From Silences to the Seventies: An Act of Divorce (1940)


While it lacks the raw electricity of the 1932 Katharine Hepburn / John Barrymore version, the quieter 1940 remake A divorce certificate employs a beautiful cast to tell a delicate but dated story of domestic conflict and mental illness.

Release date in theaters: May 31, 1940
Blu-ray release date: Feb. 26, 2019
Realized by: John farrow
With : Maureen O’Hara, Adolphe Menjou, Fay Bainter, Herbert Marshall
Special Blu-ray Features: Kino Lorber Studio Classics trailer assortment

If you are a Golden Age movie fan and someone mentions A divorce certificate, you’re probably thinking to yourself “Oh sure! Katharine Hepburn’s film debut. But if you’re an over-the-top, over-the-top classics junkie like me, you’d rather follow it up with, “Do you mean the 1932 Hepburn version or the 1940 remake with Maureen O’Hara?” “Wait a second …” might be the answer. “There was a remake of A divorce certificate? With Maureen O’Hara? Never heard of it.”

The reason is simple. Despite a stellar cast, good acting, good directing, and appealing production values, the 1940 adaptation remains largely unknown as it hit the film scene barely eight years after the original directed by George Cukor. That’s a pretty short amount of time, even by Hollywood remake standards. Unsurprisingly, at the time of its release, audiences weren’t quite ready for a Divorced redux, especially since the memory of Hepburn’s meteoric debut, which instantly propelled her into the upper echelon of Hollywood’s elite, has remained so fresh. RKO hoped the slightly revamped material would similarly catapult 19-year-old O’Hara, who caused a sensation the year before as gypsy Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Norte Dame, to the A-list celebrity.

Lightning, however, did not strike twice. Although the Irish actress with red hair and a fresh face gives a capable performance and is ably supported by such esteemed veterans as Adolphe Menjou, Fay Bainter, Herbert Marshall and Dame May Whitty, she is not magnetic, different or even talented enough to commandeer the screen like Hepburn did and still does. (I reviewed Hepburn’s version in preparation for this review and the electricity it generates remains palpable.) As a result, this A divorce certificate brings nothing new to the table. On the positive side, it still manages to tell a dated and somewhat mundane story with warmth, sensitivity, and nuance.

From its title, we can expect A divorce certificate to chronicle a failed marriage, but it really is a story about the ravages of mental illness. The beautiful and headstrong Sydney Fairfield (O’Hara) lives in a lavish English estate with her immaculately mannered mother, Meg (Bainter) and her cranky Aunt Hester (Whitty). She is madly in love with the handsome John Storm (Patric Knowles) and can’t wait to marry him and have several children. Meg is also in love. Her beau is the dapper and refined Gray Meredith (Marshall), and he offers her the affection and adoration that her ex-husband, Hilary (Menjou), could never express enough.

Why? Notably because Hilary was confined to a mental institution for two decades due to the shock she suffered during WWI. He never met his daughter and his inability to identify with his wife led to his divorce. On the eve of Meg’s wedding to Gray, Hilary escapes from the hospital after miraculously regaining her sanity. (It is not known if his recovery will be permanent.) He returns home hoping to resume the life he once had, but does not receive the enthusiastic reception he expects. Meg feels sorry for him, but doesn’t love him anymore, and when Sydney discovers a centuries-old and shameful family secret, she is faced with an agonizing choice that will change her life forever.

Prior to A divorce certificate, mental illness was largely a taboo subject in Hollywood, and its rather simplistic, almost Victorian treatment here does little to broaden awareness or mature to address a widespread and complex illness. The strength of the film lies in its depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics, even though the decisions the heroine ultimately makes seem more than a little impulsive, misguided, and dramatically motivated.

Despite all of this, I’m surprised that I liked this version of A divorce certificate as much as I did. Before I sat down to watch him, I mistakenly equated his relative anonymity with mediocrity, and that was a mistake. Director John Farrow (Mia’s father) treats the worn-out story with respect and judiciously represses the stories that plagued the previous version. (Barrymore’s expansive portrayal in the 1932 film seems rather cartoonish today.) These performances, however, subtly convey the conflicting emotions that tear the characters apart without pushing the limits of gullibility. Bainter, whose work enriched countless films of the era, is particularly effective as a conflicted wife whose distorted sense of duty trumps the love she feels for her devoted fiancé. Menjou brings just the right amount of confusion, paranoia, and angst to his mentally deranged character, while Marshall excels as Bainter’s patient and understanding lover, and the indomitable Dame May Whitty adds much needed spice as that cranky aunt of the family.

Let’s face it, O’Hara isn’t Hepburn, especially at 19. She doesn’t have Hepburn’s fiery magnetism, and it’s unrealistic to expect the young actress to outshine her legendary counterpart in the role that made her a star. Wisely, O’Hara doesn’t try to compete. Seriousness and low-key conviction help her produce a winning performance, especially in her scenes with Knowles, where she really proves her dramatic courage. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo nicely bolsters their on-screen romance, giving the film even more heartache and extra resonance. Although Trumbo otherwise stays fairly close to the 1932 screenplay, his contributions reinforce the film’s impact.

Remakes rarely surpass the original version of a movie and this one doesn’t, but it’s always fascinating to compare and contrast them. The 1940 version of A divorce certificate It might not be memorable, but it holds up better than most remakes and stands on its own as an engaging and touching drama. If you only see this version and never set your eyes on the 1932 Hepburn / Barrymore movie, you really won’t be missing out on much.


The 1940 version of A divorce certificate comes to Blu-ray presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37: 1. MPEG-4 1080p / AVC transfer was created from a “brand new 2K master” that breathes new life into this almost 80 year old film. Well-balanced contrast and surprisingly good clarity distinguish the rendering, which features light grain, rich black levels, excellent grayscale, with only a few nicks and smears. (There is a frame missing at one point, but no other printing abnormalities.) Background details are displayed well, shadow bounding is good, and crisp close-ups highlight the beauty fresh from young O’Hara.

A divorce certificate is a silent movie, but luckily the DTS-HD Master Audio mono track has been nicely restored. Any age-related hiss, crackle, or crackle has been erased, so frequent silences are pure and nothing distracts attention from the whispered dialogue. Roy Webb’s musical score is used sparingly, but sounds full-bodied. The only extras on the disc are a few trailers for other versions of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, but not one for A divorce certificate.

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