Friday, April 30, 2021

The Divorcée (1930)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard                           Writers: Nick Grinde & Zelda Sears
Music: Milton Ager                                         Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel and Robert Montgomery

In 1929 the production head at MGM was the boy wonder Irving Thalberg. He had purchased the film rights to the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott, which had been published that year, and planned to cast in the starring role the studio’s resident sex symbol Joan Crawford. Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, had other plans, however, and was forced to lobby her husband for the part. His hesitance was based on the fact that he didn’t believe his wife had the kind of sex appeal necessary to carry off the role. Apparently Shearer went to the expense of hiring a private photographer to take some glamor shots of her and when Thalberg saw them he relented. Thalberg’s initial instinct, however, was right--as was his eventual decision, but for the wrong reason. Shearer never really had much sex appeal onscreen, and she doesn’t in this film either. But the thing is, that’s exactly what the part needed, someone who could be a convincing everywoman rather than a bombshell. Thalberg mistakenly believed that he was casting for the twenty minutes near the end of the film, when in reality he should have been casting for first three quarters of the production. In the end, he wound up backing into the right decision without even realizing it, and as a result Shearer took home the best actress Oscar that year for her work in The Divorcée.

The film opens on the huge lobby of an upstate rural hotel, Robert Montgomery dancing with Judith Wood, Tyler Brooke playing a ukulele along with a record, and Helene Millard playing cards with some friends. Though Conrad Nagel is anxiously waiting by the door for Norma Shearer, the object of his affection, she is busy kissing passionately with Chester Morris out by a stream. And when he proposes, she says yes. Nagel drowns his sorrows in booze, and when the party leaves that night to head back to the city, he insists on driving one of the cars even though he’s drunk. Predictably, the car crashes with Millard and her sister aboard and Wood is disfigured in the accident. Later, at the same time Morris and Shearer get married in a huge church, Nagel gets married to Wood in her hospital room. Three years later Morris and Shearer are still madly in love, but when their friends come over to celebrate they bring along Mary Doran, a divorcee that Morris knows . . . too well, in fact. It turns out they’ve been having an affair, and when Shearer confronts Morris he confesses. He tries to play it off as nothing, but it’s clearly something to her. So when Morris goes away that night on a business trip, and Montgomery makes a play for her, Shearer lets herself be seduced. When Morris finds out, of course he’s the one who’s shocked, and hypocritically angry.

At its core the story is a simplified version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, with Morris playing the humiliated Angel Clare, utterly unjustified in his anger and believing himself the injured party. When he begins packing, Shearer warns Morris that if he leaves her he will never be allowed back because she’ll be too busy with other men, and she backs up her threat by divorcing him. In contemporary terms, the film is also a look at the various kinds of divorces people went through at the time, and the different reasons those marriages failed. And while it’s not a piece of high entertainment--the ending is fairly disappointing--it is still a very interesting look back in time. Norma Shearer does a terrific job as the ordinary woman whose world has been turned inside out and has to cope with it the best she can. Though her character was always an independent sort, holding down her own job, it’s still difficult to come to terms with the fact that her entire marriage was a lie. Chester Morris does an adequate job, but nothing many other actors of the time couldn’t have done. And Robert Montgomery acts as a sort of mild comic relief. The production is typical for it’s day, with no film score and actors fairly shouting to be heard over the microphones. The Divorcée isn’t a great movie, but it’s definitely worth taking a look at for it’s pre-code view of life and for the great Norma Shearer.

No comments:

Post a Comment