Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: The Divorcee (1930)
  • Standing: Best Picture Nominee for 1929/30
  • Type: Romance, Drama, Pre-Code
  • Other AA Nominations: Best Director (Robert Z. Leonard), Best Writing (John Meehan)
  • Other AA Wins: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Norma Shearer)
  • Director: Robert Z. Leonard
  • Studio/Producer: MGM / Robert Z. Leonard
  • Cast: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Robert Montgomery, Florence Eldridge, Mary Doran, Judith Wood, Helene Millard, Theodore von Eltz
  • Production Notes: Based on the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott and written for the screen by Nick Grindé, John Meehan, and Zelda Sears; Cinematography by Norbert Brodine, Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons, Costumes by Adrian
  • Viewing Order: 11/270
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MGM poster for The Divorcee

Summary & Viewing Experience:

A group of jovial young friends are enjoying a weekend away together at a rustic hotel, dancing, joking around, and playing cards. Paul (Conrad Nagel) waits eagerly for the object of his affection, Jerry (Norma Shearer), to return from an outing, but she is at that minute being proposed to by her boyfriend Ted (Chester Morris). While Paul pines for Jerry, the beautiful and meek Dorothy (Helen Johnson) pines for Paul. Having the most fun is Ted’s best friend, the frivolous Don (Robert Montgomery), who can’t help but flirt with every female in the room. Jerry and Ted return and gleefully announce their engagement, to the dismay of Paul who dives headfirst into the contents of a liquor bottle. When it comes time to drive home, the intoxicated Paul insists on manning the wheel and faithful Dorothy, eager to be by his side no matter his condition, jumps in too. The passengers try to get Paul to slow down, but in his drunk and distressed state he speeds along the winding roads and loses control of the car which crashes, permanently disfiguring Dorothy. Paul is guilt stricken and feels obliged to do right by Dorothy, even though he does not love her.

Juxtaposed with Jerry and Ted’s lavish church wedding filled to the brim with guests and flowers is Paul and Dorothy’s somber ceremony in Dorothy’s hospital room, the bride and groom covered with bandages and only Dorothy’s sister and a nurse as witnesses.

3 years later and Jerry and Ted are as happy as they’ve ever been. On the eve of Ted’s business trip out of town, some friends show up at the house including best friend Don and a female guest named Janice (Mary Doran), a stranger to the rest of the party who claims she knows Ted…

After a private exchange in the kitchen between Ted and Janice, it’s revealed that they had a one night stand a month ago when he was drunk, a mistake Ted desperately regrets and hopes to keep from Jerry. Unfortunately, her suspicions are aroused when she walks in on the discussion just as Janice puts her arms around Ted. Jerry later confronts Ted and he confirms the affair. Ted is remorseful, but to him the affair was a mistake that will eventually be forgiven because he loves Jerry and doesn’t have feelings for Janice so it shouldn’t matter. To Jerry, her entire world has just blown up so when Ted repeats, “It doesn’t mean a thing. Not a thing,” it’s symbolic of how differently each sees the situation. The affair may not have meant anything to Ted, but to Jerry it means everything.

Ted leaves for his business trip thinking that everything will have worked itself out by the time he returns. Jerry, feeling betrayed and wounded, seeks solace in booze…and Don, ending the night with him at his apartment…

Now Jerry and Ted are even and soon he knows it, but unlike Jerry, Ted isn’t willing to see them as equal offenders. When Jerry uses Ted’s own words back at him and pleads, “Isn’t it a rather good time to remember what you said, that ‘it doesn’t mean a thing’?” Ted disagrees. His hypocrisy makes Jerry realize that though she perceived them as equal partners in their relationship, he clearly didn’t, or at least his pride won’t let him.

Shearer’s Jerry is on fire when she delivers a blow for equality beginning with “And I thought your heart was breaking like mine, but instead you tell me your man’s pride can’t stand the gaff!” She tells Ted off as a hypocrite and vows to be as bad as he thinks she is.

They begin divorce proceedings and Jerry makes good on her threat, collecting boyfriends and jewelry, dressing in sexy gowns, and living it up. Among the men who can’t help but gravitate toward her is old friend Paul, still desperately in love with her and prepared to leave Dorothy. His unconditional love, despite her new playgirl reputation, is intoxicating to Jerry, but there’s still that nagging love for Ted, now an alcoholic who drinks to forget Jerry and the mistakes he made…

Who will end up with who and who will end up heartbroken?

