THE DIVORCEE (1930) B/W 83m dir: Robert Z. Leonard
w/Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Robert Montgomery, Florence Eldridge, Helene Millard, Robert Elliott, Mary Doran, Tyler Brooke, Zelda Sears
From the book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle: "THE DIVORCEE is one of the best American films ever made about the breakup of a marriage. The interaction between husband and wife and the ways they deal with the other's infidelity remain authentic. A woman's confusion, anger, and disgust at her husband are handled with an honesty that has been rare in American cinema. A few years later, when the [Production] Code came in, wives would wistfully smile at their husband's infidelities --- or at the very least bear all stoically. The Divorcee may be an antique, with some of the crudeness of an early talkie, but it tells the truth about men and women.
"Shearer found out about the project that would become The Divorcee in the summer of 1929, when MGM bought the rights to the bestseller, Ex-Wife. Written by Ursula Parrot, a young novelist three years Shearer's senior, it chronicled the disintegration of a modern, two-career marriage and the wife's subsequent life of parties and one-night stands. Shearer knew at once the significance of the story. Here was sex without victimhood, sophistication without chastity. Here was a bold, modern woman with no apologies. To a friend, she described the lead role as 'very strong, almost ruthless. Perfect for me.'
"Once again, [Shearer's husband, top MGM producer Irving] Thalberg was an obstacle. He told his wife he didn't think she was glamorous enough and that he considered the part too undignified for her. She complained about this to a friend, actor Ramon Navarro. By a lucky chance, Novarro, in the same conversation, showed her some evocative portraits he's recently had taken by a then-unknown young photographer, George Hurrell. This gave Shearer an idea. She went to Hurrell, and in the first session of what was to become a long-term collaboration, Hurrell put her in a brocade robe and had her wear her hair loose about her forehead. He photographed her in a series of sexy poses, like nothing anyone had ever seen in a Shearer movie. A few days later, Shearer presented the portraits to Thalberg at breakfast. He had to agree. She was glamorous enough. She got the lead in The Divorcee --- Shearer came up with the new title --- and Hurrell got a contract as an MGM portrait photographer.
"The story of the novel, Ex-Wife, sounds like the scenario of a [Greta] Garbo film. Like Garbo's A Woman of Affairs, it was about a woman trying to kill her heartache with sexual adventure, while remaining in love with the man who spurned her. But the screenwriters for The Divorcee used Ex-Wife as a mere point of departure, and in the end they came up with something quite different. While 'Patricia' in the novel remained a sex slave for her ex-husband, the film's heroine, 'Jerry,' all but forgets her husband the second he is out the door.
"All the big moments in The Divorcee --- Jerry's cold-blooded infidelity, her telling off of her husband ('You're the only man in the world my door is closed to!') --- had no precedent in the novel. More significantly, they were outside the pattern for movies up to this time. These moments were created by the screenwriters, accommodating themselves to the wishes of an actress who wanted to play the woman as 'very strong, almost ruthless.' Shearer went to the limit of what an actress could get away with in 1930 and kept going. The Divorcee was uncharted territory.
"Her exemplary public image undoubtedly helped her slip this by the public, but even more important was what Shearer chose to do in front of the camera. She made Jerry sympathetic by playing her as an intelligent woman on a sincere journey of self-discovery. She was the new woman, finding a way toward her own truth in a world of skyscrapers, honking horns, and jazz.
"It was high time this woman showed her face on screen. In making The Divorcee, Hollywood was finally catching up with facts that the censors would eventually force it to deny. Women had changed. So had marriage. 'Only a few decades ago no lady or good woman, even though married, was thought to have a sex life,' remarked psychoanalyst Lorine Pruette at the time. The availability of contraception had helped bring the change about, making it possible for married couples to enjoy sex without the dread of pregnancy. In 1930, the year of The Divorcee's release, researchers Carlyn Manassas and Phyllis Blanchard published a study of the sexual practices and attitudes of young married women:
"After hundreds of years of mild compliance to wifely duties, modern women have awakened to the knowledge that they are sexual beings. And with this new insight the sex side of marriage has assumed sudden importance.
