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Producer David O. Selznick was not convinced audiences would like the unconventional look and personality of actress Katharine Hepburn. But in spite of his doubts, he cast her in her first film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932). In the film, Hepburn plays Sydney Fairfield, a young woman whose father has been in a mental institution most of her life. Her father, Hilary Fairfield (played by John Barrymore), returns home the day his ex-wife plans to remarry. Sydney is one of the only family members who is pleased to see him again, but she is troubled by the knowledge that his mental instability might be hereditary.
Selznick and director George Cukor considered several actresses for the role of Sydney Fairfield, including Norma Shearer and Irene Dunne, but the part went to the then unknown 24-year-old Katharine Hepburn. George Cukor had seen her screen test and was impressed with the young actress. Selznick, however, did not like the way she looked and feared audiences would feel the same way. He was soon surprised by the audience's positive reaction during the film's preview. According to Anne Edwards in A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn, Selznick said, "very early in the picture there was a scene in which Hepburn just walked across the room, stretched her arms, and then lay on the floor before the fireplace. It sounds very simple, but you could almost feel, and you could definitely hear, the excitement in the audience. It was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had. In those few simple feet of film a new star was born."
Critics loved the new actress as much as audiences did. The Hollywood Reporter stated, "After last night, there is a new star on the cinema horizon, and her name is Katharine Hepburn. The dynamic way in which this newcomer swept the audience off its feet at the preview is only a forerunner of the way she will capture followers by the millions. Not many times in the history of celluloid entertainment has there been such a first performance as Miss Hepburn gives." In the New York Post, Thornton Delehanty commented on her "dignity and an instinct for underplaying an emotion. Miss Hepburn has the makings of a star."
Hepburn's nonconformist behavior during the filming of A Bill of Divorcement, however, made studio executives wonder if she ever would become a star. When she wasn't on the set, the young actress would wear overalls and torn tennis shoes. As word started to spread about the promising new actress, reporters came to the studio every day to see Hepburn. But overalls did not go with the image the RKO publicity department had in mind for Hepburn. Studio executives threatened to take her overalls if she kept wearing them. Hepburn refused and the studio followed through with their threat. When they refused to give her clothes back, Hepburn made a threat of her own. If they didn't return her pants, she would walk across the studio lot practically naked. Studio executives knew she might actually do it, but they still refused to give them back. Hepburn then walked across the lot in her underwear. According to Edwards, "Barrymore thought this was uproarious, but the studio did not laugh. They immediately confiscated all pictures taken of Kate in her stroll and, to her delight, gave her back her dungarees."
In spite of her sometimes odd behavior, after the release of A Bill of Divorcement, David O. Selznick quickly signed Hepburn to a new contract. He knew she had a bright future and he wanted to sign her before another studio could.
A Bill of Divorcement was the second of three films based on a play by Clarence Dane. The first was a 1922 silent film. RKO later remade it in 1940 with Adolphe Menjou and Maureen O'Hara.
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Howard Estabrook and Harry Wagstaff Gribble. Play by Clemence Dane.
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: John Barrymore (Hilary Fairfield), Katharine Hepburn (Sydney Fairfield), Billie Burke (Margaret Fairfield), David Manners (Kit Humphreys), Paul Cavanagh (Gray Meredith).
By Deborah L. Johnson