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What Was The Last Movie You Watched?

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Below are comments on two versions of the same movie, Bill of Divorcement, separated by only eight years .

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Bill of Divorcement from 1932 with John Barrymore, Billie Burke, Katherine Hepburn, David Manners and Henry Stephenson


"So, in our family, there's insanity."

- Katherine Hepburn's character to her aunt after discovering the family secret (Not a spoiler)


Bill of Divorcement is dated in its storytelling and acting style, as well as, in its views on mental illness, but if you can see past that, you'll enjoy a short and engaging early "talkie" that includes the screen debut of Katherine Hepburn.

Director George Cukor, who was Hepburn's advocate and film-making partner for years, fought to have Hepburn star in this one, thus launching one of Hollywood's most-notable careers.

The wealthy Fairchild family has a secret worse than the absent father, played by John Barrymore, who came back from WWI so shell shocked that he's spent the last fifteen years in an asylum.

Barrymore's wife, played with impressive restraint and nuance by Billie Burke, is about to remarry having obtained a divorce from her institutionalized husband. At the same time, Barrymore's daughter, played by Hepburn, has just become engaged to a young man played by one of the many generically handsome men that populated the screen in the early 1930s, David Manners.

Hepburn and Burke speak fondly of their missing father and former husband, respectively, but after so many years, he's like a ghost that the family, other than the crabby aunt, Barrymore's sister, wants to treat as if he's passed away. With both on the brink of marriage, Hepburn and Burke are ready to move on to their new lives, but it's not to be.

Enter Barrymore, who has come home from the asylum, proclaiming he is "better." Barrymore, playing a man just out of a mental institution and home for the first time in fifteen years, blasts through his dialogue while chewing up the scenery, as any stage actor who has yet to adjust to movie acting would. Yet, there is so much talent and presence in him that it kinda works, especially since he's playing an "off kilter" character anyway.

Barrymore is not alone, as Hepburn's performance, too, is pretty stagey and strident, as is the entire dialogue-heavy and action-light picture. Yet, today, there's a charm to it as you are seeing the transition from stage and silent to talking-picture acting taking place in real time and in the hands of incredibly talented professionals.

The movie, from here, is all guilt trip, sacrifice and a 1930's view of mental illness. Barrymore wants his life and wife back, but Burke wants to marry another man. Yet she knows, fair or not, she'd be abandoning her former husband when he desperately needs somebody to care for him.

Hepburn, putting a few pieces together with the help of the family doctor, played by Henry Stephenson (one of the 1930s go-to actor when a role called for a sincere and wise older father, doctor, lawyer, etc.) realizes that "insanity runs in her blood and might come out in her children."

Will Burke break her engagement to care for her former husband? Will Hepburn still marry and have children despite knowing "the risks?" Will Barrymore crack if his family moves on from him?

Today, we wince at that era's view of mental illness, but our "modern" view will probably be winced at by future generations. And that era's respect for self sacrifice is foreign to our "forgive and do your own thing" views today, but it was real back then, which left Burke and Hepburn facing difficult decisions.

It's impressive how much story and conflict Hollywood could squeeze into just over an hour of screen time in the early 1930s. Bill of Divorcement is clunky and stagey with uneven acting, but there is so much talent in the cast that it's still an engaging sixty-nine minutes of movie watching.

Plus, for film buffs, you not only see Hollywood trying to figure out the talkie, but one screen legend, John Barrymore, near the peak of his career and another, Katherine Hepburn, on the brink of what would become a legendary one.



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Bill of Divorcement from 1940 with Maureen O'Hara, Adolphe Menjou, Dame May Whitty and Fay Bainter


With less than a decade separating 1940's Bill of Divorcement with the 1932 version, comparing the two pictures is a classic-movie-fan requirement. Since the stories are all but the same, the differences are the movie's production and, much more so, what each actor brings to his or her role.

The plot is, basically, unaltered and very stagey in both versions: a wealthy English family, comprising a middle-aged mother, a daughter in her late teens and an elderly spinster aunt face a crisis and a dark family secret.

