Crystal over at In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood is hosting this fourth annual celebration of the Barrymore family. Be sure to visit her site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.
I am a big fan of the three Barrymore siblings Ethel, Lionel and John. I think these three are among the finest American actors to ever have appeared on screen.
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to take part in any of the Barrymore blogathons until now. It was a tough choice for me to decide which of the siblings, and which of their many films I wanted to write about.
I’ve decided to write about A Bill Of Divorcement because it contains one of my favourite film performances by John Barrymore, who was the youngest of the three Barrymore siblings. A Bill Of Divorcement was directed by George Cukor, it was based upon the 1921 play of the same name by Clemence Dane. A British silent film adaptation of the play had been made in 1922.
In addition to featuring one of John Barrymore’s best performances, the 1932 film is also notable for featuring the debut performance of Katharine Hepburn, who plays the daughter of John’s character.
The film opens on Christmas Eve. A party is being held at the home of the Fairfield family. Everyone at the party is very happy and are in a festive mood. Very soon the mood changes and the Fairfield family will have to make some big and difficult decisions.
Hilary Fairfield(John Barrymore) has spent a number years in an asylum, this is due to him suffering from hereditary madness, the symptoms of which first manifested themselves soon after the First World War ended.
His family had him committed and they blamed his illness on shell shock from his time serving in the war.
Decades after he was put into an asylum, Hilary gets better, but he is not yet cleared for release by doctors. He escapes one night and returns home to his family, only to find that many things have changed in his absence.
He returns home to find he has a now grown up daughter Sydney(Katharine Hepburn), who is engaged to Kit(David Manners). Hilary also finds that his long suffering wife Margaret(Billie Burke)has divorced him and is now engaged to a man called Gray(Paul Meredith) .
Hilary has never stopped loving his wife, he has longed to be back with her for a very long time, she on the other hand cannot stand to be in the same room as Hilary anymore. He tries to win his wife back, but slowly comes to realise that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. She still cares for him, but she can never go back to being his wife again.
Hilary tries desperately to win his wife’s heart again. We also learn that Sydney may well have inherited her father’s madness.
Sydney has a very manic personality and begins to fear that if she has children with Kit, that there is a possibility that she could pass her madness on to them. Sydney must decide if she will go ahead and get married or not.
This film rather movingly depicts the various difficulties involved when you are living with someone with mental health issues. I like that the film has a balanced approach to its subject matter and shows us things from the perspective of Hilary as the patient, and from the perspective of his family coping with him and his illness.
The film gives us a sense of how a mentally ill patient often gets frightened and angry(quite understandably so) when they are taken from their home and placed in care, and also when people around them don’t understand or comprehend what they are going through.
John Barrymore does a terrific job of portraying a mentally ill man who has never lost his love for his family, and who wishes so desperately to be able to come home to them. I like how John conveys how hard Hilary is trying to fit back into his old life, and also how he is mortified to be the cause of pain and embarrassment for his family.
At the time this film was made there was still such a stigma around the mentally ill. I can well imagine that this film(showing a mentally ill person as an individual with feelings who is trying to get better)must have shocked some people who viewed the mentally ill as individuals to be avoided at all costs and to always be wary around.
I think the film also makes you think about whether it would be best to leave the mentally ill in their own homes where they at least feel safe and comfortable. I think that being locked away in a strange and frightening building would make someone more ill than they were on admittance there and would only add to their distress. Surely its better to medicate them(if necessary),and let them try to live their own lives, instead of locking them up and sedating them?
The film also shows us how draining and upsetting living with a mentally ill person can be for their family. People can only cope with so much illness and care requirements before they reach their own breaking point and cannot stand it any longer.
The film makes us pity both Hilary and Margaret. We feel for Hilary because he was psychotic and unreachable for so long, yet he tried so hard to fight his symptoms and get back home. We feel for Margaret because she loved Hilary so much, but she really had no quality of life with him, so she was granted a divorce from him. She has just started to move on with her life when he comes back into hers.
We see how affected she was by her experiences of his illness, and also by how much she desperately wants to find some happiness and peace with her new fiance. The film makes you ask yourself is it fair to make a spouse stay married to someone like Hilary if they are severely ill/disturbed for so long?
The only thing I don’t like about the film is that the ending gives the impression that it is thought best that those with mental illness should isolate themselves from other people. Most people with mental illness are able to live quite normal lives and can live at home. Sadly there are still some mentally ill people who have to be in a hospital or home, but many mental health conditions can now be managed through medication and therapy.
For a film that is quite fair and non- judgmental in its depiction of the difficulties surrounding mental illness, I think it is such a shame that the film ends the way that it does. Perhaps a modern adaption of the story would end on a more hopeful and positive note.
John Barrymore and Billie Burke are both excellent in this and each delivers a performance which ensures they have your sympathy at different times of the film. The scene where Hilary gets on his knees, breaks down in front of Margaret, and begs her to show him some kindness, gets me every single time. I consider it to be the most moving scene in the entire film.
It’s fair to say that John steals the film from everyone else in it. I consider this to be one of his best and most subtle performances. John could often be quite the scenery chewer on screen, but here he is the complete opposite and his performance is just as powerful as some of his more showy ones are.
John’s performance here is all in his expressions and eyes. You look at him and you see a vulnerable, gentle, desperate, decent, frightened and tender man seeking happiness and light at the end of the dark tunnel which he has been trapped in for so long. There are several moments in this where I want to reach through the screen and hug this broken man trying desperately to fit back into a so called normal existence again. I urge you see this film so you can see his very touching performance.
The rest of the cast are all quite good, but at times some of the acting in this is very theatrical, but if you can overlook that aspect I think that you should enjoy this film quite a bit.
Katharine Hepburn delivers a really natural performance here and she doesn’t come across as being wooden and grating like she is (in my view)in most of her 1930’s performances(with Holiday and Bringing Up Baby being two exceptions). I happen to think that Katharine got better as an actress once the 1940’s came along. I was pleasantly surprised by her debut performance here.
This is a must see film for fans of John Barrymore.What are your thoughts on the film and John’s performance?