August 11, 2015

Norma Shearer, The Divorcée

Won: Academy Award - Best Actress

The story goes that Norma Shearer wanted to branch out from the typical prim and proper roles she had been playing, and had to send husband Irving Thalberg provocative photos of herself in order to land the part of Jerry. I've always thought this to be an interesting factoid, because as swell as Shearer may be in the part, I'm not sure that "sexy" is a word I would use to describe her here, but rather casual in the sexual sense. Still, it's this very carefree spirit that makes Shearer and The Divorcée so easy to watch. And it's the more serious aspects of Shearer's performance, such as the calculations Jerry makes while out with Robert Montgomery to balance her and her husband's accounts, or the wounded internal conflict she displays when she faces her husband after having committed the deed, her spasm of confident sexual liberation ("from now on, you're the only man in the world whom my door is closed to!"), or her last act realization of how her life is in disarray, this is a refreshingly unique role (of its time) loaded with opportunity. However, I kept getting the ever-so-slight feeling that this wasn't a role that fit Shearer like a glove, that this was the role made for her so to speak. And while I applaud her for wanting to try something different, I couldn't help but wonder how a more brazen actress might have handled it (like a Swanson, or a Joan Crawford, who was alleged to have been campaigning for the part). In other words, I thought that this was a perfectly fine performance, perfectly enjoyable in every sense, but the fact that it fades a little from my memory so soon after watching it shows that it isn't quite a defining role in Shearer's great career. Solid work overall.


  1. For author Mick LaSalle, and he's not alone, The Divorcee is the gateway title into four years of particularly relaxed (or cleverly got around) censorship, now commonly called PreCode. His superb "Complicated Women" counts Shearer and Garbo "the advanced guard" in that era, but he has much praise also Crawford, Harlow, Mae West, Loretta Young, Ann Harding and many others.

    Shearer found Jerry "very strong, almost ruthless." Says LaSalle, "Shearer knew at once the significance of the role. Here was sex without victimhood and virtue without chastity." In the Ursula Parrot originating novel, Jerry’s liberation isn't nearly as defined, and she remains after the divorce something of a sex slave to her ex, Ted. For the screenplay, this was wisely thrown out and Jerry all but forgets Ted the moment he's out the door.

    Through she wanted plenty others too, Jerry in The Divorcee, Jan Ashe in A Free Soul, and Irene in Idiot's Delight are the foremost Shearer roles that Crawford also coveted and their loss cemented an at least 17 year long hostility from Joan. LaSalle makes a strong case that Crawford does not come into her "authenticity" until 1931's Possessed with Clark Gable, and thereafter Crawford also would certainly get her share of daring PreCode women in Sadie McKee, Dancing Lady, and her near-prostitute disguised as stenographer in Grand Hotel.

    But before then, charges LaSalle, "In fact, to imagine Crawford in any of Shearer's roles from 1925 through 1931, the period of Crawford's loudest complaining, is to contemplate a horror. The early Crawford with her practiced facial expressions, false energy and self-conscious speech would have annihilated The Trail Of Mary Dugan and The Divorcee, films she desperately wanted. And the thought of what she might have done to Private Lives and Strange Interlude is gruesome."

    All's well that ends well, and Crawford's own Oscar triumph in the mid-40s, three years after Shearer had to retired to the ski slopes with second husband Martin Arrouge, had to be that particularly sweet for Joan. But Crawford's enmity toward Shearer was always mostly displaced. Each was done more damage by the installation of Joseph Breen as the powerful head of Hollywood's censorship office in mid-1934 than either was ever an impediment to the other.

    1. Have you considered starting up your own blog? Your comments are longer than my actual blog posts :P and I can't help but feel as though your rich commentary would also be greater suited through your own outlet--not that it's unwanted here, just a thought!

    2. :) I'm grateful for that generous compliment, but the fact is I'm already almost every waking hour on the computer as it is with, figuratively speaking, all 10 fingers in a different pie. Your blog has given me another opportunity for great fun. Somebody drops the names of Davis, Hepburn, Crawford, Garbo, Harlow, Dressler, and especially Shearer, I wanna be there to cheer and add. :) Thank you, Allen.

  2. This movie, in many ways, started the pre-code risqué phase in film. Though it's creaky in technical matters the story is much more adult and sophisticated than anything after 1934 when the Code came in. Some of the scenes are audaciously daring and I think both Chester Morris and Norma Shearer give terrific performances. Unfortunately for Montgomery, he was in the midst of his 'hapless-second-male-lead-drunk' period so he serves as little more than a plot fulcrum, but Morris is sinewy, heartfelt, smug and yet quite likeable. Shearer really stepped it up with this one and in scenes with Morris she is both fire (the bedroom kiss-off is great) and ice ("I've balanced our accounts"). She would have better roles in the future that would tax her range more effectively, but for a VERY early sound film this is quite an accomplishment.