Katharine Hepburn’s affection for director George Cukor began with this, her feature film debut. A Bill of Divorcement stars John Barrymore as a man returning home after five years in a mental asylum. During that time, his wife (Billie Burke) and daughter (Hepburn) have moved on with their lives and are planning their respective weddings. Imagine their surprise when Barrymore returns home and promises he’s all better now.
Barrymore gives a good performance full of pathos, and Hepburn — while not quite as confident as she would become — is certainly competent here. Billie Burke overacts as always. But the script is the main thing I can’t fully embrace here. It’s simply unpleasant to watch two women overcome grief and begin rebuilding their lives, only for their patriarch — through no fault of his own — to return and upset their lives all over again. You feel bad for all the characters, and that feeling never subsides as they struggle to do the right thing.
Beyond just being unpleasant, A Bill of Divorcement also flirts with, and finally embraces, incredulity. When the doctor tells Hepburn that Barrymore’s insanity runs in the family, her character makes a decision that maybe the filmmakers could have gotten away with in 1932, but one that really lands with a thud today. The film is still perhaps worth watching for fans of Hepburn or Barrymore if you can overlook the overwrought storytelling.