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« Interview: Sally Hawkins on Cate Blanchett, Woody Allen, and Godzilla | Main | Year in Review: Best Dance Moments »
Wednesday
Jan012014

A Year with Kate: A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

In which two ingénues are introduced...


A girlish debutante in a white gown floats down the stairs and into her waiting beau's arms. Gracefully, they glide around the dance floor sharing quips and quiet smiles. Thus is the world introduced to Katharine Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement in 1932. It's a pretty enough entrance, but somehow inauspicious for Kate the Great. It is just so entirely Movie Ingénue Ordinary. The girl floating down the stairs could just as easily be Jeanette McDonald or Joan Bennett. Considering who Katharine Hepburn was and who she became, one would expect her to come striding into the room like a Greek goddess. Katharine Hepburn would make many more striking and characteristic entrances later, so for now we'll settle for this beautiful-if-ephemeral debut of the ingénue, and proceed with my own introduction.

My name is Anne Marie, and Katharine Hepburn is my idol. The first movie I ever saw her in was The Philadelphia Story. Kate was powerful and witty. She wore pants and still looked glamorous. To an awkward tomboy in middle school, she was everything. This idolatry only intensified as I grew. But recently, while perusing IMDb, I discovered two shocking things: 

  1. I have only seen a third of Katharine Hepburn's movies
  2. There are exactly 52 of them. 

This presents me with an exciting opportunity: "A Year with Kate"... 

Enthralled with Katharine Hepburn the Myth, I've never really studied Katharine Hepburn the Actress. So, I'm going to watch one Hepburn movie per week and report back here. I hope you will join me. We're going to go chronologically through her career, from 1932 to 1994.

For this endeavor, I've already begun to build my own monument: MOUNT HEPBURN (pictured left). So far Mount Hepburn is small. It only covers the first 15 years. I've also saved some films on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and DVR. As Mount Hepburn grows and my Netflix queue shrinks in 2014, I hope to gain a better understanding of the actress I love. I'll finally perfect my Katharine Hepburn impression. Maybe I'll convince a few non-believers. And if this blog ever gets optioned for a movie a la Julie & Julia, I'll probably learn a Major Life Lesson as well.

 She was billed as "The Next Garbo." In a weird way I can see it.

 

We start this fantastic journey with A Bill Of Divorcement, Kate's first picture. RKO and director George Cukor took a monumental chance on the untried actress, and it made the film. (Cukor's name will pop up a lot here.) The plot is high melodrama--Kate plays a young girl whose insane father (John Barrymore) escapes from the institution in time to ruin the wedding of his ex-wife (Billie Burke).

It's not that Hepburn is particularly bad. She's no worse than her co-stars. (Sorry, John!) What Kate is--and what she remains--is unique. She walks stiffly, her voice is nasally, and she pronounces every vowel like her mouth is full of marbles. She's so skinny that if she turns sideways you can hardly see her. All of this awkwardness boils down to one problem: she is acutely aware of the camera at all times. But the camera is aware of her as well. Though Kate hasn't learned yet how to move or speak in front of a camera, when she's still, she's striking. In fact, Kate's the most attention-grabbing thing in the movie by far. Next to her even the legendary Billie Burke doesn't stand a chance.

Sorry, Billie! The cheekbones win. 

For all of my griping in retrospect, at the time A Bill Of Divorcement was a smash. I've tried and tried to figure out why, and the best I can come up with is that it's just so different. She is so different. Unfortunately, "different" is a burden Kate is going to bear for a while. Being different gets you noticed, but how do you sustain it? It's a question Kate will struggle with for her entire career at RKO.

1 down, 51 to go! I hope you'll play along. (Next week is Christopher Strong: In which Katharine Hepburn plays another British lady, and her acting gets better even if her accent doesn't.)

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Reader Comments (22)

While I'm not a major Kate fan (more of a Bette boy here), I'll play along gladly because of my absolute fascination with the classic Hollywood. My memories about "A Bill of Divorcement" are slightly hazy but I remember that I liked Billie Burke in it quite a lot and I thought I could see some sort of a spark in Kate's inexperienced but sincere performance in a frustratingly written (like underwritten at times and overwritten at others) character.

"Christopher Strong" is one of the nine Kate films I've never seen. I'll try to catch it until next week.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterhcu

There's a great photo from a vintage Vanity Fair in the Barry Paris bio of Garbo where actresses like Hepburn and Crawford were shown in before and afters. The point was, the studios made them go through Garbo makeovers -- the hair and eyebrows mostly. And probably a diet since they all had more sunken cheeks.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Love this series idea.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave

This is going to be an amazing series. Hopefully I'll be able to play along, though the first couple of movies look like they're going to be hard to scrounge up. But Hepburn is one of my all-time favorites, and as of right now I've only seen 22/52, so this sounds like a terrific excuse to catch up.

January 1, 2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

Are we saying that Anne Marie has not seen 52 Katharine Hepburn movies, or she only made 52 in total? That sounds kinda low actually so I assume it is the former.

