A must-see for any Katharine Hepburn completist.

Fans of Katharine Hepburn are familiar with the title of A Bill of Divorcement as it was her screen debut in 1932. Hearing that Kino Lorber would release the George Cukor film on BluRay this month, I was excited to finally see the movie which kicked off her decades of onscreen work. Hepburn plays the daughter of a newly divorced couple… the main problem being the husband, her father, isn’t aware his marriage is over.

Hilary (John Barrymore) has been in an asylum for 15 years. This Christmas holiday, as his wife Margaret (Billie Burke, The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Wizard of Oz) celebrates her new freedom — and finally being able to marry her fiance Gray (John Cavanagh, a British character actor) — Hilary becomes lucid enough to escape the institution and make his way home.

There are slight comic elements to this second film adaptation of Clemence Dane’s play, but A Bill of Divorcement mostly dwells in melodrama. The movie quickly flips from the extreme high of a Christmas Eve party, at which carolers sing and young couples flirt, to the low of Hilary intruding on Margaret’s hopes for a second marriage and interrupting Sydney’s (Hepburn) own romance.

Hilary is adept enough at manipulation that one wonders if he had been an abusive husband to Margaret earlier in their relationship. To the 21st Century viewer, the views here on mental health are almost uncomfortably dated. We learn that the “shellshock” Sydney had been told her father suffered is instead something different, throwing her dreams for the future into question.

A Bill of Divorcement is eerily quiet, with no music except what is played on the piano or heard at the party. The lack of a score, as well as the somewhat limited setting, make the picture’s beginnings as a play more obvious. The writing can be trite, Barrymore’s performance comes on a little strong, Burke seems miscast, but Hepburn is the saving grace. Her talent and potential shine through in her supporting role.

A Bill of Divorcement is now out on BluRay and DVD from Kino Lorber. Special features include trailers for other classic films in the Kino Lorber library.

[Amazon | Kino Lorber]

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