John Barrymore and Billie Burke in A Bill of Divorcement (1932)


(director: George Cukor; screenwriters: Howard Estabrook/Harry Wagstaff Gribble/based on the play by Clemence Dane; cinematographer: Sidney Hickox; editor: Arthur Roberts; music: Max Steiner; cast: John Barrymore (Hilary Fairfield), Katharine Hepburn (Sydney Fairfield), Billie Burke (Margaret Fairfield), David Manners (Kit Humphreys), Paul Cavanagh (Gray Meredith), Elizabeth Patterson (Aunt Hester Fairfield), Henry Stephenson (Doctor Alliot); Runtime: 70; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David O. Selznick; RKO; 1932)


“Outdated family drama about dealing with mental illness.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

George Cukor (“Dinner at Eight”/”Little Women”/”Camille”) directs this outdated family drama about dealing with mental illness that’s based on the creaky play by Clemence Dane. It played on Broadway 11 years before. It’s written by Howard Estabrook and Harry Wagstaff Gribble with oodles of false sentimentality and a dialogue so ridiculous it makes for unintentional laughter. The then unknown 24-year-old Katharine Hepburn makes her auspicious film debut, revealing her raw talent in a star making performance. Cukor, the noted women’s director, would direct her in seven more films. A Bill of Divorcement was remade in 1940 with Maureen O’Hara and Adolphe Menjou.

It opens with a traditional Christmas Eve party in England at the home of Margaret Fairfield (Billie Burke). On the day that Meg divorces her shell-shocked WWI veteran husband Hilary (John Barrymore), who has been in the loony bin for the last 15 years and was possibly suffering from an hereditary insanity that was brought on by the war injury, Meg shockingly discovers Hilary has shown up in her house after he has escaped from the asylum and taken a taxi to her house. Hilary has lost track of time and is displeased to find his wife is planning to marry Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh) on New Year’s Day. He also learns that his free-spirited daughter Sydney (Katharine Hepburn) is planning to marry Kit Humphreys (David Manners) and move to Canada to raise a big family.

Hilary’s appearance upsets everyone in the family but the sympathetic Sydney and Aunt Hester (Elizabeth Patterson), who voices an old-fashioned sentiment that marriage is forever.

The family doctor, Dr. Alliott (Henry Stephenson), arrives and calms the agitated Hilary down and convinces him to return briefly to the asylum. In the meantime Hilary begs Margaret to stay with him and break her engagement to Gray. Although she no longer loves Hilary, Margaret is overwhelmed by guilt and yields to his tearful pleas.

When Sydney discovers that there is a strain of insanity in her father’s family she breaks up with the befuddled Kit and encourages her mother to marry Gray, telling mom that she will look after father.

Hearing Meg tell Gray she doesn’t love Hilary anymore but will stay with him only because she feels sorry for him, makes Hilary realize that it’s best to let her marry Gray and thereby he frees Meg from her obligation to stay with him. It ends in uncertainty, as father and daughter find themselves alone at home playing an old piano sonata they never completed composing some 20 years ago.


REVIEWED ON 8/12/2008 GRADE: C+