Reintroduction Post #5:
The Divorcee (1930, Leonard)
First Seen in: 2008
“I’ve balanced our accounts”. The Pre-Code that started it all, sanctioning women to explore their sexuality freely and defiantly. The Divorcee breaks open the double standards of infidelity, testing limits, turning tables and presenting a progressively symbolic ‘what if’ whose controversy would remain intact for the next several decades of American film. That Norma Shearer leads the audience into this journey of sexual self-discovery is undoubtedly why MGM got away with it. Her wholesome and relatable exterior and demeanor grabs sympathy from the masses of the time.
The Divorcee admittedly suffers from some of the stiltedness of early talkies, most notably the tendency to overload scenes with stagily shot repetitive and excessive dialogue. Jerry’s (Shearer) conflicting impulses in the first half of the film are related to us with conversations that go back and forth. And those early scenes between Jerry and Ted (Chester Morris) being all lovey-dovey are laid on more than a bit thick. “It doesn’t mean a thing” becomes a mantra, something to test sure, but it’s said about twenty times, no joke. My favorite moments from Shearer’s performance though, are the way she underplays those conflicting emotions. She has no grand plan. She’s lost at sea.
Still, it doesn’t much lessen the experience, and The Divorcee remains such a satisfying treatise on issues that remain relevant today even if the shock of their existence has long since worn off, thank goodness. And her fault lies not in the infidelity but that she gave up trying to patch things up with Ted.
I love the plot threads introduced at the beginning and the way they are worked in and picked up again throughout. Chester Morris makes me laugh, even though he’s not really meant to, and is quite entertaining. His slicked back hair, blocky head and bombastic moments are alternately endearing and bullish. But The Divorcee reminded me just how much I adore Robert Montgomery, though I recently watched him in When Ladies Meet. This was his breakout role, as Ted’s best friend Don. He is so memorable, a dapper drunk whose wide-eyed line delivery and subtly quirky facial tics and mannerisms make him the one to watch whenever he’s onscreen, whether speaking or silent. Don is carefree, always looking out for himself, somewhat oblivious, slightly stumbling, with an air of feigned confusion and a put-on of gluttonous sincerity. All in maybe twenty minutes of screentime.
My favorite sequence is the wordless three-scenes that very quickly and efficiently show that Jerry has slept with Don. Covered in black and shot openly from the front (a departure for the normally shot-in-left-profile Shearer) in the otherwise bustling nightclub, as Don’s hand creeps into the frame, you know exactly what she’s contemplating. And the way Don looks at her in the club and in the taxi oozes sex. Finally, the curtain closes.
A word about which of Adrian’s costumes stuck out for me. First, the black head-wrap she wears out to the nightclub and second Jerry’s awesome one-piece pajama-suit on the night of her three-year anniversary.
The Divorcee came at a time when acknowledging the idea that women could or would desire or have a sex life was almost completely unheard of, staunchly denied or labeled heathenish. Not only is the film centered on this idea, but links it to marriage, divorce and patriarchal hypocrisy. It was and remains important, ushering in a wave of sensational films filled with sin, repent, and more sin, almost entirely committed by women.