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Film Friday: "The Divorcee" (1930)

This week on "Film Friday," I bring you a steamy little tale of divorce and infidelity that gave Miss Norma Shearer her only Academy Award for Best Actress.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, The Divorcee (1930) tells the story of Jerry Bernard (Norma Shearer) and Ted Martin (Chester Morris), a young couple blissfully in love, much to the chagrin of their New York socialite friends, including Paul (Conrad) and Don (Robert Montgomery). Paul, who is in love with Jerry, is so distraught when the two announce their engagement that he gets drunk and ends up crashing his car, permanently disfiguring their friend Dorothy (Helen Johnson). Out of pity, Paul marries Dorothy in her hospital bed, while Jerry and Ted spend the next three years happily married. On the night of their third wedding anniversary, however, Jerry discovers that Ted has had an affair with a woman named Janice Meredith (Mary Doran).

After Jerry confronts Ted, he claims that the affair was completely meaningless. During Ted's business trip to Chicago, a lonely and upset Jerry finds comfort in Don's arms. When her husband returns, Jerry tells him that she has "balanced [their] accounts," but Ted refuses to accept her affair and they divorce. "From now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to," she says to him. Jerry then goes through a series of flings and serious affairs, while Ted becomes an alcholic, which eventually leads to his being fired. Meanwhile, Jerry reunites with Paul, who reveals he is still in love with her and willing to leave Dorothy to be with her. Jerry vacations in his yacht and decides to sail to Japan with him until Dorothy begs  her not to take Paul away. Unable to follow through with her plan after Dorothy's plea, Jerry flees to Paris, where, on New Year's Eve, she runs into Ted. Although things are still clearly strained between them, they reconcile, embracing as "Auld Lang Syne" plays in the background.

Ted Martin: Oh please, believe me, darling. It doesn't mean a thing. Not a thing! Doesn't make the slightest difference.

In the summer of 1929, producer Paul Bern convinced MGM head of production Irving Thalberg to purchase the rights to Ex-Wife, a best-seller by first-time novelist Ursula Parrott, which chronicled "the disintegration of a modern, two-career marriage and the wife's subsequent life of parties and one-night stands." Writers John Meehan, Nick Grinde and Zelda Sears were hired to pen the screenplay, but used Ex-Wife as a mere point of departure, ultimately crafting something quite different. According to Mick LaSalle, "While 'Patricia' in the novel remained a sex slave for her husband, the film's heroine, 'Jerry,' all but forgets her husband the second he is out of the door." Apparently, Parrott's book was so scandalous that the Production Code Administration, which ran Hollywood's self-censorship program, forbade MGM from using its original title and asked the scriptwriters to soften some of the more salacious elements in the story.

When Thalberg's wife and protegée, Norma Shearer, heard about the project, which she later renamed The Divorcee, she immediately launched a campaign to get the lead role, which she described as "very strong, almost ruthless. Perfect for me." Shearer's roles at the time included primarily virtuous, ladylike characters, so she was eager to change her screen image and take on parts that were more sensuous. However, Thalberg, who wanted Joan Crawford for the role of Jerry, told his wife that he did not think she was "glamorous" enough and that he considered the role "too undignified" for her. Bern tried to talk Thalberg into casting Shearer, but he was convinced that she would not be believable as a sensual, provocative woman.

Norma Shearer in the Hurrell photoshoot
One day while her friend and fellow actor Ramon Novarro was visiting her on the set of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), Shearer invited him into her dressing room for a chat. She complained that she was very unhappy about the recent roles she was receiving and explained that the studio was preparing a script that she wanted, but Thalberg would not let her have it. During the conversation, Novarro happened to show her a stack of evocative portraits he had recently had taken by a then-unknown young photographer named George Hurrell. Shearer looked through the pictures with obvious interest and then said, smiling, "He may come in handy. I have an idea." Since her husband did not think she was beguiling enough to play Jerry, she figured that if Hurrell could photograph her like a "sex pot," Thalberg would give her the role. Novarro set up a meeting between Shearer and Hurrell, who then put her in a brocade robe, had her wear her hair loose about her forehead and photographed her in a series of sexy poses. When Shearer showed Thalberg the pictures, he was so impressed by the results that he immediately gave her the role. After this photoshoot, Thalberg appointed Hurrell to work as MGM's official publicity photographer, sparking a decade-long association for the portraitist with the studio.

Morris and Shearer
Shearer's leading man in The Divorcee was relative newcomer Chester Morris, one of four children of popular Broadway performers William Morris and Etta Hawkins. His screen career began in silent films with the comedy-drama An Amateur Orphan (1917), directed by Van Dyke Brooke for Thanhouser/Pathé. Morris transitioned very easily to talking pictures, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role as Chick Williams in Roland West's crime melodrama Alibi (1929), his sound film debut. By the mid-to-late-1930s, however, he found himself headlining B pictures such as  Flight From Glory (1937) and Five Came Back (1939). In the 1940s, Morris's career was revived when Columbia hired him to play the title role in Meet Boston Blackie (1941), a jewel thief and safecracker created by author John Boyle in the early 20th century. The film proved successful for the studio to produce a series of 14 B pictures between 1941 and 1949, all starring Morris as Boston Blackie, the character he is best remembered for today.

