and hair style. Personality-wise, my grandmother was closer to Hester who brings down much of Meg’s idealism.
TB: I have to comment on David Manners as Hepburn’s love interest, Kit Humphreys. There are some very romantic scenes between them, especially at the start of the movie. A bit later there is a medium-length shot of Manners outside that has to be one of the most attractive images of a young leading man ever captured on film. He was a very handsome actor.
JL: Remember your past observations of Leonard Whiting in ROMEO & JULIET? I am sure that the director greatly enjoyed looking at him regardless of his acting and I also noticed how the heterosexual excitement is emphasized more than usual so that nobody can question anything. One of the first in-depth discussions in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT between Sydney and Kit involves how many children they will have, with both agreeing that she must carry at least “two of each kind.” Can you imagine the real Katharine Hepburn reacting the same way? (Spoiler alert: we get the real Hepburn as Sydney back in action later, concerned about a possible “herd of squalling children.”)
In their romantic scene by the fire, which I find rather interesting in that she is not looking at him and seems distracted by other thoughts, she comments after his suggestion that a son of theirs could become Canadian prime minister: “Fool. Dear fool.” At first, I was wondering if she was thinking her boyfriend was the “fool” in his idealism…or commenting on herself. Her own mother also says about ten minutes later “what a fool I am” and maybe daughter thinks like mother. Later she warns Kit, while smoking a cigarette to display her defiance to being “pawned” over as a woman, “don’t be such a fool.”
TB: I think Sydney’s back-and-forth nature with Kit is really dependent upon the newfound relationship Sydney has with Hilary. She doesn’t seem to be able to balance both men in her lives. She feels she has to choose one over the other. So in order to let Kit down ‘gently,’ she mocks what he’s offering as not the kind of life she wants, when I think deep inside her, she does want to marry him and have a brood of obnoxious brats.
Ultimately she chooses papa over lover boy. The movie does not have a traditional happy ending, which I think makes it stand out from other Hollywood offerings.
JL: Actually, 1932 had a lot of them like that (a.k.a. I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG). But I think the happy ending scenario is a stereotype many of us develop when comparing and contrasting them to another country’s films or singling out some director/performer who wasn’t into happy endings. For example, most French films of the 1930s involved doom and gloom with LE QUAI DES BRUMES often getting mentioned as “anti” Hollywood. Yet this logic requires you to think all Hollywood films are alike when they aren’t.
TB: Fair enough.
JL: I should point out how unusually happy and over-joyed the opening scenes of this movie are, which are in sharp contrast. The setting is at Christmas with caroling outside.
Burke’s Meg commenting cheerfully about youth and Sydney is so giddy the moment she flies down the stairs to dance in her boyfriend’s arms. This is the classic set-up of a things-won’t-always-be-happy situation later. I guess I could reference that other ’32 title again in comparison with Paul Muni’s James Allen happy to finish his war service and express to everybody his happy dreams of a future career in engineering before he too faces disillusionment and plenty of doom and gloom. All classic Great Depression material that moviegoers at the time were willing to pay tickets to see since it proved that Hollywood was not ignorant to their own sufferings.
However…is the ending that unhappy? Even though she closes the curtain on the whistling, are things really over between Sydney and Kit? Is she closing the curtain on the outside world and creating a new “asylum” for her and Daddy? Note how she helps her father finish his symphony on the piano. Maybe they will finish other projects that require closure and can move on with their lives.
TB: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the overall look and feel of the film. For example, the furnishings, clothing and camera movements. There are some sweeping tracking shots that were clearly devised by Selznick and Cukor to show off the elaborate and rather costly set. Plus there are some very ornate knick knacks on the shelves, with photos turned not towards the camera, but towards the characters who would be looking at them. It’s a grand home, but it feels like a real home.
JL: These tricks allow the film to feel a bit less stage-bound and show off Cukor’s skill as a movie director.
TB: Yes, good point. Okay, let’s pause here. Tomorrow we will resume our review of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT. Jlewis and I will look at the subject matter of the story, plus discuss a few other important aspects of the film. Please join us…
Part 2 of 2
TB: Okay, we’re back with the second part of this review. Let’s go over the subject of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, which is mental illness, and how Barrymore handles this delicate topic. I haven’t read the original British play but assume it is about how mental illness runs in families. And how there are obligations one has to one’s family. Interestingly, Burke’s character (the mother) is allowed to shirk her responsibilities while Hepburn (the daughter) must step in and look after her “recovering” father.
