Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

My Tivo picked this up for me under my Katharine Hepburn wishlist (I have three wishlists: for KH, Cary Grant and Sandra Dee) on TCM. It's a drama, which normally I don't like (prefer, in this order: romantic comedy, comedy, musical, western - I generally skip horror and drama).

In fact, I was set to watch Little Women, which I've seen before and don't like that much (because I always think Jo should end up with Laurie but that's another post). However, in the introduction to Little Women Robert Osbourne (the TCM host and my TV movie buddy) said that A Bill of Divorcement was KH's first movie, so I thought I ought to at least give it a chance.

Katharine Hepburn plays a young woman whose father is in a mental institution and has been for as long as she can remember. She is recently engaged and very much in love. Her mother has divorced the mental patient and is about to remarry a guy who can buy her a mink (which is supposed to be proof that he's the one who can really make her happy) when suddenly the father arrives at the house.

This is the point where you know it's based on a play because the only setting they ever appear in is this house. There might be several rooms, I'm not really sure because I was baking pies, but it's all in the house. The father has "come to his senses" all of a sudden and walked right out of the mental institution and home - this is strange because he doesn't recognize the house and makes some reference to how it's bigger than the old place - meaning presumably this is a house he's never been to before.

Anyhow, the mother gets married but can't bear to tell the father the truth and KH is caught in the middle of the drama trying to protect both parents. She's supposed to be somewhat temperamental and prone to outbursts - inclined towards insanity, we assume. So right away she takes her father's side, but she still sympathizes with her mother.

In the end, she breaks off her engagement because she's afraid of having crazy babies and sacrifices herself to live with her father so her mother can go, guilt-free, to live with the mink-buying man of her dreams. The ending is really unsatisfactory and strange - it just kind of trails off with a father-daughter piano-playing scene.

At first I was just completely struck by how KH was made up in the 20s style. Her mouth is dark and precise and her face pale and her eyes very dramatic and dark and pointy with slender eyebrows.
This plays her up in a such a different way than in her later movies when she was all mouth and cheekbones and eyebrows with very natural eyes. I was totally fascinated with this for the whole first act.

The whole movie was melodramatic in the extreme and I was left with mixed feelings about the way mental illness was portrayed. (My dad's a psychotherapist and I have several mentally ill family members so I'm fairly sensitive to portrayals of "crazy" people in movies).

The mentally ill father is played by John Barrymore (grandpa of Drew) melodramatically as a weepy, sentimental mess with a temper. Since all the characters are over-played that wasn't really troubling - almost every character was an offensive stereotype so, really, this guy gets fair treatment.

There were two theories advanced in the movie: that the mentally ill father was inherently insane because it was "in his blood" and that he came home from the war with shell-shock. JB makes a great speech about fighting to protect people who then marry other people and all he got was shell-shock - that will make the top ten list of guilt-trip monologues, for sure.

It's not that different from today, really - the causes of mental illness are still linked to both trauma and genetics. But the idea that you would not marry because you couldn't have children (no way!) and not have children because they might possibly have mental illness (huh?) seem completely dated.

Also, since these days we wouldn't put the guy away for what seems like a mild case of depression or PTSD, she'd never have got the Bill of Divorcement in the first place, and the whole movie would be blown.

Would NOT watch again. Definitely wouldn't have finished if I wasn't baking pie.

Two stars.

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