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A TRIBUTE TO THE GROUND-BREAKING FILMS OF THE
Hello, fellow movie buffs. This page is our tribute to the ground-breaking work of filmakers of the 1920's and 1930's. We will offer our views and reviews of selected films from those eras, and at the same time give you the opportunity to tell us what you think. Take a second to check out our links section.
We are graduate syudents just about ready to be unleashed upon the world. Since we are in our final year, we have some time to kill. We figured it would be fun to give this home page a try.
First, it should be emphasized that we are aiming for quality, rather than quantity. For any given week, we may review no more than one or two movies, but we will try to make each review as detailed and informative as possible. In addition to our discussion of a particular film's content, we will try to provide our readers with a list of credits, hypertext links to other databases, and some background information about stars, directors, production, etc., where possible. Each of us will give his own review and separately rate the movie, using one to five film clip icons. The rating system will be as follows:
Abysmal. Completely lacking in merit -- bad acting, writing, cinematography,
Poor. One or two redeeming qualities, but inferior overall.
Average. Not outstanding in most respects, but worth a viewing.
Good. Solid acting, writing, cinematography, etc. Superior in many respects.
Excellent. A true classic. Superior acting, writing, cinematography, etc. Few, if any, flaws.
The Divorcee (1929)
Norma Shearer. . . .Jerry .............................................. Studio . . . . Metro-Goldwyn Mayer
Chester Morris . . . . Ted ............................................... Director . . . . Robert Z. Leonard
Conrad Nagel . . . . Paul ................................................ Screenplay . . . . John Meehan,
Robert Montgomery . . . . Don ........................................... Nick Grinde, and Zelda Sears
Florence Eldridge . . . . Helen ......................................... Based on the novel Ex-Wife , by
Helene Millard . . . . Mary .................................................. Ursula Parrott
Robert Elliott . . . . Bill .................................................... Photographed by Norbert Brodine
Mary Doran . . . . Janice ................................................. Edited by Hugh Wynn and Truman
Tyler Brooke . . . . Hank ..................................................... K. Wood
Zelda Sears . . . . Hannah ............................................... Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons
George Irving . . . . Dr. Bernard ..................................... Gowns by Adrian
Helen Johnson . . . . Dorothy
Running Time: 83 minutes.
.......... The Divorcee is the story of a marriage crumbling before our very eyes. Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) marry, much to the chagrin of Jerry's would-be suitor, Paul (Conrad Nagel). By all accounts, Jerry and Ted are the picture of marital bliss. Then, without invitation, a woman named Janice (Mary Doran) appears at the couple's apartment. The trouble with Janice is that she is Ted's mistress. When Jerry discovers Ted's infidelity, Ted assures her that it was just a one night stand that didn't mean a thing. Not surprisingly, Jerry is not soothed by this declaration. Jerry "evens the accounts" by sleeping with Don (Robert Montgomery), Ted's best friend. When Jerry confesses, Don suddenly realizes that infidelity does mean something. It means enough to Ted that he divorces Jerry. From that point forward, Jerry and Ted undertake a journey of self-discovery during which Jerry dates a bit. Can they arise above this morass and be happy together? Watch the movie for that answer.
..........Before I attempt to analyze the movie, first let me say, I made the mistake of reading other people's analyses of this picture before I watched it. From reading those reviews, I fully expected to dislike this film. Over the years, many writers have dismissed The Divorcee and Norma Shearer as nothing more than fluff, lacking in substance and appealing on only a very superficial level. These analyses tend to focus on the gossip surrounding Norma Shearer rather than the merits of the film itself. I hope I can do better than that.
..........The usual read on The Divorcee is that upon divorcing Ted, Jerry turns into a loose woman with questionable morals. I did not read the film this way. Surely, Jerry dates, but whenever she is confronted with intimacy, she refuses the man's advances because she only truly loves one man. Why the willingness to transform Jerry into a harlot?-- I think it stems from the double standard that men who divorce are still great guys while women who divorce are fallen and worthy of shame.
