…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
Watching Norma Shearer in the pre-Hays Code film The Divorcee today, it is difficult to believe that she nearly did not play the role, and in turn win her Oscar, due to allegedly lacking sex appeal. At the time, her husband, MGM producer Irving Thalberg, had Joan Crawford in mind for the role of socialite Jerry Martin, believing Shearer lacked the maturity. Swiftly setting up a photo shoot in sexy lingerie with Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, Shearer proved to her husband that she was, indeed, up to the challenge. Crawford never forgave Shearer for snagging the role.
The additional fact that this was a Pre-Hays Production Code film is important to take into account; its subject matter of cheating men and women in marriage was actually quite daring for its time and certainly incensed the Roman Catholic clergy responsible for generating the Code. Certainly if it had been attempted after the Hays Production Code was in force in 1934, this film would not even exist.
Young and fiercely in love, the story follows the progression of a popular couple’s relationship in New York society – Jerry Bernard (Norma Shearer) and Ted Martin (Chester Morris). While the film opens on the announcement of their engagement, it quickly fast forwards to three years into their marriage, following a side story in which one of Jerry’s spurned lovers becomes drunk after the engagement announcement and is involved in a tragic accident that disfigures a female friend’s face (hang in there, this tangent tale comes into play later). On the evening of their third anniversary, Jerry discovers that Ted was unfaithful to her when his smug-faced mistress crashes their anniversary party with friends. Because they made a tacit agreement in their marriage to be open, honest, and without deceptions, Ted argues that the affair was harmless and ‘shouldn’t mean a thing’. Jerry responds in kind by having a one-night fling with Ted’s best friend Don (Robert Montgomery). Though she doesn’t reveal the man she spent the night with out of consideration for the men’s friendship, Jerry does admit to Ted that she has ‘settled accounts’. Furious, Ted leaves her and they eventually divorce; Jerry continues seeing several men to shake off her hurt feelings regarding Ted. Within their close social circles, however, they inevitably keep bumping into one another, and Jerry realizes she must eventually reconcile her conflicting feelings and come to terms with giving their relationship another shot. She especially realizes her desperate foolishness when she is tempted to rekindle her romance with her former spurned lover (Conrad Nagel), now married to the poor, disconsolate yet faithful woman whose face he disfigured in his drunken accident. All in all, The Divorcee discloses an interesting look at the double standard in marital relationships.
What especially struck me while watching The Divorcee was its ability to skirt the potential over-acted melodrama that was often typical of films issued immediately following the advent of talking pictures. The acting doesn’t feel especially forced, and it almost gives off the impression of watching a stage play. This is kudos to director Robert Z. Leonard. There are even some moments of pregnant silence, which make the onscreen telling of this story feel only more natural and less pretentious. In particular, watch how cunningly the sequence of scenes is shot in which Shearer shares her unfaithful night on the town with Montgomery. It’s a brilliant depiction of how pictures tell a thousand words. I also loved a strained moment of quiet between Shearer and Nagel in a train compartment later on in the film, before she hesitatingly breaks down and confesses her folly.
Norma Shearer turns in a deft – if not slightly scattered and unconnected at times – performance as Jerry. Strikingly beautiful and fashionable (her gowns by Adrian are stunning – and she is stunning in them), she manages to radiate a coolness that feels completely natural and indicative of Jerry’s character. When she finds out about her husband’s affair, she becomes a turbulent force to be reckoned with. She doesn’t act out passionately, however. She is calculated, but not so much in a vengeful way towards her husband – more as a ‘what am I do for myself now’ manner. Eventually, her behavior takes a more frenzied and desperate turn. We still sympathize with her, for she is earnestly grappling with finding a man who can truly love and not betray her as her husband did. She could be a romantic fool of sorts, naively believing she can secure an open relationship free of hurts, but she also proves she is wise to the fact that ‘two can play at this game’ where infidelity is concerned. She comes around from her experiences with a maturity that proves that she is not above giving things a second chance.
Out of 6 career nominations, Shearer’s one and only Oscar win for The Divorcee was certainly merited. Look for my comments on another of Shearer’s nominated roles (The Barretts of Wimpole Street) within the next month.