The wife's husband has been in a mental asylum, ostensibly suffering from "shell shock" (the PTSD of its day) since coming back from WWI nearly twenty years ago. The wife divorced him five years ago and is about to remarry. The stern, bible-spouting spinster aunt, the husband's sister, is furious at the mother for "abandoning" her husband. Also, the daughter is about to marry.

Before anyone can marry, though, the missing father/husband/brother shows up claiming he's all better and ready to resume his life. The aunt is all "I told you so;" the former wife doesn't want to hurt her former husband, but she wants to move on and marry her fiance and the daughter is at sixes and sevens just trying to make sense of it all.

The big secret, which comes out halfway through and isn't really a spoiler, as there is no story without it, is that insanity runs in (the blood of) the father's side, with the family believing WWI didn't cause, but only "set off" his insanity. This view of insanity might offend us today, but it is how it was viewed at the time, plus, our view today probably won't look too good to future generations either.

The husband, desperately wanting his wife back, drops a big guilt trip on her, which is aided by the religious scold aunt telling the wife to remember your wedding vows, "for better or worse, in sickness and in health." At the same time, the daughter realizes that she has to tell her fiance, who wants many children, about "the insanity in her blood."

The climax is all melodramatic sacrifice over who's going to stay with the just-returned husband to help prevent a relapse. It's a conflict that will feel alien to modern audiences raised on movies preaching that genuine personal sacrifice is unacceptable because everyone today should get everything they want, come what may.

The two versions of Bill of Divorcement are similar with the 1940 one having a polish in production quality lacking in the earlier version as Hollywood was still figuring out "talkies" back in 1932. Hence, other than small tweaks to the story and some minor reordering, eliminating or altering of a few scenes, the real difference is the actors.

Adolphe Menjou has the unenviable task of taking on the John Barrymore role of the returning husband and, while he doesn't chew up the scenery the way Barrymore does, he also doesn't bring the passion and presence of a Barrymore.

Fay Bainter puts in a professionally understated performance as the torn-in-both-directions wife, but Billy Burke brought just a bit more verve to the role in the 1932 version.

The two big differences, though, are the aunt and daughter. Dame May Whitty as the angry aunt gives the audience someone to truly dislike in the 1940 version; whereas, with Elizabeth Patterson playing the aunt, the character all but disappears in the earlier production.

Which brings us to the true difference in the two versions: Maureen O'Hara creates a much more engaging and nuanced character in the later version in the pivotal role of the young, strong-will daughter who is not only rocked by meeting her father for the first time, but also by discovering a dark and life-altering family secret coursing through her blood.

In 1932, Katherine Hepburn, new to the screen, has too much stage actress still in her - over emoting, wildly gesturing and all but yelling some lines - and too much natural frenetic "Hepburness" to create the empathetic character needed to fully "sell" the climatic scene.

That "small" difference helps make the 1940 version superior. Despite Barrymore's captivating performance in the 1932 one, it's Maureen O'Hara's engaging and heartbreakingly nuanced portrayal of the shattered daughter that gives 1940's Bill of Divorcement a depth and sympathy missing in the earlier production.
 

Edward

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Rootling around on my streaming services for something a bit less bang-crash-killy than a lot of what I've been watching recently, and stumbled across St Elmo's Fire. One big brat-pack film that I wasn't old enough for at the time, and had just never seen. It's interesting as a time-capsule, particularly by comparison to Reality Bites, which presents a very similar 'bunch of friends graduate and have to move on, aren't so great at doing it' premise for the next generation, being set and made in the mid-nineties. The former reviewed badly on its 1985 release, largely due to the broad unlikability of most of the characters. It held my interest for the duration, though I did find the characters largely unpleasant and shallow, the plot lacking, and the confected happy ending unconvincing and dissatisfying. An interesting commentary on what Hollywood considered aspirational and contemporary bright young thingish in the early-mid eighties, though. It's interesting this one hasn't as of yet been picked up by the nostalgia machine currently pushing the eighties; it hasn't dated as badly in some of its attitudes as, say, Teenwolf. It's going to be interesting seeing how this story is reinvented for the social media generation, though I think that's already mostly taking place via tv shows rather than cinema now.

