Blu-ray Review: A Bill of Divorcement (1940)

A remake of the 1932 film of the same name, A Bill of Divorcement directed by John Farrow, stars Maureen O’Hara (McLintock!), Fay Bainter, Adolph Menjou (The Sheik), and Dame Mae Witty, taking over for Katharine Hepburn, Billie Burke, John Barrymore, and Elizabeth Patterson who starred in the 1932 version. O’Hara, still finding her footing having come to Hollywood the year before, is Sydney Fairfield, the daughter of a man named Hilary (Menjou), whom she barely knows since he’s been in an insane asylum for years.

The 1932 version of A Bill of Divorcement has a place in film history for being Katharine Hepburn’s film debut. Directed by George Cukor, Hepburn’s performance put her on Hollywood’s A-list. The remake released just eight years later, was largely ignored despite an impressive cast.

After years of grief, Hilary’s wife Meg (Bainter) has divorced him and intends to remarry. Her intended is the refined Gray Meredith (Herbert Marshall), a man who offers her the love and stability her ex-husband couldn’t. A veteran of World War I, Hilary suffered shell shock, forcing him to be confined to an asylum for more than twenty years. In that time, Sydney (O’Hara) has grown up with her mother and elderly aunt Hester (Witty), in a beautiful English estate. Now, like her mother, Sydney is in love with the dashing John Storm (Patric Knowles). She’s excited to marry him and start a family.

However, on the eve of Meg’s marriage, Hilary returns, having escaped from the asylum and regained his sanity. Predictably, his appearance throws the household for a loop. Hilary doesn’t get the happy reunion he anticipates; Meg has sympathy for him, but has fallen out of love, and when Sydney discovers a long-kept family secret, she is faced with a decision that could change her life forever.

A product of its time, A Bill of Divorcement treats mental illness in a simplistic, almost childlike manner, doing little to advance understanding of a complex disease. Where the film does succeed is in its depiction of a dysfunctional family. Given the chaos around her, it’s little wonder that Sydney decisions seem impulsive. Despite some issues, I liked this version of A Bill of Divorcement more than I expected to. Director John Farrow treats the story with respect, eliminating some of the more histrionic aspects of the characters in the earlier film version. At just 19, Maureen O’Hara doesn’t have the fiery magnetism of Katharine Hepburn, but she has a quiet strength that makes her effective in the role. Fay Bainter effectively conveys the conflict she feels over a sense of duty to her long-suffering ex-husband, and her love for her devoted fiancée. Menjou brings the right amount of confusion, and angst to his mentally disturbed character to make you feel his pain.

While this remake certainly doesn’t outshine the original, it holds up well. Fans of the original may enjoy comparing the two, and the many admirers of Maureen O’Hara should certainly enjoy the young actress in one of her earliest American films.

Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Kino Lorber’s 1080p transfer has been struck from a “brand new 2K master” that gives the nearly eight-year-old film a new vitality. Well balanced contrast and solid clarity are a standout here. There’s a light grain, rich black levels and exceptional grayscale, with just a few scratches and bits here and there. Shadow delineation is fine, and close-ups are rendered well.

The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track has been nicely restored. Any age-related pops or crackles have been eliminated. The softly spoken dialoguer comes through clean and clear. Though used sparingly, the musical score by Roy Webb comes through nicely.

English subtitles are included.

Besides trailers for other Kino Lorber Studio Classic titles, no Extras are included.

A Bill of Divorcemement (1940)

Movie title: A Bill of Divorcemement

Director(s): John Farrow

Actor(s): Maureen O'Hara , Adolphe Menjou , Fay Bainter , Herbert Marshall , Dame May Whitty , Patric Knowles

Genre: Drama

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