Katharine Hepburn made her auspicious film debut in the otherwise undistinguished A Bill of Divorcement. Based on a play by Clemence Dane, the film is set on the day that Hepburn’s mother, Billie Burke, is to divorce her insane and long-institutionalized husband John Barrymore. But Barrymore escapes from the asylum and returns home, only vaguely aware of the passage of time (he was shell-shocked during WWI). His presence puts Burke in an uncomfortable spot, especially since she plans to wed Paul Cavanaugh. Pressured by her idiotically traditional family to renew her vows with her first husband, Burke is saved from a lifetime of misery by her spunky daughter Hepburn, who takes care of her child-like father. The film’s attitude towards male-female relationships, not to mention its archaic approach to the problem of mental illness, make Bill of Divorcement a chore to sit through today. Its saving grace is the warm rapport between Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore (contrary to Hollywood legend, they did not despise one another). Even given its dated quality, Bill of Divorcement is more palatable than its empty 1940 remake, which starred Maureen O’Hara and Adolphe Menjou.
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