A divorce certificate, 1932.
Directed by George Cukor.
With John Barrymore, Katherine Hepburn and Billie Burke.
After regaining her sanity and escaping an asylum to be with her, Hilary returns home on Christmas Day to learn that his wife has divorced.
It’s Christmas Eve at the Fairfield House and love is in the air. Margaret Fairfield (Billie Burke, seven years before Glinda the Good Witch) has divorced her husband. Her new beau, Gray (Paul Cavanagh), wants to get married. Her daughter, Sydney (Katherine Hepburn), sneaks in with her boyfriend, Kit (David Manners), and gets engaged. Without Aunt Hester (Elizabeth Patterson) they might not think of Margaret’s first husband Hilary (John Barrymore) at all, but Hester doesn’t recognize the divorce as final and when Hilary shows up on Christmas Day, having run away. Asylum, it is Margaret’s responsibility to update him on what has changed.
Originally released in 1932, A divorce certificate has an extraordinary plot but in the same breath you walk into it knowing that the 1930s had different ideas about mental health. That doesn’t mean you should avoid this movie, but it’s important to keep in mind that when Sydney talks about shellshock, PTSD wasn’t a term. She praises the asylum her father was sent to, when they were the ones who lost him, and when she finds out that the father’s side of the family has a history of mental illness, it makes her think twice. times before starting a family with Kit.
One important detail the film could have leaned on more is that Margaret didn’t like Hilary when they got married. That doesn’t mean her decision to stop visiting him and file for a divorce behind his back was right. She didn’t have to marry him, but that provides some context. As Margaret laments how unfair this turn of events is to her (the fitting response to the news that her husband has come to his senses overnight), Hilary returns home and attempts to assert patriarchal authority.
Neither is likable, but Hilary has been taken aback and while the good things are said that he is not to blame for his illness, the blame is still cast. on how Margaret is treated as in need of protection. There is a childish quality to Burke and Barrymore’s performances, but with Margaret it’s all about waiting for others to give her permission, so she can do whatever she wants. Hilary thought her return would be a joyous occasion. Instead, everyone seems to have travel plans that need an immediate response. It’s a shame Aunt Hester is missing, as Patterson is excellent and could have been a voice in her corner but, as it is, Hilary was unaware that there would be an upheaval and once there would, doesn’t get a chance to deal with anything.
Whatever feelings the plot conjures up, George Cukor’s directing allows you to be a fly on the wall, watching the family drama unfold. The director of classics such as My beautiful lady and The history of Philadelphia, the opening sequence uses a high angle shot to watch Kit as he searches the crowd. When he finds what he’s been looking for, the camera follows his gaze and then follows Sydney until they meet at the bottom of the stairs. Later, the camera follows Sydney again but must continue when she closes the door. In this way, the camera is limited and, like an observer, must operate with the access given to it.
Cukor encouraged the casting of Katherine Hepburn and A divorce certificate marks his debut in the cinema. You wouldn’t know, as she isn’t shy about Sydney, but if you want to see where her Hollywood career began, A divorce certificate does not provide a small role to begin with.
A Bill of Divorcement will be available July 10 on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber in the US.
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