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The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee

I’m reviewing all five films (and one documentary)(in the Forbidden Hollywood volume two box set:  

Review of Night Nurse

Review of Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in pre-Code Hollywood

Having watched a pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, a film I enjoyed, let’s look at pre-Code Norma Shearer.  I’ll admit this is my first Shearer film but I have another one in this collection, A Free Soul, to watch as well as The Women.  Hopefully all of these will broaden my range of Shearer because while I liked her in this, I wasn’t wowed by her.  The Divorcee has a lot of big ideas revolving around the double standards of fidelity but due to the strictures of the time period, they can’t be reinforced by story’s end making things feel wooden.  It’s a straight-forward melodrama removing Shearer from her role as the goody-goody she’d been playing before this, but the lack of reinforcement makes the whole adventure feel worthless.

Jerry Martin (Shearer) is happily married to Ted (Chester Morris) until she discovers he’s cheated on her.  Despite the fact it only happened once and “it doesn’t mean a thing” to Ted, Jerry can’t let it go.  Jerry decides to cheat herself, proving that a woman doesn’t have to put up with a cheating spouse but it puts her at odds when an old friend named Paul (Conrad Nagel) who has loved Jerry for years vows to leave his disfigured wife for her.

As mentioned above, this was Shearer’s attempt to get out of the good-girl roles she’d been known for and it worked as The Divorcee got the actress an Oscar for Best Actress.  I will say that for 1930 the character of Jerry is scandalous and bold, things the Academy rewards good girls because it shows they have “range.”  Yes, I know that sounded bitter but it’s true.  Shearer is lovely and she gives an amazing impassioned speech to Ted, telling him that out of all the men in the world he’ll be the one whose “door is closed” to Jerry.  I think comparing her to Stanwyck isn’t right but after seeing Stanwyck’s speech in Night Nurse, I didn’t find the passion and the anger in Shearer’s performance.

Regardless of the actress, and the acting in general, The Divorcee gets points simply for the story and message it’s showcasing.  The script addresses the age-old question in life and in film: Why can men cheat and women can’t?  The men in this film are openly sexual from the first scene when we’re introduced to Paul and his soon-to-be wife Dorothy (Judith Wood).  Even though they aren’t married yet Paul is all on the girl and that’s okay.  Once its discovered Ted has cheated his response is casual, telling Jerry that it’s nothing and she shouldn’t get mad.  Films have always played on the idea that a man is “a man” by how many women he beds regardless of the broken hearts of the wives and girlfriends back home.  In this film you have Jerry (I am curious about giving her a man’s name, sets a mixed message), telling her husband after she cheats that it’s nothing and “it doesn’t meant a thing.”  That part got me because Jerry isn’t a stupid woman.  She knew from the minute she saw Ted and the slutty other woman, Janice (Mary Doran), together that something was up, coyly saying “You do know each other.”  When she reveals her affair to Ted he has the gall to say she isn’t “decent” and yells at her.  Even when Jerry asks him how he can’t feel responsible (he totally is) he gets indignant about her “putting all the blame on me.”  You deserve it you schmuck!

I didn’t sympathize with Ted at all and the way the relationships Jerry goes through are all explored with decency.  She’s seen being wined and dined by men but you’re never sure if she’s actually having sex as most of the scenes involve her casting off the offending man’s hands at dinner.  If that’s the case, she’s a far better woman than her husband!  On top of that you see that Jerry feels terrible about her first encounter outside the marriage as she sits at a table with a drink in her hand, eyes filled with numbness and sadness.  The double standard is explored in-depth and so well that it makes the ending upsetting because she begs for Ted to understand her actions.  She does call him out for being a total dick sure but at the end when you see they reconcile it just feels like everything that should be learned by the audience is taken back.  Jerry cheats but what do we learn from the end?  As long as your husband yells at you it’s okay?  If Ted cheats again does the cycle continue? I understand they couldn’t go full-steam into having them stay separated but at least have Ted make a sincere effort to win back Jerry’s trust.  Instead it becomes Jerry trying to get Ted to trust her!

The side story with Paul and Dorothy felt out-of-place next to Ted and Jerry’s.  It’s the one element of film that seemed to pad the runtime.  We do see Paul and Dorothy in love for about ten seconds in the opening before Paul becomes suicidal and mad over Jerry’s engagement to Ted.  There’s no discussion about a past relationship or evidence that the two even like each other and yet the audience is supposed to believe Paul has this gigantic crush on Jerry.  Mind you five second before all this he was rubbing up on Dorothy!  In a mad haze Paul crashes his car permanently disfiguring Dorothy (I think that’s how we’re supposed to take her Phantom of the Opera look later in the film).  What’s sad is what isn’t focused on in The Divorcee, how much beauty propels relationships.  Dorothy is hurt and all her sister can scream is “I hope she dies” because she was “so pretty.”  In this world, women can’t cheat like men, and once their beauty goes they might as well be dead!  Had we explored those two topics I think The Divorcee would be a revelation to the industry!  Obviously it’s Dorothy going to see Jerry to beg her not to steal Paul from her (again making excuses for the man) that causes Jerry to rethink her life as a divorcee.

It’s easy to see why The Divorcee is cited as a groundbreaking piece of work in 1930 as well as held up as a model for pre-Code cinema.  Norma Shearer gives her all with the character but the story is what’s really ground-breaking, unfortunately it’s only stretched so far before being smushed back into place for a Hollywood ending that sends a muddled message.  It’s worth the watch for fans of Shearer and must-see pre-Code just prepare to be irritated.

Grade: C

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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