With Shearer in the lead, Thalberg made sure to give The Divorcee all the attention an MGM first-class production could get. He hired writer Frances Marion, who had penned Shearer's previous film, Their Own Desire (1929), to make some uncredited changes to the script, crafting lines and scenes that would show Shearer off to full advantage. In addition, Tahlberg hired MGM's chief costume designer Adrian to provide a series of gowns that would both highlight Shearer's shapely five-foot-three frame and heighten her transformation from "virtuous" to "sensuous."

Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery
Producing a screen warbrode in early Hollywood was a collaborative process through which a costume designer's vision merged with ideas produced by a committee of studio executives, including a film director and a producer. Therefore, Adrian, who had previously dressed Shearer in A Lady of Chance (1928) and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929), interpreted Thalberg's preferences by designing costumes corresponding to her status as "The First Lady of MGM," which often consisted of "fluttery tulle, fusty tweeds, girl-next-door sportswear, prissy period looks, and the occasional fox fur stole." Shearer's session with Hurrell, however, completely dispensed with her prim MGM image. To make her look "real wicked and sirenlike," Adrian used richer fabrics, such as lamé and brocade, imbuing her gowns with more seductive and revealing cuts. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer was so impressed by Adrian's designs that he had the phrase "Gowns by Adrian" splashed up prominently with the film's opening credits when it premiered in April 1930 and from then on until the costumer resigned from the studio eleven years later.

By the time The Divorcee finished shooting, cast and crew seemed to be pleased with the product they had created. According to Robert Montgomery, Shearer's co-star in four other pictures, including the aforementioned Their Own Desire, "The project screamed success from the word go. Everyone was feeling positive. I knew Norma was happy with her role; they had given her something she could really get her teeth into, and I could sense her elation." Director Robert Z. Leonard, whose credits also include the Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Pride and Prejudice (1940), added: "[Shearer] worked very hard on it. She went over the dialogue again and again she drove us all crazy wanting rehearsals, then endless takes. She would sit with me in the cutting room, muttering to herself. Knowing her anxiety, I would order even more takes to reassure her. Then she'd slap me playfully and hiss, 'Slave driver!'"

Morris and Shearer in a publicity still
The Divorcee was a massive commercial success upon its release on April 30, 1930, grossing over $1,200,000 on a $350,000 budget. Audiences noticed and embraced Shearer's new screen persona, deluging Photoplay magazine with letters praising her. Critics, on the other hand, were somewhat mixed in their assessment of the film. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times commented that The Divorcee "is a competently acted production, with good direction in some of its scenes, but it is virtually a suspenseless affair, particularly as it is garnished with the inevitable embrace in the final fade-out." For their part, Variety considered that the film "missed entirely the spirit" of Parrott's "spicy" novel. Nevertheless, the cast was widely praised for their performances, especially Shearer, whom Variety called "excellent."

At the 3rd Academy Awards held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in November 1930, Norma Shearer won the Oscar for Best Actress and The Divorcee received three additional nominations Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was named Best Picture and gave Lewis Milestone the statuette for Best Director, while Best Writing was awarded to Frances Marion for The Big House (1939), which also starred Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery. Although most in the industry expected Greta Garbo to win for her sound debut, Clarence Brown's Anna Christie (1930), Shearer's victory was the highlight of the ceremony. When  her co-star, Conrad Nagel, stepped into the spotlight to present her with her trophy, Shearer emerged through a velvet curtain, shimmering in a gold lamé Adrian evening ensemble trimmed with brown mink. Her victory dress set a precedent; for the next three decades, most actress nominees turned to studio costume designers for their Oscar attire.

To this day, rumors persist that Thalberg had ordered all of MGM's employees to vote for Shearer. Joan Crawford, who reportedly never Shearer for stealing the role of Jerry from her, was quoted as saying, "What did you expect? She sleeps with the boss."

Conrad Nagel presents Norma Shearer with the Oscar for Best Actress

Mick LaSalle argues that the reason why The Divorcee was a success was because it presented a new kind of woman  a modern, confident and intelligent woman, fully aware of her existence as a sexual being, something that audiences had not seen in films yet.

[Jerry] was the new woman, finding a way toward her own truth in a new world of skyscrapers, honking horns and jazz. [...] Women had changed. So had marriage. [...] The availability of contraception had helped bring the change about, making it possible for married couples to enjoy sex without the dread of pregancy. [...] That sexual satisfaction had become the right of both sexes is reflected in the print advertisement for The Divorcee: "If the world permits the husband to be a philander, why not the wife?" Looked at in the context of its time, The Divorcee promised to thrill audiences by showing just what might happen if the modern wife — confident, fully sexual, and armed with contraception — were turned loose on an unsuspecting world.
(Mick LaSalle)

Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle (2000) | Columbia Pictures Movie Series, 1926-1955: The Harry Cohn Years by Gene Blottner (2012) | Made For Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards by Bronwyn Cosgrave () | Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow by E. J. Fleming (2009) | Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol, 1899-1968; With a Filmography by Allan R. Ellenberger (1999)  | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


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