Thursday 5 July 2007

A Bill of Divorcement (1932) George Cukor

Poor old Katharine Hepburn has to settle for third place on the bill here, behind not just John Barrymore but also Billie Burke, whose voice I'd listen to any day over Hepburn's. Then again it was Kate's first picture, and she did pretty damn well to be the big cheese by movie number two! We're in England on Christmas Eve at the Fairfields, and everyone is happy well beyond the time of year. Billie Burke is Meg Fairfield, who has got her divorce and will marry Paul Cavanagh's character, Gray Meredith, on New Year's Day. Kate is Meg's daughter Sydney, who is head over heels in love with Kit Humphreys, played by David Manners, and she's accepted his proposal too.

In fact everything looks perfect, but wherever everything looks perfect there's got to be a skeleton in the closet. Sure enough, there's one here in the able form of John Barrymore and he's Meg's husband Hilary, who has been locked up in an asylum for so long his daughter doesn't even know him. Only gloomy old Aunt Hester is still upset at the prospect of someone taking her brother's place but just at the most inopportune moment, he comes home, apparently wondrously improved but still pretty vacant, and proceeds to shake up everything.

The story here is melodramatic but decent and I can certainly see women weeping in their seats back in 1932. They always loved romantic John Barrymore and there's plenty of opportunity here for him to win over their sympathy. This was obviously custom written to wring every bit of heartbreak possible in a film that's only seventy minutes long, and noted women's director George Cukor is heavy on the soft focus and teary eyes so we get torn every which way but loose. Unfortunately he was still hampered by the constraints of early sound and so we have to endure Kate shouting her lines at about twice the volume of anyone else in the cast.

John Barrymore gets to slump a lot, exercise his confusion muscles and appear completely lost, while Billie Burke gets to dither and flounce like only she could. She had plenty of turmoil in her own life at the time, as her husband Florenz Ziegfeld died during production. The whole thing is overdone throughout but excusably so and it's easy to look past the theatrics and pretend that I'm watching all this melodrama unfold on a stage rather than a screen. What's most astounding is that there's no let up. After a brief introduction, it's relentless until the very end.

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