A Bill of Divorcement is a pre-code drama following a day in the life of a dysfunctional English family at Christmastime, starring Katharine Hepburn in her big-screen debut as Sydney Fairfield, Billie Burke as her mother Meg, and John Barrymore as her father Hilary, who escapes the mental hospital he has spent twenty years in due to shell shock.
Burke’s Meg is a tightly-wound and fretful woman, who is awaiting a pending divorce from her husband Hilary so that she can marry Gray Meredith (played by Paul Cavanagh), an amiable enough man seeking to give her a life free from loneliness. Whilst Meg and Gray are at church on Christmas morning, Hilary returns to the house, seeming to have suddenly snapped out of his illness entirely, and is greeted by his daughter Sydney, who he initially mistakes for his wife.
Sydney and Hilary get along well, with the exception of a brief heated argument which serves to demonstrate the similarities in their temperaments, and she plays for him an unfinished piano sonata he had written before he left to fight in WW1. When Meg returns from church, she is horrified to discover Hilary’s return, revealing that not only has she not been in love with him for a very long time, but also that she is terrified of him. Hilary cannot understand this, having expected to be welcomed back by his family with open arms, and is only convinced of the hopelessness of his situation by a conversation with his doctor, who has arrived from the asylum, and explains to him that he is in fact afflicted by ‘latent insanity brought on by shell shock’. He will never be cured, as the disease is in his blood, and won’t be able to have a happy life with Meg. The doctor tells him:
“Face it, man! 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?”
Sydney hears the doctor say this, and is plunged into self-doubt; her own mother had previously said that she was plagued by the same insanity as her father, and now she is hearing that she ought to have never been born. This forces her to reflect on her relationship with her fiancé Kit (played by David Manners), especially after the doctor warns her that any children she might have would be at risk of the same suffering, and she breaks it off with him.
Meanwhile, Hilary has accepted that, although he is still deeply in love with Meg, he must sacrifice his wife and his family so that they can be happy. He sends Meg and Gray away, resigning himself to a solitary life, but Sydney has other plans; the two will live together in a kind of self-imposed exile, and the end of the film sees the two sitting together at the piano working on possible endings to the unfinished sonata.
When watching films from the Golden Age period, particularly those that are more than eighty years old, it is often necessary to temporarily put aside modern ideas and interpretations in order to understand how contemporaneous audiences would have reacted to it. But I have to admit, I really struggled to do that with A Bill of Divorcement, for a number of reasons, and as a result the film just didn’t really work for me.
Growing up in the UK, we are made acutely aware of the horrors faced by the men on both sides who fought in the First World War, and the terrible mental illnesses many suffered after they returned home. In 1932, at the time of the movie’s release, shell shock was still poorly understood – often interpreted as an emotional failing of the sufferer – and mental health care still in its primitive stages. I could not help but feel great pity for Hilary and all that he has been through – the war, twenty years in an asylum, returning to his family to find them living new lives without him – and the emotional crux of the film seems to hang on him being responsible for his mental state.
A Bill of Divorcement was Hepburn’s on-screen debut, but another problem I had is that, as someone who first became familiar with her through classics like The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby (in which her single-mindedness and wilful nature are sources of comedy) it’s difficult to interpret these as symptoms of ‘latent insanity’. Mental illness can of course be hereditary, but it’s difficult to see what Sydney has done wrong here to so deserve a lifetime of voluntary isolation with her ailing father.
All of this isn’t to say that the film is a failure, however. Billie Burke’s performance as the long-suffering Meg is reliably good, even with limited material, and signs of Hepburn’s later haughty excellence are definitely on display here. But despite my issues with his characterisation, it’s John Barrymore who steals the show, bringing a tragic subtlety to a role that could so easily have been overwrought. His portrayal of Hilary is multi-faceted and complex even when the script does not provide for it, demonstrating his turmoil with a light touch of a familiar piece of furniture, or a brief flicker behind the eyes. A contemporary review in the New York Times described his appearance as:
“a character study worthy of Mr. Barrymore’s talent and his performance is incisive and telling, and never for an instant is he guilty of extravagant histrionics. He gives a clear idea of Hilary’s pathetic mental condition after his remarkable recovery.”
A Bill of Divorcement was similarly well received by other critics on release, and performed well at the box office. It would be the film which launched Katherine Hepburn’s career, and further confirmed Barrymore’s place in the still relatively new world of sound pictures.