"Insanity is hereditary, you can get it from your children." The patriarch as an addled vampire returning for the lifeforce of the young, a horror tale told over the course of one Christmas Eve and one Christmas Day. George Cukor handles the introductory Yuletide party discreetly, dutifully dollying out from close-ups to proscenium-accommodating medium-shots, until the canned-theater air is dissipated by a pair of fresh images: Katharine Hepburn lounging on pillows on the living room floor, and John Barrymore poking at the furniture like a creature giddy and uneasy in lost territory. The two agitated figures circle each other, and the Freudian density of the situation is promptly voiced: "My wife’s not my wife... she’s my daughter!" He’s a fugitive from the insane asylum, one of war’s "forgotten men," a very needy Nosferatu camped out in the drawing room. Lucidity strikes him "like a curtain lifted," he’s a dead man revived, a rather awkward spot for the divorcing wife (Billie Burke) who’s ready to move on. "There are troubles in every family. One doesn’t talk about them." The dramaturgy of the Clemence Dane play is what somebody calls "pure 19th-century," yet Cukor gives you Barrymore and the debuting Hepburn (already the most angular of all ingénues) cutting through it like a couple of long-stemmed knives. Their finale at the piano -- an unfinished sonata in an empty mansion -- is both a rough draft for the tragedy of Camille, and a most perverse happy ending: Madness may be Hepburn’s curse, but how could normalcy be preferable when it boils down to marriage to David Manners? Capra (Arsenic and Old Lace), Jones (Claws for Alarm) and Cassavetes (She’s So Lovely) supply mocking analyses. With Paul Cavanaugh, Henry Stephenson, Gayle Evers, and Elizabeth Patterson. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce