Bill of Divorcement, A: Cukor’s Family Melodrama (about Insmaity), Starring John Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn

A_Bill_of_Divorcement_posterGeorge Cukor’s accomplishment in What Price Hollywood? and his sharp eye for casting and acting, convinced producer David O. Selznick that he should direct A Bill of Divorcement, his second feature at RKO.

As a family melodrama, the film raises intriguing genetic questions about mental illness and moral questions about granting divorce on the grounds of insanity.

The title refers to a bill for liberalizing divorce, which was placed before the British Parliament. The story revolves around Hilary, a mentally unstable man who escapes from an asylum and returns home on the day his wife is to remarry.

Clemence Dane’s play was a great success in London in 1921, and in New York in 1928, where it made an overnight sensation out of Katharine Cornell. However, by 1932, when the play was optioned for the screen, the material was already dated.

Bill of Divorcement: Cukor Launching Katharine Hepburn’s Career

Given its subject matter, the play was also considered an unlikely property for Hollywood. Selznick realized that authenticity anddelicacy would be vital in successfully transferring the material to the screen, wishing to avoid the static feeling of most stage adaptations.

A_Bill_of_Divorcement_3John Barrymore was signed for Hilary, the husband-father, and Billie Burke as the wife-mother. A small budget, under $300,000, precluded the casting of a big star for the pivotal role of Sydney, the daughter. Even RKO’s two female stars, Constant Bennett and Irene Dunne, were too expensive.
It just happened that Merian Cooper, a director and friend of Selznick, brought to RKO as a producer, was given a photograph of a promising new girl, Katharine Hepburn, who was then playing on Broadway in The Warrior’s Husband. The critics were unanimous only in praise of Hepburn’s legs, but Kay Brown, Selznick’s influential story editor in NY, looked into the matter more seriously. “She has done only three plays,” Brown wrote, “but her salary demand, 1,000 dollars a week, is too excessive.” Selznick thought that it was inadvisable to spend money on a test, but Cooper insisted that the NY office make a test and send it to Hollywood.

A_Bill_of_Divorcement_2When Cukor saw Hepburn’s test, a scene from Philip Barry’s Holiday, he was instantly taken by her. Hepburn was quite unlike anybody he had seen: She was odd looking and had a peculiar voice. Though she had never made a movie, Cukor could see that Hepburn had good instincts about the camera. His eye lingered over a lyrical moment in the test, when she reached down to pick up a drink. Though shot from the back, Cukor sensed enormous feeling in the way she executed this simple gesture.

By July, Cukor had a reasonably good treatment of Bill of Divorcement. Screenwriters Howard Estabrook and Harry Wagstaff Gribble worked hard on the dialogue after Cukor’s persistent complaints that it was too long-winded and overwritten. The quality of writing was one area that Selznick blindly trusted Cukor. But when shooting began, despite Cukor’s efforts, the script was still barely passable.

Hepburn remembered her very first scene with Barrymore. He came in, wearing a hat and a raincoat, and was fiddling around with some pipes on the mantelpiece. Barrymore turned around and looked at her; she was standing off camera. Watching him with the cold eye of youth, she thought he was overdoing it and was actually not very good. With all these unkind notions passing through her mind, Hepburn was acting away, full of sincerity, tears streaming down her face. She then realized she was doing a little too much herself. When the take was over, Barrymore took Hepburn’s chin in his hands and said, “I’d like to do it again.” Which he did, and quite differently. Barrymore realized that Hepburn was a kid to whom the movie meant a great deal. “The poor thing,” he must have thought, “I’d better do a little better here.”

A_Bill_of_Divorcement_1Barrymore gives a restrained yet touching performance in a subservient role. Cukor, who had never worked with Barrymore before, found him very open and accessible. Cukor was a bit cautions, for Barrymore was an established star, whereas he was still a neophyte director. But they worked well together, even became friends.

While shooting of Barrymore’s crucial scene, when Hilary returns home, beaten and seedy, pleading for love, Cukor felt the actor had hit the wrong kind of tension; it was too desperate. “Jack,” Cukor said, “the man is happy to be home, he doesn’t know they don’t want him.” Barrymore understood his insight at once, and adjusted his acting, playing softer.

Hepburn’s performance was also striking and original. One senses how well she and Cukor worked together. Some of it was the part she was playing–Hepburn’s identification with a girl who rebels against her middle-class family. And some was her own personality–Cukor noticed immediately Hepburn’s impatience and directness, which he found electrifying. He always singled out Hepburn’s quality of “cutting through correctness” onscreen and off. There is a short sequence, lasting only a minute, with no dialogue, which contains essential elements of the Cukor style. Barrymore has escaped from the asylum and returned home, and his daughter is alone in the house when he arrives. She hides halfway up the stairs and watches him wandering around the room, noticing things that have changed. All the daughter knows about her father is that he was shell-shocked during the war. The audience, of course, knows that his wife is in love with another man and wants to divorce him.

Cukor established the appropriate tone of poignancy and tension for this particular scene, showing his masterful mise-en-scene, one that created the right ambiance and the right mood for every scene–be it dialogue or silent scene.

There was one scene in which Hepburn really excels, proving her potential as a screen personality. She takes a pillow and lies down on the hearthstone–letting the audiences discover her lovely figure and beautiful movement. Then, she suddenly reveals a warm, forthright smile.

Hepburn’s appearance is so angular, and her mouth a scar of suffering, that she is riveting to watch. Though inexperienced, her honesty shines through. Hepburn doesn’t try to woo the audience with her performance. She hasn’t experienced yet an audience liking her, so she took risks that a known actress with an established screen persona might not.

Cukor’s shrewd use of music in Bill of Divorcement is reflected in a touching moment, when Hepburn sits down at the piano with Barrymore. Barrymore’s musical gifts are coming back–he’s going to write a great sonata–they play together and the music rises to a crescendo of bitter-sweet laughter as the film ends. This scene wasn’t in the play, it was invented for the film, but the trick was so good that Cukor used it again in Camille.

Bill of Divorcement: Cukor Launching Katharine Hepburn’s Career