The Divorcee (Leonard, 1930), starring Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery, Conrad Nagel et al.
What to say about this delicious film? I don’t even know where to start, except by saying that this is a truly interesting example of pre-Code cinema and that I think anyone interested in the era should watch it. At its very base, it deals with sexual freedom and especially with the idea of the “single standard” that came about particularly in the flapper age. The main character of this movie does not want to avoid the institution of marriage; she wants to remake it from the inside out. When she finds out that her husband’s infidelity “doesn’t mean a thing” but hers most certainly does, she walks out. This is, I think, crucial. She doesn’t leave because her husband cheated; that, she could forgive. She leaves because he advocates a certain attitude toward infidelity that he refuses to put into practice once it’s her in the guilty seat. I think that is what makes this film so interesting, and so modern. It is at its very heart about equality.
It is also interesting because it was the start of a completely different phase in Norma Shearer’s career. Though she wasn’t originally shortlisted for the lead role in this film, she campaigned for the role (against the wishes of her own producer husband, who didn’t think she was glamorous enough) and eventually won it. It would prove defining for her star persona and pre-Code career, and she would reprise similar roles in Let Us Be Gay, Strangers May Kiss and A Free Soul.
In terms of Shearer’s career, this film is also interesting in comparison to The Women, which she would make in 1939. The plots are so similar, and yet so very different. I think perhaps the main characters’ names illustrate this difference nicely; in The Divorcee, Shearer is named Jerry, a man’s name and certainly modern - in The Women, she’s called Mary, the most feminine, classic, old-fashioned name in existence. The movies’ plots mirror this contrast.