A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT: Blu-ray (RKO, 1932) Kino Lorber
Katharine Hepburn marked a stunning debut in George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement (1932); a rather literal film adaptation of Clemence Dane’s award-winning play. Dane’s stagecraft, itself a response to Britain passing a ‘new law’ allowing a woman to sever her marital bonds based on a legal claim of insanity, had been produced as a silent movie ten year’s earlier. Cukor’s version sticks fairly close to Dane’s construction; his one luxury, the casting of the angular and statuesque Kate Hepburn to play the pivotal role of Sydney Fairfield, who undergoes a miraculous conversion of attitude, acquiring a real woman’s heart in the process and after she is inadvertently introduced to the father that, for all intent and purposes, she has never known, he, having been locked away in an asylum for twenty years. Cukor and the picture’s producer, David O. Selznick were lifelong friends who, oddly enough, resembled one another physically – a similarity that irked Selznick’s wife, Irene and Cukor’s mother. In terms of cinematic taste, the boys were frequently aligned too. But Selznick thought Hepburn all wrong for the part of this callous young lass, born to affluence, who suddenly discovers the true strength of sentiment in renewed empathy towards her father. Despite Hepburn’s rather uninspiring screen test, Cukor disagreed. “The acting was idiotic,” he told Hepburn at the end of it, “…but you put a glass down and listened intelligently.” And this, apparently, was all Cukor required to mold a great performance from his novice star.
Indeed, viewing A Bill of Divorcement today, one is absolutely struck by the visceral charm of Hepburn; the unsettling way her stoic and haughty awareness melts into genuine affection for Barrymore’s decidedly more hammy and unnerved performance as Hilary Fairfield. Pure sacrilege probably, but I have never quite understood the appeal of John Barrymore, hailed as one of the finest stage actors of his generation (he probably was), and trumpeted as ‘the great profile’ in the movies (yeah, whatever). True and fair enough, the art of acting in Barrymore’s time owed a great deal to theatricality. And truer still, a goodly sum of his contemporaries suffered similarly for their art. Yet, Barrymore always seems, at least to me, to be too in love with mugging for the camera – too invested in a rather narcissistic ‘look at me’ intensity that translates into laughable hysterics. By contrast, Hepburn’s subtler performance, as well as that of costar, Billie Burke (as Hilary’s estranged wife, Margaret ‘Meg’ – set to wed another) both appear resplendently natural, teeming in tenderness and nostalgia for a way of life lost to the past and nearly set aside for good in the future.
A Bill of Divorcement is, in fact, a very claustrophobic play, set during Christmas and taking place inside a few stately rooms of a grand manor house, time immemorial belonging to the Fairfields – a respected old family in England’s aristocracy. The patriarch having decamped for the asylum long ago, the household is jointly overseen by Hilary’s estranged wife, Meg and his stodgy elder sister, Hester (Elizabeth Patterson) who, despite Meg’s recent engagement to Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh) refuses to let her brother’s memory fade into obscurity. The family’s dirty little secret remains thus: that, the youthful Sydney, herself on the cusp of marriage to the dashing and impetuous Kit Humphreys (David Manners), has always been told her father lost his marbles due to shell shock from the war, when in reality he suffered a nervous breakdown long before it. Apparently, the Fairfield clan is plagued by a history of insanity. The rest of the picture is really a reunion between father and daughter; also, a reassessment of what it means to ‘be’ or rather ‘discover’ one’s own happiness inexplicably linked to another as Sydney desperately tries to keep her father from learning his ex-wife no longer harbors the same emotions towards him, and, after a long period of adjustment and great loneliness, has found the right man to look after her for the rest of her days.
Our story unfolds at an elegant gathering of the socially affluent at Fairfield manor. Meg’s happiness is presently enraptured in the superficially romantic euphoria of her daughter, Sydney, who is breathless for her spontaneous fiancé, Kit Humphreys. As Meg adoringly looks on, the couple whirl about the dance floor, unabashedly the center of attention. Stodgy Aunt Hester does not approve of such ostentatiousness; even less so of Meg’s decision to wed attorney, Gray Meredith, instrumental in having the courts grant Meg’s divorce after Hilary went mad and had to be put away in an asylum. As Sydney and Kit happily discuss their future, Hester is emotionally wounded when a group of carolers serenade the household with ‘God Bless the Master of This House’ – meant for Gray, but an anthem Hester firmly believes is still owed the departed Hilary, presently psychotic and institutionalized. Sydney knows nothing of the true cause of her father’s infirmity, and thus, cares little for the man she has never known. Her callousness disturbs Hester, who suspects Sydney has likely inherited Hilary’s genetic predisposition. Meg is slightly more optimistic and does what she can to preserve the peace between these two. Having ‘escaped’ from the asylum, Hilary arrives Christmas morning to be reunited with his family. Alas, Meg and Gray are away at church and Hilary instead is tenderly greeted by his estranged daughter who, from a distance, admires his gentle rediscovery of their ancestral home and all its memories.
