One year, one film: 1930 – The Divorcee

One year, one film: 1930

The film:
The Divorcee, dir. Robert Z. Leonard
starring Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery, Conrad Nagel

Rating:
Recommended | Highly Recommended | MUST-SEE

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

The “One year, one film” series has reached the pre-code era, and what better way to start it off than with The Divorcee?

This film follows Jerry (Norma Shearer) who is married to newspaperman Ted (Chester Morris). Marital tragedy strikes on their third anniversary, when Jerry learns that Ted has been cheating on her.

Being the hypocrite that he is, Ted gets angry when Jerry turns to his friend Don (Robert Montgomery) to help her deal with Ted’s infidelity. With Ted willing to cheat on his wife but unwilling to stay in an open marriage, the two decide to divorce.

But the drama doesn’t end there — plenty of complication ensues in the wake of Jerry and Ted’s decision.

The Divorcee was one of the first pre-codes I ever watched, and it remains a favorite. Norma Shearer is amazing, and earned an Oscar for her performance. The story is pretty ahead of its time, too, questioning the double standards regarding men and women stepping outside of their marriages. “Her sin was no greater than his… but she was a woman,” proclaims a Picture Play ad for the film.

Reviews of the film seem to have been mixed, though Shearer’s performance garnered near-universal praise at the time of the its release, based on my research. Variety’s review of the film points out that a lot of liberties are taken with the film’s source material, not to the story’s benefit — but the reviewer describes Shearer as “excellent.”

Mourdant Hall of The New York Times, as expected, panned the film. He commends the performances, Shearer’s in particular, but takes great issue with Leonard’s direction and with the adaptation in his May 10, 1930 review.

Reading these contemporary reviews has made me interested to track down a copy of the source novel — perhaps I wouldn’t hold the film in such high regard, had I read the novel and compared the two. Until I can make that comparison, I mark this pre-code drama as a highly-recommended watch.

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6 thoughts on “One year, one film: 1930 – The Divorcee

    • I find it fun, only because I love both books and films so much. I usually like to read the book first and play “spot the difference,” though I’ll judge the film on its own as well. “Irrelevant” seems like a strong word to me since it’s something I enjoy doing as a viewer, but I agree with you in the sense that the two mediums are very different, and a review shouldn’t be solely based on source material comparison. Direct translations from page to screen simply do not work in the majority of cases, so liberties have to be taken. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  1. I agree, Lindsey, it’s fun to look for parallels and differences between a movie and it’s source novel, and I especially like to see how a filmmaker handles a particular favorite scene (or scenes) that I enjoyed from the book. And I’m just the opposite when it comes to ‘which comes first’: I like to see a movie before the book, since to me a book can still seem ‘fresh’ even though I already know the story and characters from watching the film.

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    • That’s a good point re: whether to watch or read first. I recently read The Strange Woman and Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams — both of which I’ve already seen the adaptations of. For Leave Her to Heaven in particular, reading the novel after made me appreciate the story and film in a whole new way, particularly the casting.

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      • Yeah, the books usually offer so much more, it’s almost like reading an expanded ‘director’s cut’ of the movie! Off-hand, I can think of two examples of where I enjoyed the movie more than the book: the original ‘Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ and ‘Soylent Green’.

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