20 April 2012 | AlsExGal
A rather stagy melodrama that is still worth your time
This somewhat stagy early talkie is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is Katharine Hepburn's screen debut, and it is interesting to see that even at 24 she is the prototype of the confident woman that she played in all of her films. Hepburn likely made quite a first impression on audiences with her lean athletic look versus that of typical film heroines of that era that still had that combination china doll and ex-flapper look that was so popular in the 20's. Likewise, just as it is the beginning of Hepburn's career, it is nearing the end of John Barrymore's. By the end of the decade alcoholism and, by some reports, early onset Alzheimer's disease, cause the end of his career. Also, it is interesting to see society's attitudes towards divorce and mental illness in the early 1930's.
Meg Fairfield (Billie Burke) has waited fifteen years while her husband Hilary (John Barrymore) is in a mental institution before finally obtaining a divorce. Shortly before her remarriage, Hilary "comes to himself" and returns home. To complicate matters further, their daughter Sydney (Katharine Hepburn) believes her father has been insane due to shell-shock. However, she soon learns that there is actually insanity in the family and wonders if either she will go insane herself or if her children will. The family doctor also hardly has a good bedside manner in dealing with the situation, saying that "who shall be sacrificed the lame or the whole?" and mentioning that Hilary's child, Sydney, shouldn't even have been born. Startling today, but probably a pretty typical attitude 75 years ago. One of the players puts it best when they mention that people always grieve the dead, but wonder how their reaction would change if the dead were suddenly alive again, which is basically Hilary's situation. Insane he could be mourned for what he once was, recovered he is just in the way. In spite of the usually able direction of George Cukor, this movie comes across as over-the-top melodramatic. However, given its place in Hepburn's film career, it is definitely worth viewing.