One year, one film: 1930
The Divorcee, dir. Robert Z. Leonard
starring Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery, Conrad Nagel
Recommended | Highly Recommended | MUST-SEE
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.