Pre-Code Blogathon: THE DIVORCEE (1930) – It doesn’t mean a thing

“I’ve balanced our accounts.”

Simple.  Direct.  Refreshing.  In just a few words a woman lets her husband know she’s cheated on him, a few words that could define the pre-code era, its attitudes and mores, a few words spoken by THE DIVORCEE in a film directed by Robert Z. Leonard.

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Norma Shearer and Chester Morris are Jerry and Ted respectively, a young married couple hopelessly in love.  Jerry and Ted are beautiful, full of life, popular, truly happy and devoted to each other – until… their third anniversary when one of Ted’s extracurricular activities who goes by the name of Janice (Mary Doran) shows up at the couple’s home during the celebration.  Jerry walks into the kitchen just as Janice is about to remind Ted all she has to offer him.  Although Ted doesn’t play along he has little choice but to confess his indiscretions to Jerry when she confronts him about it.  Ted tries the old “It doesn’t mean a thing” approach, which is repeated many times in the film referencing the “man’s attitude” toward cheating on a spouse, but Jerry doesn’t buy it.  In truth when trust is breached it’s a tough hurdle to overcome as the couple soon finds out.  Still, Ted goes off on a trip that night knowing Jerry’s hurt, but is satisfied she’ll soon get over it.

Trust is broken.
Trust is broken.

Part of what makes the way THE DIVORCEE deals with infidelity a standout, certainly if the viewer is used to the more conservative films, is its attitude.  This movie succeeds in approaching the subject from the perspective that the characters are equal, which is progressive even for today.  Jerry believes herself Ted’s equal and says so from the moment we first see them when she tells him in no uncertain terms that she won’t wait around while he sows his wild oats.  Or any oat, for that matter. The stage is set from the get-go, intended by the writers who  changed the characters’ names from the novel in which it was based from Paul and Patricia to Ted and Jerry, names that could be attributed to two men both having a “man’s perspective,” which is used as the moral compass in the movie.

Young lovers vow to start a marriage on equal footing.
Young lovers vow to start a marriage on equal footing.

THE DIVORCEE is contemporary even today – the way it thinks, feels and behaves – if one were to attribute such things to a movie – reflect its progressive state of mind.  It is a movie of substance featuring a woman of substance dealing with a typical pre-code subject.  I suppose I may not be the only one who watches THE DIVORCEE and can’t help but compare Shearer as Jerry to Shearer as Mrs. Stephen Haines in George Cukor’s THE WOMEN (1939), another woman forced to face her husband’s infidelity.  At every viewing of either film it occurs to me that Jerry has several times the backbone that Mary Haines has although the resolution of the relationship in both is similar.  The journeys the women take are what set aside the men from the boys, to stay in tune with the “man” theme in this – the “men” being pre-codes and the “boys” being the films that followed, benign representations that weren’t allowed to take risks.  

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Despite the ‘equality’ messaging in the movie the “but she was a woman” made it onto the film’s promotion.

So…the anniversary celebration’s over and Ted’s away.  Jerry tries to forget her worries, perhaps mend her wounded heart by going out on a night on the town with Ted’s best friend Don (Robert Montgomery).  Things don’t quite turn out as intended, however, as we see in a terrific scene at the end of the evening as Jerry makes a shift from innocent to complicit in an emotionally dangerous game of tit for tat.  Let me just say that if she was sitting any closer to Don in the car she’d be behind him (channeling Groucho).  Jerry’s face screams “naughty”…

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…and next we see a window with curtains being drawn, a simple shot that speaks pre-code volumes.  Jerry takes the plunge on her terms – an important distinction that (again) stays true to the “like a man” morality perspective.

Ted’s “it doesn’t mean a thing” loses its believability quickly when the shoe’s on the other foot.  Jerry asks him to put his money where his mouth by confessing her indiscretion hoping his attitude toward his own “sins” translates to hers.  But Ted fails her by reacting in anger – the double standard – which is in essence just “like a man” would react.  Ted loses his cool, becomes belligerent, obsessed with finding out who the man is that Jerry stepped out with.  Jerry is disgusted that Ted lets his pride get in the way of their happiness.  She still loves him, is willing to put the indiscretions behind them and forge ahead in their life together, but Ted can’t live with knowing she cheated on him, which pushes her over the edge.  The “it doesn’t mean a thing” was a lie, as she suspected.  In retaliation Jerry goes on a bender…excuse the pun…determined to prove the old adage, “the looser they are the more they get.”  And boy does Jerry give it a go! – a determined woman who throws caution to the wind for the wrong reasons, but gives “the man’s perspective” an earnest try.

“From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to.”

The filmmakers make a terrific decision to illustrate Jerry’s journey as a newly divorced woman by way of a montage/motif showing her hands that’s worthy of note.  Having focused on Ted and Jerry’s hands when they wed as a symbol of their unity, the hands are now used to contrast that unity with her free-wheeling ways.  Her hands are now put in the limelight in relation to the many men and situations she encounters.  For instance we see how she receives gifts to adorn her hands, new symbols of her new life.  We see the hands at bars and in theater performances – living the high life.  It’s a simple, but effective way to show her digression into immorality, her increased tactile sensitivity, if you will – feeling with her hands rather than her heart and dealing with the world in general in the same manner.  Aggressively, but defensively.

