Every month, my blog friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Usually I like to pick an oddball or obscure movie for this feature, but when the great Norma Shearer is November’s TCM Star of the Month, I’m going back to basics with the pre-Code essential The Divorcee (1930).
Based on the scandalous 1929 bestseller Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott, The Divorcee begins with the engagement of Ted (Chester Morris) to the independent and popular Jerry (Shearer). The announcement leaves her ex Paul (Conrad Nagel) heartbroken, which he works out by getting drunk and causing a terrible accident that disfigures Dorothy (Helen Johnson), whom Paul then marries out of guilt.
Three years later, Jerry and Ted’s happy marriage is shaken when she discovers he had an affair. Ted shrugs it off as a meaningless fling, but Jerry isn’t having it. To “balance the accounts” she cheats with Ted’s best friend Don (Robert Montgomery), only this time Ted’s no longer familiar with the concept of a meaningless fling. His outrage triggers their divorce, after which Jerry parties, travels and “flirts” with lots of gentlemen, and almost reunites with Paul. But after evaluating Dorothy’s attitude toward marriage, and after feeling the emptiness of “opening her bed” to everyone but Ted, Jerry and her ex-husband reunite with a renewed understanding of themselves, what they want out of and are willing to give to marriage.
The story may sound flimsy but this soap opera frame manages to carry sharp dialogue and memorable innuendo, daring assessments of gender roles and double standards, and one of Shearer’s best and flashiest performances. Early on, Jerry sets out her goal of entering marriage as an equal and her intention of gauging her status by male standards. She has an androgynous name, a successful career, and is praised by Ted for having a masculine view on things. But their similar dalliances expose a double standard, an imbalance of pride and natural differences in their expectations and emotional approaches. As the movie’s tagline said it: Her sin was no greater than his, but she was a woman! Jerry chooses to empower herself by emulating male promiscuity but discovers that racking up meaningless flings is an emotionally unfulfilling and spiritually draining path for both sexes.
To repeat well-known Hollywood legend, Shearer’s husband and MGM head Irving Thalberg intended this role for Joan Crawford, and had to be convinced, with the aid of a stack of George Hurrell photos and some strategically draped gold lamé, that Shearer could indeed play such a free-spirited seductress. It was a drastic shift from her good girl persona and such a stunning turn that it won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. With a talent for loaded glances and efficient acting that she honed in silent film, and a unique skill for balancing innocence and naughtiness, vulnerability and confidence, pain and fury, Shearer brought this new type of female character to life, made her sympathetic and believably guided her and the viewer through the big social issue at hand.
Though some may find that issue and its resolution dated, Shearer’s approach still looks fresh. It helps that she has such a fabulous wardrobe courtesy of Adrian, lives out her adventure on glamorous sets and says great lines like: “Waiting isn’t my idea of the king of indoor sports. I’ve no intention of waiting around for three or four years while you harvest an additional crop of wild oats…I didn’t know there was such a thing as platonic jewellery…look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man’s pride with the rest.” Don tells her, “You’re a fascinating wench, Jerry!” She sure is, and you can see why in The Divorcee on TCM Tuesday, November 10.
Visit Karen at Shadows & Satin to see what she picked for this month’s pre-Code viewing, and also revisit Karen’s older post about all the things she loves about The Divorcee.