I have definitely seen A Bill Of Divorcement and the only thing I really recall is that it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. But Kate is definitely there just as she always remained. The stride, the posture, the bizarre and unmistakable voice.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

@Dave in Alamitos Beach: She actually only made 52 total! Exciting, cause we'll get to go over the obscurities as well as the greatest hits.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

What a treat! I'm a fan of Kate's, she's never been my favorite Golden Age actress, that would be Linda Darnell, but she's in my top 20.

That said I've seen most of her films, however this screen bow has been maddeningly elusive. Aside from it I've seen all her films including the TV ones excepting Grace Quigley and her very last One Christmas. I tried to catch that last one over the holidays but the listing was wrong and it didn't show unfortunately.

My favorites: Holiday, Desk Set, The Lion in Winter and The Corn is Green. I think her best performance was in A Long Day's Journey into Night but the picture isn't one that invites frequent revisits.

As with all great stars her filmography is a mixed lot but with more winners than losers. I look forward seeing what you make of them week by week.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Anne Marie I'm sure it doesn't surprise you to know that I actually squealed when I saw this, what a pleasant surprise. My first Kate was either Tracy Lord or Christina Drayton, can't remember which - which is a shame in retrospect. But, I adore her. I'm really glad about this series not just to see the performances considered but the films! Not to make everything award focused but I've always found it so weird/interesting/curious how Kate is one of the few (only?) BIG Golden Age stars who has never managed to star in a Oscar winning Best Picture (or director). I would muse, was she always too large for her films (not true), were her films just never big enough? Or just coincidence?

(We'll have to have a throw down in the back alley to see who comes out on top as most ardent Kate devotee, though.)

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Oh my God I LOVE this! What fun! I will be very much looking forward to this every week, and will try to play along! As it turns out, I've only seen about a third of her films as well, and A Bill of Divorcement isn't one of them.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Katharine Hepburn was so beautiful...

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

i am so happy everyone is into this already. Anne Marie and I were brainstorming it in Los Angeles a couple of months ago and I'm so excited about it. I shall try to play along on occasion. But I'll probably have to wait until after Oscar season.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Wow, what a great idea!

I remember seeking out Bill of Divorcement for years to no avail. I feel like it's time to try again.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

'And if this blog ever gets optioned for a movie a la Julie & Julia, I'll probably learn a Major Life Lesson as well.'

Priceless.

A great idea for a series. I've mostly only seen the Oscar-nominated performances, so this promises to be a real education for me.

January 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Totally looking forward to this!

January 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDebby M

Over 40 years ago, as a little boy, I came across an article about Richard Avedon featuring this image (http://drawsomethingawful.com/2011/07/10/richard-avedon-on-portraits/) and a lifelong obsession has began. I have about 30 books about her and I did manage to watch almost all her films over the years (Spitfire is the only one I missed). Hepburn was and, since Cinema by nature is eternal, IS the most physically striking person ever to be captured on film, and she had the one of a kind personality (and the right aristocratic-like aura about her) to match. There were greater beauties, more traditionally equipped or versatile thespians than her and at (not so few) times her performances could be less than fully satisfying, yet she was always fascinating to watch the way no one else ever was.

And Andrew K. – while indeed she was never in a Best Picture, six of her films did win Oscars for their scripts over a period of nearly 50 years (a time frame – 1933 to 1981 - which perfectly coincides with her once record breaking Oscar resume as an actress). This track record, which is records setting in itself, is an indication of her shrewd understanding and management of the industry, if not the Art form, she was a major part of throughout her long career. (And it should be pointed out she had a major part in materializing two of these scripts – The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year - into films).

January 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterUri

I consider Katharine Hepburn to be the greatest actress who has ever lived. Her performance in 'The Lion in Winter' is one of the greatest of all time and still blows me away every time I watch it.

January 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Gouveia

I consider Katharine Hepburn to be the greatest actress who has ever lived. Her performance in 'The Lion in Winter' is one of the greatest of all time and still blows me away every time I watch it.

January 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Gouveia

Great idea, Anne Marie! I'll be tuning in for this. Kate the Great was my second cinematic heroine (after Julie Andrews, of course) in high school, when I really got interested in film. I even have a number of the books in the photo and I've seen 35 films, but only three of the TV movies. Also, I was lucky enough to see her on stage in a production of The West Side Waltz.

We may have a hard trying to find the full filmography though, so perhaps folks who are interested in this series can post info about how they were able to view the films (streaming on Youtube, Netflix, etc.). For folks in the US, libraries are GREAT resources for old movies on DVD.

January 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I'll be watching with you. Great idea!

January 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeter B

My first Kate was Holiday, I think, but I love her the most in Bringing up baby and Summertime... Great idea Anne Marie!!

January 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLorenzo

Great idea! I love Kate!!! :)

Katherine Hepburn's first movie & she didn't look like any novice! The acting was better than the script honestly. The story was a bit peculiar though nice.

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