Were there any such 'coming of age' pictures in the early days of Hollywood? I'd love to see them for comparison if so. While I find it a struggle to get my head around, the eighties to the kids I teach now is very much as the fifties to me...
 

EngProf

Practically Family
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Rootling around on my streaming services for something a bit less bang-crash-killy than a lot of what I've been watching recently, and stumbled across St Elmo's Fire. One big brat-pack film that I wasn't old enough for at the time, and had just never seen. It's interesting as a time-capsule, particularly by comparison to Reality Bites, which presents a very similar 'bunch of friends graduate and have to move on, aren't so great at doing it' premise for the next generation, being set and made in the mid-nineties. The former reviewed badly on its 1985 release, largely due to the broad unlikability of most of the characters. It held my interest for the duration, though I did find the characters largely unpleasant and shallow, the plot lacking, and the confected happy ending unconvincing and dissatisfying. An interesting commentary on what Hollywood considered aspirational and contemporary bright young thingish in the early-mid eighties, though. It's interesting this one hasn't as of yet been picked up by the nostalgia machine currently pushing the eighties; it hasn't dated as badly in some of its attitudes as, say, Teenwolf. It's going to be interesting seeing how this story is reinvented for the social media generation, though I think that's already mostly taking place via tv shows rather than cinema now.

Were there any such 'coming of age' pictures in the early days of Hollywood? I'd love to see them for comparison if so. While I find it a struggle to get my head around, the eighties to the kids I teach now is very much as the fifties to me...
The "Andy Hardy" series with Mickey Rooney could be considered "coming of age" movies, since he went from high-school, to college, and then into the Army.
I don't think his (fictional) experiences resemble in any way the '80's movies you mentioned.
 

Edward

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The "Andy Hardy" series with Mickey Rooney could be considered "coming of age" movies, since he went from high-school, to college, and then into the Army.
I don't think his (fictional) experiences resemble in any way the '80's movies you mentioned.


It does seem that the "recently graduated" genre is a sort of eighties and later thing, much like the teenager arrived on screen as we know it in the fifties, really. I wonder if it was a case of that being perceived as a more common experience, or commonly understood at least, by the eighties, or was it a case of changing life experiences among the director pool... It's certainly no coincidence that the eighties saw a lot of Vietnam pictures, given the rise of directors and producers who came of age in that era (wasn't Oliver Stone actually in Nam for a tour, or did I mix him up with someone else there?).

I have a vague memory of having seen a US-set B&W talking about a geek and his jock friend at a US university, set in the thirties. Very much in the screwball tradition, where geek becomes a football star and gets the girl... Was that an Andy Hardy? Saw it over thirty years ago; my memory wants to insist it was George Formby, but pretty sure that's wrong!
 
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One Potato, Two Potato from 1964 with Barbara Barrie, Bernie Hamilton, Martha L. Mericka and Richard Mulligan


The biggest fact that matters about One Potato,Two Potato is that it actually got made in 1964.

A white woman, played by Barbara Barrie, is raising her young daughter alone because, four years ago, she wouldn't go to Brazil with her husband, played by Richard Mulligan, for a wildcatting job he accepted.

Now divorced, Barrie meets a black man, played by Bernie Hamilton, and their friendship blossoms into a romance and talk of marriage. Hamilton's mother sees the challenges of an interracial marriage, but supports it; his father, though, opposes it, in particular, because he believes their children will not be accepted in either the white or black communities.

The marriage happens; a baby is born; the family adjusts well and Barrie's daughter embraces her stepdad and step-grandparents. Then Barrie's ex-husband comes back, first to be "involved" with his daughter, but after seeing Barrie's new family, he sues for custody because he doesn't want his child being raised by a black man.

From here, One Potato, Two Potato races through many angles of the story. A white minister, citing Christian tenets, is against the ex-husband's petition; Hamilton feels emasculated as he is, effectively, told, as a black man, not to fight loudly as it will work against the case and the judge hates that it is societal prejudice that even makes this case viable. His decision and the fallout is the movie's climax.

The quiet star of the movie is the daughter, played by Martha L. Mericka. In that wonderful way of children at a certain age, she doesn't see what all the adults are upset about as she simply enjoys her loving family.

