Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Divorcee

Back in August 2010, when Norma Shearer was one of the stars given a day of films in TCM's Summer Under the Stars, TCM ran The Divorcee, which I wrote deserved a full-length post of its own. TCM doesn't run The Divorcee all that often, but it's getting another airing tomorrow morning at 11:45 AM.

The movie starts off at a vacation house somewhere out in the country, where a bunch of wealthy twenty-somethings of the late 1920s have gathered for a party. It's not quite the free love of the 1960s, but it seems as if the romantic attachments between various members of the group could be fluid. Among the leaders of this set are Jerry (Norma Shearer), the vivacious lady every man wants to be with. Paul (Conrad Nagel) loves Jerry, but she eventually secides to marry Ted (Chester Morris), much to everybody's surprise. Paul, for his part, decides to marry another woman, and they all live happily ever after.... Or do they?

You should be able to figure out that they're not going to live happily ever after, at least not until the last reel of the film, if at all. Oh, this movie makes it look at first as though they're going ot live happily. After Jerry marries Ted, the movie fast forwards three years to their third anniversary, bu which point they're living in a wonderfully luxurious New York apartment, and still hanging out with much the same social circle, which is mostly organized by Ted's friend Don (Robert Montgomery). At a party for their anniversary, Jerry learns that Ted hasn't been entirely faithful to her. Jerry's rather more liberal than the Anne Baxter character in My Wife's Best Friend, but Jerry is still hurt by her husband's infidelity, even though he says it means nothing to her. Jerry decides she's going to get back at him.

She does so by going out with the other men in their social circle. But while it's perfectly OK for a man to sleep with other women, a woman who sleeps with other men is apparently a slut or something, even though a movie like The Divorcee released back in 1930 could never use such langauge. Not that this particular movie would use it even if it could; it's much too elegant for that. No; The Divorcee just makes its moral point by having Ted get righteously indignant over Jerry's infidelity because it's somehow different from his. The two get a divorce, and go their separate ways. Jerry goes to Paris, and eventually runs into Paul, who by this time is no longer happily married. So the two of them start up an affair, but you know there's no way it can work out in the long run....

There's something about The Divorcee that I find a bit, if not maddening, then at least not quite right. I'm not certain if it's the morals: The Divorcee certainly isn't accepting of the double standard, and yet the ending does seem to bring everything else Jerry did during the movie into question. There's nothing wrong with ambiguous morality, but here, the morals seem almos indecisive. Also, I get this feeling watching The Divorcee as though there's some action missing, as the movie jumps too quickly from the opening scenes in which Jerry and Ted decide to get married, to their third anniversary, to Jerry's carousing, to Jerry as divorcée. I get this impression that there needs to be something more holding everything together. I don't think it helps that, being an early talkie, you have a few scenes that look slow because of the technical constraints.

That's not to say The Divorcee isn't a good movie. It's excellent, down almost entirely to Norma Shearer's performance. She's the constant center of attention, and deservedly so, as for most of the movie her character's motivations are perfectly understandable, up until that ending. The supporting cast is good, with Robert Montgomery standing out a bit more than the others playing a role that presages all those elegant gentlemen he played throughout the 1930s. The Divorcee received a DVD release on one of Warner's pre-Code box sets, so even though TCM doesn't show it all that often, you can still watch it whenever you want.

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