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Norma Shearer who won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the title character in THE DIVORCEE is fantastic in the movie.  She brings gravitas to what could have easily been just another “woman on the make” role.  I really can’t say I’m a huge Norma Shearer fan overall because I think she was too oft prone to posing, remnants of the style of acting used in silent pictures.  However, she brings it to THE DIVORCEE managing a certain – and important – degree of forthrightness in the face of debauchery, which is what elevates her performance (and character).  Shearer’s portrayal of Jerry is what made me a fan and what subsequently made the actress a key player in several outstanding pre-codes.  Ironically, and I learned this lesson not long ago as was the case with Joan Crawford, unless you watch Norma Shearer in her pre-code pictures you can’t get a sense of just how good an actress she was.

Chester Morris is also enjoyable to watch as the romantic lead in this and makes a great partner to Shearer.  Morris manages a layered portrayal of Ted combining leading man charm with a certain degree of danger, which works really well.  Then there’s Robert Montgomery for whom THE DIVORCEE was a breakthrough picture. Montgomery went on to become one of MGM’s most popular leading men after this movie.  Prior to his portrayal of Don Montgomery’s most important work was in Buster Keaton’s first all-talking starring vehicle, FREE AND EASY (1930).

Others in the cast of THE DIVORCEE include the great Conrad Nagel who is relegated to a somewhat pathetic supporting role in this as Paul, the man who Jerry sets aside for Ted, but who remains in love with her.  Paul marries a woman he doesn’t love out of guilt and so he’s destined for a rather bleak life.  Despite his supporting turn in THE DIVORCEE, however, Nagel was still a key player at MGM appearing in ten films released in 1930.

THE DIVORCEE is based on a novel, “Ex-Wife” released the year before the film.  “Ex-Wife” was considered so salacious that it was initially published anonymously.  When MGM acquired the rights the powers that be at the studio agreed to never mention the novel’s title outright, referring instead to the by then known author and credited her work simply as “based on a novel by Ursula Parrott.”  When Irving Thalberg purchased the rights to “Ex-Wife” he commented on the stigma on divorce at the time, which he felt had eased by 1929, which is telling for the time.  Thalberg’s view serves to emphasize in a way how backward films seem in the years following 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code was fully enforced.

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We are nearing the 85th anniversary of the premiere of THE DIVORCEE – April 19, 1930 (IMDB), which is truly unbelievable given the movie still feels so fresh.  Included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two THE DIVORCEE also looks and sounds terrific.  I’ve seen it countless times, far more than any other pre-code and am fascinated by how formidable a film it is.  You can also stream the movie at your leisure on Warner Archive Instant, by the way.

Aside from Shearer’s Oscar win THE DIVORCEE received three other nominations – Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing.  More importantly, audiences loved it which meant many more daring roles for women were on their way.  And all hailed the pre-codes!  And so we all should hail THE DIVORCEE – a standard in the genre that ushered in a wave of memorable women who could with vigor claim “it doesn’t mean a thing” just “like a man.”  This is for them and the men they loved.  A LOT!

To read many more entries dedicated to pre-code films please visit the Pre-Code Blogathon for which this post is intended.  The event is hosted by Pre-Code.Com and Shadows and Satin and is sure to be an eye opener in many ways.

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13 thoughts

  1. Loved your post, Aurora — I don’t know if you knew, but The Divorcee is one of my favorite and most-watched films. (I will forgive you for not being a huge Norma Shearer fan.) My next goal in life is to read Ex-Lady — I hope it lives up to the hype! Thanks for another great contribution to the blogathon!

    1. You’re tio kind. I wanted to say so much about this one I could barely put a sentence together! Norma grows on me with every movie. Her pre-codes especially. I remember you noting your love for this movie in your post on it! 🙂 I’m dying to read Ex-Lady too!

      Great event, thanks for hosting!!

      Aurora

  2. Oh boy – this is the film where I finally realized why Norma Shearer was such a big star. She is totally tremendous and – like all good pre-codes, I agree this film has a very modern feel to it. Great post and a great choice.

  3. You know, I just realized I’ve never seen Norma Shearer in a pre-code movie. I’m kind of lukewarm towards her, but it’s probably because I’ve only seen her in later roles. I think I ought to see this one.

    For what it’s worth – I really like Chester Morris as a romantic lead. He’s unexpectedly good at it, isn’t he? He’s got the profile of a mug, but he’s such a good actor you forget about it.

  4. First-rate, Aurora, thanks! I feel the same way about Shearer re her Pre-Code work—and for that matter, a bunch of people I knew from their later films have to be reappraised in light of the only more recently available Pre-Codes. A lot of film histories were written in the ’70s and ’80s, before these films were sprung from the vaults, and sometimes I find when I’m trying to research them that bios of their directors and actors either don’t mention them at all or only in passing—very frustrating. I admire Shearer for reinventing herself not once but twice, first as a Pre-Code bad girl and then again as a classic cinema doyenne (though I don’t much enjoy those performances). Great comparison with Mrs. Steven Haines and The Women re Pre-/post-Code. The Women, like Philadelphia Story, counsels the cuckolded (wrong word, I know) wife to stand by her man. At least in the Pre-Code there were options…

  5. I initially planned to cover this for the blogathon but due to DVD complications I had to switch to another movie… so super happy to see you do the honour in this marvellous review! This is a film I’ve been wanting to watch for a long time, as I’m so intrigued by Shearer’s ability for self-invention, and also for her portrayal of femininity on screen. It manages to capture that glamour you expect, but still seems real and relatable.

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