The Divorcee (1930)
Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard
Written by: Nick Grinde, Zelda Sears, John Meehan (based on Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott)
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Florence Eldridge, Robert Montgomery
Robert Z. Leonard’s film The Divorcee begins on a far more exciting note than 1929’s In Old Arizona (the first film in our marathon), setting a brisk pace and a progressive attitude that never lets up over its 80 minute run-time. The Best Picture nominee was developed primarily as a vehicle for Hollywood superstar Norma Shearer, who picked up an Oscar for Best Actress for playing Jerry, the film’s titular divorcee. The Divorcee opens with a party where love and passion is in the air and jealousies are running high, when suddenly that all comes to a halt with the jarring sounds of a car accident. From there, The Divorcee establishes its consistent tone and rather progressive attitude, imagining women as social and sexual equals to their male counterparts.
The Divorcee follows Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris), a couple who have been married for three years. When Jerry discovers that Ted has been cheating on her, she decides to get even with her husband and sleeps with Ted’s good friend Don (Robert Montgomery). When Ted returns from a business trip, Jerry informs him that she’s “settled their accounts”, and an enraged Ted demands a divorce. From there, The Divorcee turns into a picture chock full of adultery and open sexuality, apparent alcoholism, and melodrama of the highest sort.
Melodrama has always been a major point of interest for me – there’s just something so inherently fascinating about watching the heightened romantic lives of exaggerated on-screen characters. The Divorcee is no different than many of the melodramas I’ve enjoyed in the past – its passions are exaggerated, the situations unlikely, and the consequences non-existent, which is probably what ultimately contributed to my overall enjoyment of it. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is terrific, showing off strength, wit, and independence in every scene of the film – even if some of her actions were questionable. The character of Jerry seems incredibly forward-thinking for 1930, long before the era of screwball comedies where women were believably verbally sparring with men. Her character feels like a living, breathing human being who has believable faults and lovable charms about her, something that the previous film in our marathon was sorely missing. The Divorcee intelligently tackles themes of adultery and human sexuality with a deft – if sometimes clumsy – hand, showing off a great deal of pre-code Hollywood goodness. On top of themes of sexuality and the sanctity of marriage is the rampant use of alcohol – which seems to appear in every major scene in the film. The film’s early accident scene is probably one of the first instances of drunk-driving on the big screen, another instance of progression in this exciting pre-code era. The script by Nick Ginde, Zelda Sears and John Meehan (based loosely on Ursula Parrott’s story Ex-Wife) asks the audience bold questions about infidelity, and paints a brief picture of a strong, modern woman getting even with the man who betrayed her. One of my major problems with The Divorcee is a side story involving Paul (Conrad Nagel) and Dorothy (Florence Eldridge), which only served to add to the film’s melodramatic nature and add some minutes to its runtime. While the side story in general is interesting, it just doesn’t feel natural to include it in what is already a fairly compelling and dramatic story of love gone bad. The film’s ending is another weak point, as it goes against the overall tone and message that I felt the writers and director were trying to portray. The whole experience just feels rather counterproductive in its last ten minutes, which is a damn shame.
The Divorcee is a strong, dramatic film from director Robert Z. Leonard. Its themes of sexuality, infidelity, and divorce were groundbreaking at the time, and hold up rather well all things considered. It’s a film that simply could not have been made in a post-Hays Code era, at least not on this scale. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is very strong, realistically portraying a strong, independent, free-thinking female protagonist. Overall, Leonard’s film is a mostly strong take on an all-too taboo subject – divorce. It falls apart slightly in its final minutes, and features some unnecessary plot elements, but the positives outweigh the negatives here. The Divorcee is worth seeing for its forward-thinking screenplay, its charming melodramatic nature, and for Shearer’s performance alone. It’s recommended.