Oscar Vault Monday – The Divorcee, 1930 (dir. Robert Z. Leonard)
While I think the Academy definitely made the right choice with their Best Picture winner for the 1929/1930 season (this was before they gave out their awards according to calendar years), there were a few films that year that are way too much fun to ever be forgotten. One of those films was the 1930 film The Divorcee, starring “The Queen of MGM” – Norma Shearer. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one:Best Writing, Best Actress Norma Shearer (won), Best Director, Best Picture. The other nominees that year were The Big House, Disraeli, The Love Parade and winner All Quite on the Western Front.
Legend has it Shearer was not in the running for this role because the studio (which including Shearer’s husband Irving Thalberg) didn’t think the actress had enough sex appeal. She then arranged for a special photo session with famed photographer George Hurrell. When her husband saw the results he gave in and the role was hers. Apparently, Joan Crawford was the original choice for the role and she never forgave Shearer.
From where they were in their careers, I most definitely think Shearer was the better choice for the role of Jerry. Crawford had perhaps too much sex appeal for this role. The key to making this story believable is having a woman in the lead role who is beautiful and, yes, sexy, but one that doesn’t seem like she would ever stray. It would have been shocking if a character played by Crawford didn’t have a lover on the side. I loved Shearer in this role; she was sassy and fun, but also imbued the character post-divorce with this intense longing for her husband and a sense of regret for how she let things play out. For a pre-code film, this movie isn’t really as shocking as you might think. It’s more about misunderstandings, at least in regards to the actions of Shearer’s character.
Chester Morris’ character Ted, on the other hand, really is as low-down as you’d except. After three years of marriage to Jerry he has an affair (or at least is finally caught) – the woman is so brazen she comes to their anniversary party – and when Jerry confronts him, he says it didn’t mean a thing. Ouch. I guess men in these situations (and sometimes women) have been using that line forever. Shearer’s character than decides she might try straying, too. This does causes Morris to promptly divorce her. As despicable as Ted’s actions are, every time he sees his now ex-wife in social situations, the look of utter despair and regret on his face makes you feel almost bad for the jerk.
Complicating things further is Conrad Nagel’s Paul, who was in love Jerry prior to her marriage to Ted. When Ted and Jerry announce their engagement Paul gets drunk, gets in a car accident, which results in the disfigurement of Dorothy (Helen Johnson), who he decides to marry. Years later, after Jerry and Ted divorce, Paul decides it’s time to leave his wife for Jerry. Obviously, drama ensues.
Also in the mix is Ted’s best friend, Don, played by Robert Montgomery. When Jerry finds out about Ted’s indiscretions she and Don go out for drinks which leads to flirting. I’m still not 100% the two did more than that, though Jerry tells her husband that she, “had balanced their accounts,” thus prompting their divorce and setting up the second half of the film.
What’s so wonderful about all these men in this film is what great chemistry they all have with Shearer. Shearer’s Jerry is the perfect example of the late flapper-era socialite, who loves all men and who all men love. This film is hardly shocking by today’s standards, but it’s still ever so fun to watch.
You can purchase this film as part of the Forbidden Hollywood, Vol 2. here.