"That sexual satisfaction had become the right of both sexes is reflected in the print advertisement for The Divorcee: 'If the world permits the husband to philander, why not the wife?' Looked at in the context of its time, The Divorcee promised to thrill audiences by showing just what might happen if the modern wife --- confident, fully sexual, and armed with contraception --- were turned loose on an unsuspecting world.
"In The Divorcee, Shearer's Jerry pretty much knows the score from the start. She doesn't want a long engagement, she tells her fiancé, because 'waiting is not my idea of the king of indoor sports. You're just human. So am I.' Three years later, they're living in Manhattan in a modern arrangement --- two careers, no kids, very happy --- until the wife finds out about a single episode of cheating. Since she can't imagine that infidelity 'doesn't mean a thing,' she finds out for herself with her husband's best friend. Upon the husband's return from a business trip, she confesses, 'I've balanced our accounts.'
"In Garbo's movies, lovers are linked by destiny and by God. In Shearer's films, marriage is a secular arrangement, a formalized agreement between pals. 'What is a wife but a good mistress?' Shearer once told an interviewer. No higher principle holds couples together beyond the promise to be faithful. When that faith is broken, there's nothing to contain the wife's behavior. No fear, no guilt, no irrational obsession with one man. She attaches no mystical significance to her relationships, so when things go wrong, she is completely at sea.
"Had Shearer played Jerry as angry or vengeful, The Divorcee would not have had the influence it had, and today it would rate as just another naughty Pre-Code curio. But Shearer was after something more serious than erotic melodrama. Jerry is a woman investigating the moral underpinnings of her life. There is nothing tame or quaint about that journey. Immediately following her divorce, she is shown shaking it up on the dance floor of a crowded nightclub on New Year's Eve. Late in the picture, she takes up with a devoted old flame and spends a couple of weeks with him alone on his boat. It's strongly implied there were many others, too. 'You don't exactly take the veil when your decree is granted, you know?' she explains. 'What should an ex-wife do? Spend her days doing good deeds? Going to bed at night with suitable books?'
"It's one thing to accept that The Divorcee was bold for 1930. The more profound realization is that it would be considered audacious today. Forget the Jazz Age lingo. Forget that The Divorcee is in black and white. Picture it rather as a wide-screen color release, now in theaters. Now imagine a modern movie in which the heroine does the things that Shearer does. It would never happen. As recently as 1995, Julia Roberts made a picture called Something to Talk About, in which she found herself in a marital crisis not unlike Shearer's. But weeks, not hours, into her separation, Roberts overcomes the temptation to sleep with a man she finds attractive. The movie had her resist in order to keep her from seeming frivolous and to maintain the audience's sympathy. There is still a lot of judgment surrounding 'very strong, almost ruthless' women, after all.
"With The Divorcee, Shearer gambled and won. "What movie actress but Norma,' asked the New York Mirror, 'could make a sympathetic heroine out of an unfaithful wife and a fast divorcee?' The answer went without saying. Photoplay was deluged with letters praising her ('How they rave about Norma!'). In Screenland, the sassiest and most forward-thinking of the fan magazines, Delight Evans recognized Shearer's achievement by comparing her to the era's other great female icon:
"Miss Shearer has turned into an American Garbo; she is a worldly young lady who marries for love, gets into difficulties and then goes about living her own life in a big, ambitious way. You'll gasp at Norma's portrayal of The Divorcee.
"Garbo was the love idealist. Shearer had become the love realist. Garbo was an actress of extremes, of old-fashioned morality. Shearer represented complexity, conflicting impulses, a new-fashioned morality. Garbo embraced the country; Shearer the city. Garbo was the faithful supplicant; Shearer the moral improviser. When Garbo was disappointed in love, she drove her car into a tree or joined a convent. When Shearer was disappointed, she got distraught, then angry, then into bed with someone new. Despite their differences, both dealt squarely with the consequences of love in an age of sexual freedom."
THE DIVORCEE won an Oscar for Best Actress Shearer and was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay (John Meehan).