..........I read the film instead to show a woman who tests the theory that adultery is nothing (ie, sex can be separated from love), and in the end realizes that her initial reaction to Ted's infidelity is the more honest reaction. Her fling with Don wreaks such havoc on her that she cannot sleep with a man with whom she is not in love. In that sense, her infidelity is a learning process, and like most educational endeavors, it comes at a certain price to the student. This reading seems to mesh better with the overall emotional structure of the film than the usual "Jerry is a slut" reading.
..........The Divorcee is a significant work dealing with the issue of infidelity and the terrible effects the act can have on both spouses. Unlike many other films, this picture does not belittle or make light of the act of adultery. To be sure there are many comedic elements to The Divorcee, but the comedy does not undercut the emotional structure of the film. Indeed, the comedy in the opening third of the movie, when Jerry and Ted are "happily married," provides a wonderful contrast to the despair they feel in the middle third of the film. This contrasting allows the film to convey a definite mood of seriousness without ever journeying into the all-too-familiar land of the melancholy. Overall, the writing here is absolutely superb.
..........Not only is the plot well written, the dialogue is nicely done too. Never once did I think, "God, I'd never say anything like that" or " Wow, this is really dated material." Rather, I found the dialogue to be as modern as anything Hollywood has produced within the last twenty years, and a lot better than most of it. In fact, the exchanges between Jerry and Paul are precious. Souls are bared and feelings are uncovered, and not once does the viewer feel as though he or she is being manipulated. It's real and we feel for them. That is character development, and that's what makes or breaks a movie.
..........Most of the criticism of this film has centered around Norma Shearer's acting. Shearer won an Oscar for the film, and clearly many people begrudge her that honor to this day. Much is made of her relationship with MGM executive Irving Thalberg. The usual account of the situation is that she received special treatment from the academy due to Thalberg's clout in Hollywood. This is the stuff of Hollywood legend and should not prejudice the viewer against either Norma Shearer or the film itself. I'd rather concentrate on the substance of Ms. Shearer's acting.
..........Norma Shearer was not a great actress but neither was she a poor actress. She was, in fact, a very good actress with moments of both greatness and moments of less than greatness. The worst part of her acting in The Divorcee was her tendency to look right at the camera, especially when she was trying to convey sadness or despair. It did have the effect of interrupting the voluntary suspension of disbelief from time to time, but it in no way was so constant as to render her performance not worthy of much praise, for there is much to praise in her acting in this film.
..........The greatest part of her acting as Jerry was her ability to become Jerry. She made Jerry, arguably not a very sympathetic character, vulnerable--human. When the film ends, we know Jerry, probably lots of Jerrys, and we care about whether she is happy or not. This is the actor's part of character development, and it is as critical as the writer's part. Norma Shearer pulled it off, and for that alone she deserves praise.
..........Robert Z Leonard did a very nice job of directing this picture. The most notable feature of his direction is that he did not so obviously manipulate the audience as we so often see in current Hollywood fare. An excellent example of this is when Jerry begins to date. All we see is a series of clips in which Jerry is holding a man's hand. From these simple shots Leonard conveys to the viewer that Jerry in some way is not the innocent Jerry of the beginning of the film. There are other examples of Leonard's subtleness, but I will leave these gems for the reader's own discovery.
..........Notwithstanding the above, Leonard's direction was not flawless. There are awkward moments which Leonard could have solved. One irritating problem was that we are told that Ted will return on Friday. Then Leonard cuts away to a placard which reads "Friday." Why?--we see Ted getting out of the cab, and we were just told he is coming on Friday. Logical conclusion?--IT'S FRIDAY! This may seem like a small point, but it really is one of the few instances in which we become aware of the director's influence over the picture, and it's annoying.
..........Another problem is that in one part of the picture there is a disfigured lady. She makes an appearance with a veil. This seems out of place. We didn't need her in the scene to begin with, and we certainly didn't need her in the scene with a schlocky veil over her face. It's just a touch di stracting.
..........The last concern is that at one point Ted calls Jerry to apologize for his misdeeds. Jerry readies herself to go out, and just as she leaves the door, the phone rings. Leonard should have demanded that Jerry be allowed to answer the telephone. What a rich, textured exchange could have been had. Instead we are left dissatisfied by a near miss; the drivel on which much of current soap opera plots are based. This could have given Shearer the chance to really shine; instead, she missed what could have been the scene of a lifetime. Pity.