Yes, the movie is reverse engineered to elicit just the right emotion at just the right time. Yes, it is constructed to support its point with little nuance. A better movie gets you there without being obvious, but a "message" movie with the right message at the right moment is still a worthy effort.

One Potato, Two Potato often feels like a docudrama or After School Special, but solid acting helps the preachy script along. Yet all of that is secondary as the power of One Potato, Two Potato is that it was made when it was. It's sad for the country that this movie needed to be made, but it also says something about that same country that it could be made.
 

AmateisGal

I'll Lock Up
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Lighting Strikes Twice (1951) with Richard Todd and Ruth Roman which I quite enjoyed.. I've only ever seen Ruth Roman in Strangers on a Train, so I'm enjoying her movies as it's her day today on TCM for their August Summer Under the Stars.

lightning.jpg
 

EngProf

Practically Family
Messages
548
It does seem that the "recently graduated" genre is a sort of eighties and later thing, much like the teenager arrived on screen as we know it in the fifties, really. I wonder if it was a case of that being perceived as a more common experience, or commonly understood at least, by the eighties, or was it a case of changing life experiences among the director pool... It's certainly no coincidence that the eighties saw a lot of Vietnam pictures, given the rise of directors and producers who came of age in that era (wasn't Oliver Stone actually in Nam for a tour, or did I mix him up with someone else there?).

I have a vague memory of having seen a US-set B&W talking about a geek and his jock friend at a US university, set in the thirties. Very much in the screwball tradition, where geek becomes a football star and gets the girl... Was that an Andy Hardy? Saw it over thirty years ago; my memory wants to insist it was George Formby, but pretty sure that's wrong!
I don't remember that particular plot, but it seems like it might fit the Andy Hardy formula. One that I do remember is that Andy Hardy's "crisis" in that film was that he was set up on a date with a girl who was about a foot taller than him. However, it all worked out fine...
There were several Andy Hardy films made during the '30's and early '40's. Judy Garland was in some of them.
Never heard of George Formby, so I can't comment on whether his films are similar to the Andy Hardy ones.
College football films might count as "coming of age" films, so I'll mention "Knute Rockne, All American" with Ronald Reagan (who plays George Gipp - "Go out and win one for the Gipper" - not Knute Rockne).
 

Edward

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I don't remember that particular plot, but it seems like it might fit the Andy Hardy formula. One that I do remember is that Andy Hardy's "crisis" in that film was that he was set up on a date with a girl who was about a foot taller than him. However, it all worked out fine...
There were several Andy Hardy films made during the '30's and early '40's. Judy Garland was in some of them.
Never heard of George Formby, so I can't comment on whether his films are similar to the Andy Hardy ones.
College football films might count as "coming of age" films, so I'll mention "Knute Rockne, All American" with Ronald Reagan (who plays George Gipp - "Go out and win one for the Gipper" - not Knute Rockne).

Thanks - I'll have a hunt out for those.
 

Worf

I'll Lock Up
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"The Gray Man" - This Netflix "original" sports an impressive array of talent both behind and in front of the camera. However after 2 plus hours of sturm and drang I was left thoroughly unimpressed. I've seen the same basic plot at least 20 times over mostly in better films (i.e. The Bourne Franchise etc..). Hired CIA assassin finds out there's some skullduggery going on back at Langley and he has to sort it out. In the process numerous innocents are killed and a lot of old world cities are razed. Yawn.... The only thing worth watching in this film is Chris Evans (Captain America) riotously playing against type as one of the main baddies. Literally and I do mean LITERALLY twirling his "Freddy Mercury" moustache as he menaces women and children... tortures people in the mostly medieval ways and lays waste to large sections of cities all in an attempt to kill one man. Sigh... whatta waste.

Worf
 
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I saw that one many years ago. I don’t remember much other than that it was really bad. Yet, if it were on right now, I would probably watch it just for to see how poorly done it was and to laugh a little.
:D

I saw it when it came out in the 70s and I was in high school. We had big laughs at school the next day about it.

Hey, not everything can rise to the heights of Trilogy of Terror.
 

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