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A Bill of Divorcement

(1932 b 68')

En: 6 Ed: 7

This drama of a family dealing with mental illness is based on the play by Clemence Dane.

At a Christmas Eve party in England Sydney (Katherine Hepburn in her first film) and Kit (David Manners) plan to marry, go to Canada, and have children. Free-thinking Sydney criticizes the hypocrisy of her Aunt Hester but later apologizes. Her father has been in an asylum for fifteen years since he got shell-shock in the war. Sydney learns that her Aunt Grace also suffered from mental illness and is afraid it will affect her. Her mother Meg (Billie Burke), having gotten a divorce, receives a fur coat from her friend Gray Meredith.

Sydney learns her father Hilary (John Barrymore) has escaped from the asylum; he comes in, thinking she is his wife Meg. He says he is now sane after God's face had been turned away from him. Meg explains that she had not visited him, because it made him worse. Hilary finds Meg beautiful and tall, but he misses her kindness. She tells him that she got a divorce, and he gets very upset. Dr. Alliot (Henry Stephenson) says that Hilary must go back to the asylum briefly as a formality. Hilary pleads that he does not drink and did no wrong; he merely went to war and was ill. Sydney and the others say it was as though he had died. Hilary tells Meg to annul the divorce. Sydney discusses her fear of hereditary insanity with Dr. Alliot, who cannot deny the risk to her and her children. Hilary tells Meg that he realizes she has made a new life, but then he begs on his knees for her to give him a chance and not to abandon him in his need. Sydney tells Kit she is not going to marry anyone and explains the risk of insanity.

Meg tells Gray she is not going to marry him, because Hilary persuaded her to stay with him. Hilary overhears her telling Gray that she loves him; but she will stay with Hilary because of pity. Then Hilary tells Sydney he's done with both of them, asking her to get rid of them or he will kill Gray. Sydney tells her mother to leave and that she will take care of her father. This harmonizes with Meg's feelings for Gray, and she goes. In the last scene Hilary and Sydney discuss how they are in the same boat and how they can help each other. They both play one of his songs on the piano.

This story depicts the effect of the war on a man with a fragile psyche. Unfortunately this causes his daughter to fear mental illness so much she gives up the man she wants to marry. Yet there is nobility in the sacrifice she makes to help her father so that her mother can be happy. Sydney is more like her father and can understand him better than her mother.

Copyright © 1999 by Sanderson Beck

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