Before I get into reviewing the 1930 best picture nominee, The Divorcee, I want to share something that I recently posted on twitter:
I’m not just sharing this because it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever tweeted. I’m also sharing it because it’s a beyond perfect description of Jerry (played, in an Oscar-winning performance, by Norma Shearer), the lead character in The Divorcee. (Whenever you tweet something that is beyond perfect, you’ve earned the right to make sure everyone else knows it.) The Divorcee came out in 1930 so, needless to say, it’s a bit dated but I totally related to the character of Jerry and that’s perhaps the main reason why I enjoyed this film.
The Divorcee tells the type of story that, today, would probably make for a memorable Lifetime film. It’s a film that follows four friends over several years. They are the idle rich, the type who go to parties, dance on tables, and cheerfully ignore the ban on liquor. Jerry (Norma Shearer) loves Ted (Chester Morris). Dorothy (Helen Johnson) loves Paul (Conrad Nagel). However, Paul loves Jerry and when Jerry announces that she and Ted are engaged to be married, Paul doesn’t handle it well. In fact, Paul gets drunk, Paul drives a car with Dorothy in the passenger’s seat, and eventually Paul crashes the car, leaving Dorothy so disfigured that she spends the rest of the movie wearing a black veil.
The years pass. In order to make up for horribly disfiguring her, Paul agrees to marry Dorothy. Jerry marries Ted. They’re happy until they’re not. On the day of their third anniversary, Jerry discovers that Ted has been cheating on her. So, Jerry cheats on Ted. When Ted gets upset, they file for divorce.
Suddenly, Jerry is …. (dramatic music cue) … THE DIVORCEE!
Ted becomes an alcoholic, the type who makes scenes at parties and destroys ornate wedding cakes. In the past, I assume Jerry would have been forced to wear a scarlet D and she would have made it work because there’s nothing that Jerry can’t do. However, since this film takes place in the 1920s, Jerry spends her time flirting and plotting to steal Paul away from Dorothy.
And it would have worked too if not for the fact that Dorothy is a complete and total saint…
Drinking, sex, adultery, disfigurement, and Norma Shearer!? That’s right, this is a pre-code film! The Divorcee is actually a pretty typical example of a type of film that was very popular during the 1930s and actually remains rather popular today. This is a film where rich people do stupid things but look good doing it. When an audience watches a film like this, they can both look down on the rich and vicariously experience their lifestyle. No wonder these movies are so popular!
Anyway, I liked The Divorcee. It’s an incredibly silly little film but it’s hard for me not to enjoy something this melodramatic. Chester Morris and Conrad Nagel are stuck playing heels and Helen Johnson is a bit to saintly but it doesn’t matter because the film is pretty much designed to be a showcase for Norma Shearer, the most underrated of all of the Golden Age actresses. (Far too often, Shearer is dismissed as simply being Irving Thalberg’s wife.) Shearer gives a great performance. She seems to be having the time of her life and it’s fun to watch.
The Divorcee was nominated for best picture but it lost to a far different picture, All Quiet On The Western Front.