JL: Not without a lot of effort, poor Meg. She is feeling so much guilt trying to get over her past with Hilary. I feel her daughter is the one helping her shirk her responsibility because Hilary should NOT be a responsibility. He is not a child and must learn to take care of himself. Yet Meg describes him to Gray as “a lost child.”
Sydney is a take charge person while mother lets others persuade her more. Note how, just moments after Hilary responds to his daughter telling the servant that he is “staying for lunch” with “and also dinner and tea…,” she is instantly on speed dial to get Dr. Alliot (Henry Stephenson) to come retrieve Daddy right away! Sydney feels she must save her mother from this burden.
At the same time this story’s writers seem to have very strong opinions about the rules of religion as a whole but is very gingerly in how they address them so that those who want to follow all rules aren’t easily offended. We see characters tormented and that is okay as long as viewers can choose sides here in accordance to their own sense of morality as to which path will lead these characters out of torment.
TB: Was there a moment that seemed to illustrate the torment more than other scenes?
JL: Yes…where Meg says “Oh Gray. I am wicked! I am wishing he (Hilary) never got well. In my heart, I am hating my husband.”
TB: That’s where I felt some of the dialogue was a bit over the top.
JL: Then Gray replies to Meg, “You have no husband. You are marrying ME. You’re MINE.” At first she seems to agree with him, but doesn’t look at him when she says that, much as Sydney is not looking at Kit when he is wooing her. Another interesting detail is how Hilary confronts Meg for turning “sideways” when he talks to her and soon realizes this is a sign that she is not being honest with him, something Gray and Kit haven’t quite grasped of the women they love even though the latter admits he is “not a mind reader.”
This brings up another major theme to this story, one of honesty. The more honest people are with each other, the more emotionally stable they are.
TB: Interesting point. And I would certainly agree with that. Anything else you care to discuss?
JL: Although the Production Code was not in effect yet, it is obvious some doctoring of the script was made in a few places. For instance, at one point, Meg claims “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve been trying to tell you. Hilary, fifteen years is a long time.” Then Hilary replies, “Yes, I suppose it is a long time…for a woman to be faithful. What do you expect me to do? Forgive you?” Meg quickly stands up in defiance and answers: “There is nothing to forgive! (then relieving her intensity and sitting down by him) Oh Hilary, we have so much to forgive of each other, but not that.”
Meanwhile we are given a sign that things might not be over between Sydney and Kit. She tells her mother “Don’t worry about Kit and me. We will work everything out together.” After all, she was honest with Kit earlier about her phobia about becoming insane. She may temporarily shut him out but, if he truly loves her, he will keep trying…and trying…until she reopens all of the curtains in her house.
In regards to the daughter taking on the mother’s role, there is a fascinating moment that springs her into action.
Dr. Alliot says in words he intends to be helpful but are NOT helpful at all: “Face it man, one of you must suffer. Which is it to be? The whole or the maimed? The healthy woman with her life before her or the man whose children should have never been born?” Hepburn’s reaction shot as Sydney is brilliantly edited here. She confronts the doctor quickly and he apologizes for his wording, but she now worries if he and the always pessimistic Aunt Hester are correct that insanity runs in their family and either she will develop it or pass it on to her offspring. (It is frightening to note how many believed this at the time and the future Nazi Germany had its own solution to the problem.)
TB: I was glad Sydney confronted the doctor after his questionable statement. In a way, I think this helps bond her to Hilary more. Even if she does not turn out to be insane later, like her father, she knows that she has to shield him from people who think like Dr. Alliot does. And if Hilary is now becoming cured of his mental illness, then it will be her job to ensure that her father continue to stay well.
