Sunday, November 13, 2011

1929/30 - The Divorcee

More celebrity shoulder-rubbing stories from this past week at work. I poured some water for Andie MacDowell, was thanked by Jimmy Fallon, and witnessed a live performance by Coldplay. Other attendees that I spotted at these events were Julianna Margulies, Taraji P. Henson, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John McEnroe, Lorne Michaels, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Here endeth the name-dropping.

Don't forget to vote for the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. The poll is in the right sidebar.

Next up in the contenders vying for 1929/30's Best Picture prize is...

The Divorcee
Robert Z. Leonard
Nick Grindé, Zelda Sears and John Meehan
(based on the novel "Ex-Wife" by Ursula Parrott)
Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Robert Montgomery, Florence Eldridge
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Shearer)

You would be hard pressed to find another film with such a spoiler for a title. The leading lady, Jerry (Shearer), doesn't actually become a divorcee until two-thirds of the way into the story. After marrying former lothario Ted (Morris), she is devastated to learn of his infidelity. Ted is remorseful, asserting that his fling meant nothing and that an affair need not end a marriage. His opinion is quickly reversed, however, when Jerry confesses to an affair of her own. They are summarily divorced and Jerry must now figure out what she really wants out of life.

The Divorcee is melodrama, but it is good melodrama. One might even say that it is restrained melodrama, if that's not an oxymoron. Granted, it is laboured at times. There are even a couple of instances in which dramatic pauses have been quite obviously inserted artificially by the editor. However, the result is a healthy amount of dramatic tension that, for the most part, remains subdued. Yes, the characters are emotionally volatile but there is a pleasing lack of over-the-top explosive arguments.

With a mostly straightforward storyline that grows a little more complex in the final act, The Divorcee is essentially an in-depth exploration of a relationship tainted by infidelity. The script itself is cleverly written and infused with wit. Note, for example, the way in which Jerry admits her adultery by using the phrase, "I've balanced our accounts." Then again, that wit is occasionally offset by some downright strange lines, such as the romantically intended, "I'd like to make love to you 'til you scream for help."

On DVD, The Divorcee is featured in a collection entitled Forbidden Hollywood (which you can buy by clicking on the Amazon link below - pardon the seamless plug), a set that includes films with subject matter that would undoubtedly have been unacceptable once the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced in Hollywood in the mid-1930s. However, as far as Pre-Code films go, this picture is relatively tame. In fact, director Robert Z. Leonard utilises some clever visual techniques that were in abundant use once censorship outlawed anything sexual. When Jerry commits her unfaithful deed, all the audience sees is a curtain closing over the bedroom window. Later, when Jerry is enjoying her bachelorette lifestyle, there is a montage which consists solely of close-ups of her hands being held by a series of different men. Of course, while these scenes themselves may have satisfied the Code's guidelines, the promiscuous behaviour enjoyed by the main character would certainly have been a no-no. Particularly since that behaviour goes unpunished.

Norma Shearer (pictured) won a Best Actress Oscar for her astute portrayal of a woman dealing with life's punches. Her supporting cast delivers a number of intelligent performances, but my favourite is Robert Montgomery, who is shrewdly funny as the calmly neurotic (another oxymoron?) Don.


  1. I thought I'd be able to see this on youtube, but it isn't available. I'll have to wait until Turner Classic Movies shows it again.

    I can offer one bit of trivia. This was the first year that siblings won Oscars. Norma Shearer won the Best Actress Award and her brother Douglas Shearer won the Oscar for Best Sound Recording (for The Big House). Douglas Shearer was a pioneer and innovator in the sound field, who would receive 12 Academy Awards during his distinguished career.

    By the way, so far only one brother and sister duo have won Oscars for acting: Lionel and Ethel Barrymore.

  2. And only one sisters duo also, I believe: Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.

    But no brothers have won. Come on, Beau Bridges!