by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
One was The Divorcée, a 1930 MGM potboiler that inexplicably won Norma Shearer the Academy Award for Best Actress, in which she and Chester Morris played a couple who attempted what would now be called an “open relationship,” divorced when he couldn’t handle the thought of his wife seeing other men even though he was seeing other women, then got back together at the fade-out. It was typical Hollywood tripe, based on a novel by Ursula Parrott called Ex-Wife, adapted for the screen by Zelda Sears, Nick Grindé and John Meehan and directed to his usual level of mediocrity by Robert Z. Leonard.
The following year Shearer and Robert Montgomery (who had a supporting role in The Divorcée) would play this kind of story deliciously in Private Lives, but Noël Coward was a far better writer than Ursula Parrott; Hans Kraly, Claudine West and Richard Schayer were also superior to Sears, Grindé and Meehan; and Sidney Franklin a much better director than Leonard. Also, Coward’s story had played the situation for sophisticated comedy while Parrott’s was oh-so-serious about it — and Shearer’s performance, though not as ludicrously stylized as some of her work, was bland and hardly what one would consider Oscar-caliber today (of the movies of hers I’ve seen, I think The Women offers her best work — her performance in it tends to get overshadowed by the bravura playing of Joan Crawford as the bitch, but Shearer is quite affecting in the role of the wife betrayed as much by her gossipy friends as her straying husband). — 3/28/98
I picked out a relatively short movie: The Divorcée, the 1930 romantic melodrama which starred Norma Shearer and three, count ’em, three leading men: Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel and Robert Montgomery. It’s one of those movies about the affluent — though at least most of the people in this movie actually have jobs, which automatically sets them apart from most people in movies, especially MGM movies about rich people, in 1930 — and their cavalier, to say the least, attitudes about marriage, fidelity, commitment and divorce.
Based on a novel called Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott (yet another pop writer whose works got filmed in Hollywood’s classic era whose name otherwise means nothing to me) and scripted by the usual conglomeration of talents for an early talkie — Nick Grindé and Zelda Sears, “treatment,” and John Meehan, “dialogue and continuity” — and directed by Robert Z. Leonard (though in typical MGM fashion for the time he’s not credited as such; instead, a small line of type on the same card as the main title identifies the film as “A Robert Z. Leonard Production,” which confused the major-domos at imdb.com into listing them on their site as producer, not director), The Divorcée is a titillating but ultimately moralistic saga about Jerry (Norma Shearer), who as the film begins has never been married herself but hangs out and goes to parties and nightclubs with a batch of picturesquely decadent people including Paul (Conrad Nagel), Don (Robert Montgomery), Paul’s girlfriend Dot (Helen Johnson), the much-divorced Helen (Florence Eldridge — making a surprise appearance in a film that doesn’t feature her real-life long-term husband, actor Fredric March) and her current hot squeeze, Bill Baldwin (Robert Elliott).
Into the mix comes aspiring journalist Ted Martin (Chester Morris, acting with his usual power and authority and blowing away every other male in the cast); he and Jerry fall hard for each other and eventually get married, but not before the principals have been involved in a disastrous auto accident because Paul insisted on driving while drunk; his car veered off the road and the other people were relatively unscathed, but Dot was permanently disfigured and for the rest of the movie is seen either in bandages or with an elaborate hood over her head that makes her look like a cross between a Ku Klux Klansman and a burka-clad Muslim woman. There’s a fascinating sequence that counterpoints the wedding of Jerry and Ted (in a church, with the full nine yards of ceremony) and that of Paul and Dot (in Dot’s hospital room).
Alas, first Ted drifts into an affair, or at least a one-night stand, with Helen — whom he apparently dated at some previous point and who still wants him — and figuring that what’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, Jerry has her own one-night trick with Don (a pretty unconvincing pairing because Montgomery is so young and gawky here he looks like he just got out of high school — it’s hard to believe from this film that just the next year Montgomery and Shearer were able to play a far more sophisticated version of this basic situation in the film of Noël Coward’s Private Lives) and then goes into a guilt-ridden tizzy when Ted returns from his business trip.
