Katharine Hepburn makes her screen debut in A Bill Of Divorcement, marking her first pairing with director George Cukor, in a film led by acting legend John Barrymore. Long unavailable in any format, this new release from Kino is a welcome surprise.
The Production: 3/5
George Cukor’s 1932 film production of A Bill Of Divorcement is based on a British play of the same name. Though its stage origins are readily apparent throughout, this long unavailable film is a welcome release. Perhaps best remembered today as Katharine Hepburn’s film debut, it also features fierce performances from John Barrymore and Billie Burke.
Set at Christmas, the film begins with Margaret Fairfield (Burke) preparing to marry her fiancé Gray (played by Paul Cavanagh). Daughter Sydney (Hepburn) is there celebrating with her fiancé Kit (David Manners). However, Margaret was already married to Hilary (Barrymore), a man she hasn’t seen or heard from in almost twenty years. Hilary has been confined to a mental hospital after experiencing shell shock in World War I, and has never met his daughter. When Hilary escapes from the hospital and shows up at the family doorstep, the family must reckon with the long buried secret that Hilary’s shell shock is actually a genetic mental illness that he may have passed down to Sydney. As desperate as Hilary is to resume his marriage to Margaret, she is equally desperate to move on with her life and to marry her fiancé. The film’s title comes from the fact that the laws in Britain at that time allowed a spouse to initiate a divorce if their partner was in a mental hospital; Hilary comes home expecting to be greeted by his wife, not even aware of the fact that she’s divorced him.
This early sound-era production eschews fancy camerawork and elaborate sets in favor of a more basic staging and design aesthetic. Taking place almost entirely in the Fairfield house, and featuring a very small cast, the film’s origins as a stage play are clearly evident. The filmmakers wisely realized that the heart of the story is in the relationships between the characters and the difficult decisions they must struggle with, and never wanders far from those struggles. But while the film runs only a brisk 70 minutes, it’s unevenly paced. At times, it feels more like watching a filmed play than an actual movie. But if the film is a little rough around the edges, it still has its share of delights.
Chief among those delights, of course, is Katharine Hepburn. Her first words onscreen are, interestingly enough, “Don’t be ridiculous,” something that she would go on to be in many many films, and to great effect. Though she’s not the lead, it’s still immediately obvious that she has that special something. What’s most interesting is the way her performance subtlety mirrors that of John Barrymore. Initially, Barrymore’s character tells the others that he’s been discharged from the hospital, and he comes across at first like a well man. Billie Burke initially seems over the top and harsh, but as it becomes apparent that Barrymore is not okay, her reactions become much more understandable. And just as Barrymore slowly reveals his character’s flaws, as Hepburn gets deeper into her part, her performance gives hints that she might one day suffer the same fate as her father. These are performances that all seem in tune with one another, and represent the best that the film has to offer. (George Cukor’s reputation for being excellent with actors in general, and actresses specifically, was clearly earned early on.)
Though attitudes towards mental illness have changed somewhat since the film’s release in 1932, the film’s story still resonates. The film is remarkably sympathetic to its characters, and there are no good guys or bad guys here, just people trying to go on with their lives as best as they can in difficult circumstances. The film’s sense of compassion is what stands out most today.
3D Rating: NA
A Bill Of Divorcement is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, in a new 4K transfer from the original camera negative. Parts of the film look astonishingly good, while most is very good; there are a few moments that are merely good. At its best, the level of detail and clarity in the image is astonishing, with a beautifully rendered greyscale. There are sections which appear to be taken from an element at least a generation away from the original negative, but those portions still are very pleasing. There are minor occasional blemishes and imperfections, but on the whole, the presentation is remarkably satisfying and has a glorious film-like look to it.
(Reviewer’s note: this was a particularly difficult transfer to assign a numerical grade to. There are moments where it is very much a 5/5, and a few moments here and there where it’s something closer to a 3/5. Most of the film is higher than a 4, but less than a 5. I tried to split the difference as best I could, but this is one case where it’s best not to pay attention to the number and to simply marvel at how good this 1932 production looks on this disc.)
The audio is presented in a lossless monaural DTS-HD MA 2.0 track which decodes into the center channel. The vast majority of the film’s audio is clear, with a very clean sound. There are several instances where the dialogue can seem somewhat muffled, though this appears to be a result of the limitations of production rather than a fault of the transfer. Towards the end of the film, during Hepburn’s final scenes with her fiancé and then with her father, there was some odd noise in the background, but nothing terribly distracting.
Unfortunately, this disc does not include subtitles.
Special Features: 0/5
The disc contains no special features relating to the film, but does include trailers for several other Kino releases: The Young In Heart, Intermezzo, The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and Since You Went Away.
Never released on DVD, and long unavailable in any format, it’s wonderful to have Katharine Hepburn’s screen debut available in high definition. Kino’s release doesn’t include any bonus features, but does present the film in a new transfer which often looks astonishing. Though the film is not without its flaws, and though it may not have a lot of rewatch value, it is nonetheless essential viewing for fans of Katherine Hepburn, John Barrymore and George Cukor, and well worth a look for fans of pre-code classic Hollywood cinema.