Things I Love About The Divorcee (1930)
I could watch The Divorcee over and over again (and I do)!
Starring three of my favorite pre-Code performers – Norma Shearer, Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery – this film has it all. Great story, acting, set design, costumes, dialogue – I just love it. Here are some of the reasons why:
- The way the film quickly and efficiently, with just a few glances and words, establishes the heart’s desires of the main characters – Dorothy (Helen Johnson, later known as Judith Woods) is in love with Paul (Conrad Nagel), who only has eyes for Jerry (Norma Shearer), who has just consented to marry Ted (Chester Morris). It’s a great, economical set-up in only a couple of minutes.
- Norma Shearer’s wardrobe. Her gorgeous gowns were by famed designer Adrian, including a form-fitting black dress and matching head wrap, and a memorable bronze number with a plunging neckline. But my favorite outfit was a simple jumpsuit with batwing sleeves and flared legs that she wore early in the film. I would cheerfully pay somebody to recreate it for me.
- The car crash scene – or, more specifically, the performance of Helene Millard, as Dorothy’s sister, Mary (who was seen with Shearer and Robert Montgomery the previous year playing Shearer’s stepmother in Their Own Desire). First off, Millard has the best scream this side of Fay Wray. And she’s so veddy, veddy dramatic – one minute feebly insisting that she’s unhurt, the next literally fighting to see her sister, certain that she’s dead. Then, after begging to see Dorothy’s mangled face, repeatedly exclaiming her hope that her sister does die, because she was “so pretty.” And finally, going completely bonkers on Paul: “Oh, you! YOU! You dirty, rotten beast! I told you not to drive! I’ll tell you, if you killed my sister, you’ll pay for this! Got drunk just because Jerry turned you down. You quitter! You rotten, rotten quitter! Do you hear me, I’ll make you pay for this! If you wrecked my sister’s life, I’ll make you pay for this! I’ll make you pay for this!” Whew.
- The contrast between Ted’s efforts to convince Jerry of the inconsequential nature of his fling and his over-the-top response when he learns of hers. After admitting his infidelity, he contends ad nauseum that it “doesn’t mean a thing,” and even urges his wife to “snap out of it.” But when Jerry reveals that she has turned the tables on him and “balanced our accounts” – oh, brother! Paul first laments that “it can’t be true. Why, I always thought that you were the most decent thing in the world.” Later, he gets drunk and acts a complete fool at a wedding reception (“I’ll go through this crowd like a high wind!”), and then back home, he packs his clothes to leave, telling her, “You’ll get along all right. You’ve made a pretty good beginning.” Jackass.
- The way we learn that Jerry has a one-night stand with Don (Robert Montgomery). After three brief scenes, containing no dialogue, lasting a total of about 45 seconds, we know exactly what has happened. The first shows Jerry and Don at a table in a nightclub. Don covers Jerry’s hand with his, she flashes him a slightly mournful smile, and he leans in close. Next, Jerry is seen reclining in Don’s arms in the back seat of a vehicle. And, finally, we see, from the outside, the windows of a dimly lit room as the drapes are closed. That’s it. That’s enough.
- The comic relief supplied by Zelda Sears, who played Jerry’s maid, Hannah, and who also wrote the treatment for the film. She has a small role – just pops in now and again to utter a few one-liners and then she’s on her way. My favorite is the scene where she tells Jerry that she’d like to leave early because she has a date with the butcher. When Jerry slyly asks if his intentions are honorable, Hannah sighs heavily and rejoins, “I’m afraid they are. He just wants to keep a good customer.”
- Watching Norma Shearer prepare the morning coffee. I actually replaced my Mr. Coffee with a percolator because of this scene.
- Finally, this monologue, from Norma: “And I thought your heart was breaking like mine. But instead you tell me your man’s pride can’t stand the gaffe. . . . I’m glad I discovered there’s more than one man in the world while I’m young and they want me. Believe me, I’m not missing anything from now on. . . . Loose women great, but not in the home, eh, Ted? The looser they are, they more they get. The best in the world, no responsibilities. Well, my dear, I’m going to find out how they do it. So look for me in the future where the primroses grow. And pack your man’s pride with the rest. And from now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to!”
I could go on, but I’ll stop here — I don’t want to do my usual and give away the whole movie! Just this: if you haven’t seen The Divorcee, see The Divorcee. (You can find it in the TCM DVD collection, Forbidden Hollywood, Volume Two.) And if you’ve seen it already, treat yourself and watch it again!