Bill of Divorcement A (1932) – full review!
Katharine Hepburn‘s impressive film debut was directed by George Cukor who would go on to direct the actress seven more times over the next seventeen years. This Clemence Dane play which was adapted to the screen by Howard Estabrook (Cimarron (1931)) and Harry Wagstaff Gribble about “insanity runs in the family” stars John Barrymore as Hilary Fairfield. He’s just escaped from a mental institution after 15 years on the day that his wife Meg (Billie Burke) has divorced him because she’s interested in remarrying Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh). She had finally found happiness again after her husband had been shell shocked during World War I and been confined to a nearby institution. Upon arriving at the house Hilary mistakes his now grown daughter Sydney (Hepburn) for his wife; she is the image of her pre-war mother. Sydney had also been looking forward to her pending nuptials with fiancé Kit Humphreys (David Manners). However the arrival of her father has upset things.
Barrymore plays his part most believably and sympathetically such that his wife feels guilty for her actions abandoning him when he needed her most even though she’d been advised by the family doctor (Henry Stephenson) not to upset him by visiting him at the institution. Burke is equally credible in what would be a rare dramatic role for her. Sydney is able to calm her father. But after a conversation with the doctor she realizes that she too could go insane. So she decides to break off her engagement to Kit and forego having children for fear of passing on the affliction. Later after Hilary pleads with Meg to give him another chance not to leave him in his hour of need and she agrees to stay. She tells Gray about her pity for Hilary but when he overhears this learning that Meg really loves Gray he decides not to hold his ex-wife to her promise. He feigns rage and tells Sydney that he’ll kill the two lovers unless she can get them to leave immediately. Meg is thrilled to learn from Sydney that she’ll be able to marry Grey and the two of them leave right away. Sydney has decided to stay and care for her father Hilary is happy and Sydney is resigned and somewhat melancholy about their future together.
David O. Selznick produced the drama; Elizabeth Patterson plays Aunt Hester.