Bill of Divorcement A (1932): How Cukor Launched Katharine Hepburn’s Legendary Career

A_Bill_of_Divorcement_posterClemence Dane’s play about fear of insanity as a problem inherited within the family, was a great success in London in 1921.  It was also a hit in New York City in 1928, where it made an overnight sensation of Katharine Cornell.

However, by 1932, when the play was optioned for the screen, the material was already dated. Given its subject matter, the play was also considered an unlikely property for Hollywood. Selznick realized that authenticity and delicacy would be vital in successfully transferring the material to the screen, wishing to avoid at all costs the static feeling of most stage adaptations.

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. Dunne’s contract stipulated $50,000 per film, which was out of the question. Selznick and Cukor had no choice but find an unknown actress.

Cukor knew that Sydney was an extraordinary role for any actress, let alone a newcomer. The search began at RKO, first among the contract players. Anita Louis and Jill Esmond, Laurence Olivier’s first wife, were seriously considered–and Esmond was chosen. Olivier had been at RKO when Selznick took over the studio, but with little success in Hollywood at this point, her persuaded Esmond to pass on the role and return with him to England.

Again the search was on. 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_1When 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.

With Cukor convinced that Hepburn was their leading lady, Selznick agreed to go ahead and take a chance, even though she negotiated a rather shrewd contract, demanding not only a high salary for a newcomer, but also the option of going back to the theater from time to time.

Hepburn set out by train for Hollywood, arriving in early July, 1932. Her initial encounter with Cukor was anything but auspicious. Along the way, something lodged in Hepburn’s eye, causing a terrible inflammation. “I arrived in California with a steel filing in my eye,” Hepburn recalled, “and nobody paid attention, least of all George, that I was really quite ill. I had two red eyes!”

A_Bill_of_Divorcement_2Wearing a new, expensive outfit purchased for the occasion, Hepburn entered the room, where Cukor was waiting. He greeted her with an odd, but cordial, look. Cukor immediately sensed her self-assurance. “I thought her rather la-de-da,” he later commented, “She was wearing a rather arty dress.” Hepburn was actually shaky and a bit scared. “Mr. Cukor,” she said, “I have something in my eye. Do you have a doctor” Ignoring her question, Cukor, who may have been as nervous as she was, said, “I want you to see the sketches,” and proceeded to showed her the costume design.

“What do you think of them” asked the director. Hepburn looked at them and said, “They are horrible. I really don’t think a well-bred English girl would wear anything like that.” “What do you think of what you have on” Cukor retorted. Taken aback, Hepburn said, “Well! I’ve paid $350 and I think it’s very smart.” “Well, I think it stinks,” Cukor said, “You’re the damnedest looking girl I’ve ever seen, and that’s an awful outfit you have on. What makes you think you know so much about clothes” Hepburn paused, and with great forced amiability said, “Oh, do you think so” “Now we can proceed to business,” Cukor said, taking Hepburn up to the hairdressing department, where they styled her hair. “Those were my lines,” Cukor later noted,” and for once, Kate did not step on them.”

Cukor then went home for dinner, leaving Hepburn alone, her eyes still irritated with no doctor in sight. Fortunately, John Barrymore came in and helped her solve the problem. Barrymore’s behavior was much more sensitive than Cukor’s. “Miss Hepburn,” he said, “I’ve seen the test. You’re going to be a great star.” When Cukor heard rumors that the much older Barrymore tried to seduce Hepburn, he was not surprised; he kind of expected it.

A_Bill_of_Divorcement_3Hepburn 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 mantlepiece. 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.”

Hepburn’s performance is 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’s a touching scene, when Hepburn asks her aunt if insanity runs in the family. Cukor forced her to do it many times, but after the 17th time, instead of getting peavished or bored, he came over to her. “Listen, kid,” he said quietly, “are you holding out on me Because if you are, you’re doing the lowest thing one human could do to another.” Hepburn actually didn’t hold out; she just didn’t understand what he wanted. But taken by his honesty, she made a heroic effort and got it right on the 18th take.

On the set, Cukor watched every move, gesture, and expression that crossed his actors’ faces, striving to inject into the material his as well as his performers’ sensibility. There was one scene in which Hepburn really excelled, 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 was not really good in the movie, but her appearance was so angular and her mouth a scar of suffering, that she was riveting to watch. Though inexperienced, her honesty shines through. Hepburn didn’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 held that Hepburn was marked by a paradox: she was at once hard and tender, cocksure yet humble about her work. She was also “straight as a knife and slippery as a snake.” Hepburn’s problem, Cukor said, was that she had “more brains than she knows what to do with.” At first, she was a little “bumptious” and argued about everything, insisting she had to understand exactly what Cukor wanted and why. “She cannot do anything mechanically, just because she was told to,” Cukor said, “But when she understood, she’d do it like a saint.” “Just because you don’t know what you’re doing,” she once told Cukor, “don’t take it out on us! This remark hurt him very much.

Cukor was not above overt displays of anger. In this film, he hit Laura Harding, Hepburn’s closest friend and companion. Harding stood with her hand on a new post, waiting for someone to pick her up, and the ball on top of the post came off in her hand. Not knowing what to do with it, she handed it to the man dancing with her, but the actor was so startled that he yelled out loud. Cukor came over and hit her in a fury–he claimed she destroyed a wonderful take of a complicated shot.

After a preview of Bill of Divorcement, Merian Cooper congratulated Cukor. Reportedly every woman he talked to actually cried during the screening. There was some inappropriate laughter in the wrong places, which concerned Cooper, but two of his friends who sat in the second row, said it came from children. Cooper suggested to reshoot one of Hepburn’s close-ups. Holding she was going to become a major star, it would be a mistake to make Hepburn appear as badly as she did in this shot.

Hepburn, however, was convinced she was “rotten” and declined Cukor’s invitation to go to the preview. She escaped to Santa Monica for the night, missing the glowing reviews the next day. “Hepburn’s portrayal is exceptionally fine,” wrote the NY Times, “her characterization is one of the finest seen on the screen.” “This picture makes history,” noted Photoplay, “Not since Greta Garbo first lashed before screen audiences in The Torrent has anything happened like this Katharine Hepburn.”

Hepburn would have become a star even if she didn’t appear in Bill of Divorcement. But the fact that it did happen in his film made a difference: Cukor was always proud that even though he didn’t discover Hepburn, he was the one to have launched her career. Cukor and Hepburn would make ten films together: eight features and two TV movies. Hepburn would also become his best friend, though it would take another film, Little Women, for their friendship to blossom.