When I hinted in 1928/29’s summary that one of the films for this 1929/30 season was a favorite of mine, I was eluding to The Divorcee. I first saw it a few years ago when I bought the fabulous TCM Archives – Forbidden Hollywood Collection (Vol. 2) which included this film. It blew me away then and continues to. Shearer is electric in this role. Even sometimes in the female powerhouse era of pre-code Hollywood films, the female character starts out in a firestorm of feminism, but is eventually put back into her “proper place” (see The Love Parade). Not so in this film. Jerry sticks to her guns and demands marriage equality, and, best of all, the film backs her on it! It is clear, through the dialogue and the way we are made to see Jerry as both a levelheaded and sympathetic character, whose side we should be on in the argument.

Not only does it hold up for modern audiences, the film is packed with wonderful actors and performances. Chester Morris is one of those actors who I’ve noticed is often dismissed as arm candy or un-exciting next to his female counterpart, but I think he always plays his part admirably and especially in this film as Ted. Robert Montgomery (future father of Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery) is a completely lovable heel as Don. He adds a certain brightness to scenes and is afforded some fabulous one-liners as the comic relief. Conrad Nagel as Paul is Ted’s perfect rival for Jerry’s affection as he leads his character with a steady, soothing hand and is both handsome and charming enough to compete. It really is a toss up which one she may pick (if any!).

Only a year later and the drunk performances by Morris and Montgomery in The Divorcee come across as far superior and funny than the ones in the other Morris Best Picture nominee Alibi. Less is more!

I also highly appreciate the cleverness and artistry of a film about sex where sex is never shown. Through characters’ expressions (Jerry’s determined stare in the car heading back to Don’s apartment prior to their affair is fantastic) and clever camera shots and montages (the lights going out in the apartment to signify sex, Jerry’s hands being seen in a sequence of shots and voiceovers with other men’s hands signifying the amount of lovers she’s taken, etc.), we know exactly what’s going on without anyone having to take their clothes off. Again, less is more!

Behind the Scenes:

Among the supporting cast was Zelda Sears who not only starred as Jerry’s outspoken cook Hannah in the film, but who also co-wrote the screenplay.

Though she was MGM’s “Queen of the Lot” and married to MGM’s head of production Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer had to fight hard for this role. First choice Joan Crawford, Shearer’s chief rival at MGM, was a more logical fit on the surface, as sexy came natural to her, while Shearer’s image was more or less buttoned up. No one, not even her husband, could see her successfully playing “good girl gone bad” Jerry, but Shearer was determined. She scheduled a sexy photoshoot with camera genius George Hurrell, and the sultry images convinced MGM’s top brass that she could pull it off. Though Crawford would have probably done a fine job, Shearer is dynamite in this role and (rightly) ran away with that year’s Best Actress Academy Award in the bargain.

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The photoshoot that convinced Thalberg. Photo by George Hurrell. 

Why was it nominated for Best Picture?

This “adults only” picture was based on Ursula Parrot’s popular novel Ex-Wife, though MGM was loathe to admit it – perhaps to avoid the wrath of Will Hays, as the subject matter in the novel was seen as even more scandalous than the film. The sexy and provocative plot had all of the country talking (and buying tickets- it did extremely well at the box office), though it was also seen as sophisticated and emotionally sound, enough to elevate it to Academy Awards level.

How does it hold up today?

Fairly well. Regardless of their overall opinions of the film, most modern critics and viewers seem to agree that it’s refreshing to see a film of this time take on the double standard of male vs. female sexuality.

  • IMDb rating = 6.8 out of 10
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating = 75% out of 100% fresh by critics (6 fresh vs. 2 rotten) and 63% by viewers

Would this be my pick for 1929/30’s Best Picture?

So far, yes. Though I can’t see anything terribly innovative about it (aside from the ahead of its time concept of marriage equality), it is an incredibly enjoyable film. All of the elements fit perfectly together and there really isn’t a scene I would change or do without.

Click here for my complete ranking of 1929/30’s Best Picture Nominees