Dr. Alliot (Henry Stephenson) telephones to forewarn the Fairfields of Hilary’s escape. Concerned for the family’s future, Hester quietly reveals to Sydney that insanity has always run in the family; the previous explanation, Hilary’s breakdown caused by shell shock in WWI, actually meant to shield her from the truth. Armed with this knowledge, Sydney begins to form a bond with her father, recognizing in his instability hallmarks of her own that would likely manifest themselves if she and Kit ever had children. Realizing what a mistake this would be, Sydney bittersweetly gives up Kit. She loves him far too much to see him suffer as she has quietly observed Meg’s loneliness. But now, this may be at an end. Gray truly loves Meg and vice versa. They could be happy together. The real question is ‘should they?’
Sydney introduces herself to Hilary as his daughter. The two chat comfortably, apart from a moment’s heated disagreement. Yet, this only serves to further parallel their similarities as finely strung and free-spirited individuals. Meg’s initial reaction to seeing Hilary again is one of shock, fear and dread. How will she ever tell him the truth. For several hours the family pretends at a happy and hopeful reunion. Wrapped up in his own recovery, Hilary is obtuse to the tension in the room and believes he has been welcomed back into the fold, ready and willing to assume the reigns as patriarch of this clan. But these dreams are shattered when Alliot arrives at the manor and confronts his patient with a more sobering conviction. “Face it, man,” he cruelly tells Hilary, “One of you must suffer. Which is it to be? A healthy woman with her life before her, or a man whose children ought never to have been born?” Alliot strike a nerve from within Sydney. She clearly sees what must be done. Despite her love for Kit, she must send him away or risk endangering the children they might have had to a similarly cruel fate.
Conflicted in his emotions toward Meg’s love for Gray, Hilary shillyshallies from acceptance to desperate pleading for Meg to reconsider their life together. Unable to willfully inflict any more pain on her ex, Meg bows to Hilary’s pressure. Still, she cannot deny her heart, and after Hilary witnesses a private conversation between Meg and Gray, he understands how truly miserable his ex-wife has been in his absence, and how absolutely awful his ultimatum would make her feel again. As heartsore as he is, Hilary selflessly has his daughter convince Meg to go away with Gray – her one chance at everlasting happiness. As the couple departs the manor house, presumably for the last time, a careworn but newly devoted Sydney returns to her father’s side. She is ever more his daughter now, and with newfound compassion, reasons to look after him for the rest of his days. Father and daughter take their place at the piano. Decades earlier, Hilary began a concerto he never finished. Now, he applies all his bottled-up creativity to the keys, willing a conclusion to the music as Sydney gingerly looks on with great affection. Perhaps, in her loyalty to him, these two wounded souls will find their modicum of contentment in a solitary life devoted to each other.
A Bill of Divorcement is all about the performances. There is very little action to this three-act drama. Slavishly devoted to Clemence Dane’s play, and save a brief respite in the garden, Cukor confines virtually all of his scenes to three rooms in the Fairfield manor house; the lavishly appointed ballroom, quaintly situated morning room with its breakfast nook, and Hilary’s rugged private study. Cukor’s pacing of the play’s wordy dialogue is impeccable as, in retrospect, Cukor (like Joe Mankiewicz) was a master at achieving high drama almost exclusively from dialogue-driven stories. He is, of course, immeasurably blessed with acting talent who implicitly know how to channel intimacy and pathos for maximum effect. Hepburn, who remains the Academy’s most-honored actress with 4 Oscars (for 1932’s Morning Glory, 1968’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1969’s The Lion in Winter and 1982’s On Golden Pond) ought to have at least been nominated for A Bill of Divorcement. Her portrait of a daughter’s devotion and sensible surrender of Sydney’s immediate happiness is heartbreaking and undiluted in its strength of character. As good as they are, the rest of the cast – even headliner John Barrymore – are all subservient to Hepburn’s beautifully nuanced performance – the lynch pin around whom all narrative threads are interwoven. At 70 min. and modestly budgeted at $250,000, A Bill of Divorcement is neither an epic love story nor an ever-important piece of classic cinema. But Hepburn’s debut in it elevates the picture to a timeless and meaningful entertainment, well worth the price of admission.
A Bill of Divorcement has never been made available on home video since the bad ole VHS days. So, Kino Lorber’s newly minted Blu-ray is decidedly cause for celebration. The film elements are in relatively good shape. While minor speckling and age-related artifacts intermittently appear throughout this presentation, for the most part they do not distract. The B&W image is otherwise solidly rendered with a few fleeting moments of softness, but, on the whole, revealing some nice detail and crispness that will surely not disappoint. Film grain is appropriately featured and looking indigenous to its source. Contrast is just a tad weaker than anticipated. Everything falls into a mid-register of gray tonality with few instances of true blacks or bright whites. This, again, may be in keeping with Sidney Hickox original cinematography. The DTS 2.0 mono is adequate for this presentation – dialogue, front and center with minimal hiss and pop. The unforgivable sin here – no extras. A Bill of Divorcement is worthy of an audio commentary. But no – all we get are several theatrical trailers to promote other Kino Blu-ray releases of Selznick product. Aside: while A Bill of Divorcement has fared well in hi-def, I would sincerely encourage Kino to go back to the well for new remasters on Duel in the Sun and Since You Went Away – two, less than stellar previous releases in need of better work to be done. As for A Bill of Divorcement – it comes recommended for Hepburn’s powerhouse performance as well as the overall quality of this hi-def release.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)