This leads to the breakup of their marriage and Jerry’s inexplicable rebound affair with Paul — a more romantically credible actor might have made this part believable, but Conrad Nagel looks like both his makeup and his hair have been plastered on his head with a trowel and he’s the same stuffed-shirt egomaniac he usually played — even though that means Paul will have to divorce Dot, which he thinks she’ll accept if he gives her a financial settlement. (His callousness towards her is only the most blatant indication of what an unscrupulous rotter he really is.) At this point the action of the film, which heretofore has taken place entirely in the United States, gets peripatetic as Paul offers to take Jerry on his company’s assignment of him to Japan as soon as he dumps Dot and is able to marry her, while she gets a competing offer from her own employer to set up a branch in London (we get the impression she’s a fashion designer, though about our only clue in that direction is scene in which she’s shown sketching a female figure on a giant pad), and the final scene takes place in Paris where Ted, who’s lost his own job and is making his living free-lancing (an American journalist free-lancing in a country with a different language?), is hanging out in the hope of getting in touch with her, and eventually they re-meet on New Year’s Eve (which is used symbolically much the way Woody Allen would use it in Whatever Works nearly eight decades later!), reconcile and decide that in Ted and Jerry 2.0 they’re going to take a far less cavalier attitude towards monogamy and fidelity than they did in 1.0.
Technically, The Divorcée is quite a good film for the period; Robert Z. Leonard had a hack reputation (though he made at least one masterpiece, the 1937 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy film Maytime) but here he’s in the forefront of early-talkie directors in terms of moving the camera, shooting from angles that involve the viewer in the action instead of merely broadcasting it from a safe distance, and allowing the actors to say their lines relatively naturalistically instead of the s-l-o-w, p-o-n-d-e-r-o-u-s readings forced on many more complaisant early-talkie directors by the sound engineers. (The fact that the film’s sound engineer happened to be the leading lady’s brother, Douglas Shearer, may have had something to do with the fact that she was able to act her lines instead of intone them.)
Where the film falls short is in the arbitrary nature of its plotting; The Divorcée is one of those movies whose didactic agenda is all too clear — titillate the audience by hinting at alternatives to monogamy and sexual exclusivity in relationships, then slam the door on them with a forceful and even ferocious re-assertion of traditional morality at the end. Norma Shearer’s performance hangs up on just this dichotomy; she’s marvelous in the silent scene in which she has to face the return of her husband the morning after she’s cheated on him, stiff and unconvincing in the later dialogue when she has to become the don’t-do-what-I-have-done spokesperson for Production Code morality (though her tirades probably wowed the Academy voters back in 1930). The subtlety with which Friedrich Murnau and Carl Mayer brought their similarly straying marital partners back together in Sunrise totally eludes the makers of this film — and yet on its own terms The Divorcée is quite good, (mostly) understated and with characters who aren’t really heroes or villains but ordinary human beings with ordinary human weaknesses.
It was surprising, though, to read on imdb.com that Norma Shearer asked for this part because she wanted to get away from the goody-two-shoes roles she’d been stuck with in her silents — which seemed strange since she’d got to play far more interesting and morally ambiguous characters than this in her 1925 silent Lady of the Night (in that one she played a dual role, gooder-than-good Florence Banning and good-bad girl Mary Helmer, and while her Florence was a typically dull Shearer characterization her Mary was superb) and her 1928 film A Lady of Chance (also directed by Robert Z. Leonard, in which she’s part of a gang of con artists redeemed when she falls genuinely in love with her latest “mark,” played with his usual woodenness by Johnny Mack Brown). As it stands, The Divorcée is a fascinating movie, alternately oppressive and genuinely moving, with some of its emotional dilemmas seeming very, very dated while others would ring true in a film made today. — 7/2/09