..........Overall, The Divorcee is a wonderful film. It does not deserve the cloud that has been placed over it. It is worth a look. Don't be put off by the age of the film or the fact that it's black and white. It is well preserved and rather nicely photographed. Watch and you will see a modern story about modern problems dealt with in a graceful manner. My rating -- .
..........Although released in 1930, this superb film owes many of its stylistic and thematic nuances to the 20's. Writing about The Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitgerald once noted that it was a glittering, glamorous time when "all the gods had died," and in The Divorcee , we are indeed confronted with a hedonistic lifestyle that threatens both emptiness and loss of self. Although the intermittent party scene montages are replete with vibrantly beautiful images --well-pressed tuxedoes, sumptuous evening gowns, crystalline glasses filled with glowing champagne, etc.-- they leave a decidedly hellish impression, blasting across the screen in kinetic blurs of meaningless social idiosyncracy and cacophonous period music. Nevertheless, this should not turn viewers away from the film, because it contains numerous moments of true pathos, something which Fitzgerald was often unable to accomplish. in his masterful treatments of the era.
..........The emotional nexus of The Divorcee is Jerry, a character brought to painful life by the bravura performance of Norma Shearer.* Unlike the rather detached narrator of The Great Gatsby, Jerry is fully subjected to the destructive social forces of her day, and as we are pulled along in her quest for both psychic and sexual integrity, we come to know just how difficult an odyssey it is. Now, with regard to the early stages of the film, I must admit that I did not find Jerry to be very sympathetic. Giddy as a vapid schoolgirl over her engagement to Ted (Chester Morris), she flits all about the lodge where she is vacationing with family and friends. The cavalier disregard that she shows for her former suitor Paul (Conrad Nagel) seems particularly harsh, given that he is so obviously upset by her impending marriage. On the eve of her third anniversary, however, when Ted admits to an allegedly isolated act of infidelity with Janice (Mary Doran), she becomes fully and beautifully human for us, and remains so throughout the rest of the picture.
..........The thing that tortures Jerry the most, driving her to despair and almost to madness, is Ted's proclamation that Janice means "nothing" to him. Uttered in an attempt to mitigate the hurt and anxiety that Jerry feels, it instead presents her with an irresolvable conundrum -- while she does not want Ted to be in love with Janice, she is profoundly hurt by the fact that he has betrayed their own love with an emotionless act of sexual gratification. Given this, it seems that her subsequent infidelity with Don (Robert Montgomery) is not motivated only by a desire for revenge, but also by a need to understand how one can have intercourse with a person that he or she does not love. Predictably, her one-night stand fails to produce such understanding, pushing her into a string of subsequent "affairs" which, in my opinion, represent nothing more than her attempts to find a man who feels the same way that she does about love and sexuality. Although one critic has said that The Divorcee is driven by "a plot that seems to allow its entire cast to bed one another," I find this to be a very unsophisticated reading of the film, and I agree with Boomer's contention that Jerry does not actually sleep around after her interlude with Don. This is suggested by a relatively late scene between Jerry and a dark foreign man who is attempting to seduce her in the sleeping car of a train. Rebuffing all his advances, Jerry tells him that he does not love her, but instead feels for her what a gorilla feels when calling to its mate.
..........As for the resolution of the film -- well, I hope that many of our readers will have the opportunity to discover that for themselves. The Divorcee is by no means perfect, because, as Boomer has already mentioned, it suffers from certain flaws in production, as well as occasional moments of sub-par acting. Still, one has to applaud the movie for its unflinching treatment of very difficult issues, a treatment which was undoubtedly quite risque for its time. Both dated and timeless, it shows us not only the moral decay of a particular period in our country's history, but also the way in which people confusedly hurt the ones they love the most. My rating -- .
*Note: Despite the fact that Norma Shearer's acting has been much maligned, and that many have attributed her status within MGM to nepotism, I strongly encourage our readers to do one thing -- REDISCOVER HER. She possesses all of the attributes that go into the iconographic ideal of the 30's leading lady -- a pale, luminous face, sensuous mannerisms, and a persona that is at times icy, at others profoundly vulnerable. A personal favorite of mine, just in case you couldn't tell
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