JL: I also think she realizes that she must learn to fully understand herself and her own needs before falling for any man, understanding that her parents might have made a mistake even when he was “sane” before the asylum. (I am guessing she was five or six when he entered in 1917.) However her fears of being insane like daddy can either be viewed as an obstacle here or a smokescreen for her unwillingness to be married until she feels ready to give up some level of independence (note her smoking when dealing with Kit). I found the scene of Kit sobbing in her arms not wanting to lose her eerily similar to Hilary doing the same with Meg and Meg feeling all constricted in the process.
TB: I considered that to be a deliberate plot point, where the writer wanted to connect the idea that Sydney will mother Hilary, in a way Meg cannot…to Sydney also having mothered Kit. Which shows the most tender side of the Sydney-Kit relationship.
Going back to Hilary for a moment. Would Barrymore’s character ever fully recover from said mental illness? Or would he have a relapse? If he does have a relapse, then Sydney will be forever mothering him, unless Meg comes back having decided not to marry Gray.
JL: Interesting that the smokescreen cover for possible family insanity is wartime shell-shock, a topic we’ve discussed in other films such as SPELLBOUND. War is also all about death, even for the living who survive it. Hilary died during the war in a way and must now adjust to a rebirth of sorts. As Aunt Hester notes, the dead returning to the living is always a shock. Yet Dr. Alliot thinks this, like anything, is something one can get through.
Interesting side note to add about Barrymore’s performance. At times, his speeches do get slightly Shakespearean and lengthier than usual and there are fascinating subtle messages incorporated that only those paying close attention will notice. For example, there is a speech he makes that loosely remarks he is a war veteran who deserves more in life than he was given, even though this story is set in England rather than the United States. He does not spell everything out in a way that we viewers of 2020 can understand but I am certain 1932 viewers got it instantly since this movie was released only two months after President Hoover utilized the present U.S. army to disperse war veterans protesting unemployment outside the White House, a move that was widely condemned at the time and probably cost him the election that November.
TB: Some have said Barrymore gives one of his most poignant portrayals in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932). After seeing the movie, would you agree or disagree?
JL: I like a lot of his performances and feel he is as equally tender in, say, GRAND HOTEL and many other features of this period as this one. I don’t think there is one particular role that is better than another. This one blends in pretty closely with so many others. Obviously he is different in DON JUAN but even that one has its tender moments too.
TB: Elizabeth Patterson plays the spinster aunt. She sort of disappears mid-way into the story but has considerable influence over family matters in the early part of our drama. There’s a very amusing scene where aunty gives niece a proper Christian present for Christmas that is unwanted.
JL: Not so much unwanted but my sense is that Sydney had received the same gift before and was hoping for something different. I’ve discussed the religious aspects a bit already, especially in regards to divorce at the time, so… yes…it may be significant that it is a “Christian” gift as well. (A couple films of the period like the Oscar winning CAVALCADE suggest a loss of religion with That Younger Generation due to the war and that theme can be addressed here in some indirect way.)
Hester herself is an interesting character, dressed in her old-time shawl and constantly in a worried state. I think a key reason why she is trying to stop Meg from remarrying is not so much because of her moral feelings regarding divorce but because she feels she too “died” when Hilary “died” at the asylum and thinks Meg is a key to keeping him “alive.”
TB: This is a Hollywood production. RKO bought the rights to the play, which is very British in origin and had been the basis for a British film version in 1922. Technically the action is set outside London, in the countryside somewhere. But it feels very much like an Americanized treatment of the story in many ways. I don’t see why they couldn’t have just had it take place in New England. Given Hepburn’s east coast accent, that would have made a bit more sense.
JL: I think the rather European setting with the house being a bit Gothic in its stone walls ties it a little with some of the crazy horror material famous at this same time period.
In closing remarks, I enjoyed this movie just as I had decades ago, but had forgotten some of the more stage-bound aspects to it, not that it suffers any more than other studio-bound productions of the era. Yes, I agree that Hepburn gives a surprisingly seasoned performance here despite it being her first on screen appearance and Cukor is definitely a major reason for this. Plus I do feel she was an actress, like Bette Davis, who was a natural for this line of work and did not require a lot of coaching.
TB: Thanks Jlewis. A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932) may currently be viewed on YouTube. It has also been released on DVD by the folks at Kino Lorber. And so has the RKO remake from 1940, starring Maureen O’Hara, Adolphe Menjou and Fay Bainter.