Norma Shearer

Book vs. Movie: The Divorcee

The Divorcee Movie Poster.

When you’re talking about essential films from the pre-Code era, 1930’s The Divorcee easily ranks near the top of the list, along with movies like Red-Headed Woman, Baby Face, and The Story of Temple Drake. But by the time the movie was released, it wasn’t the first time the story had made an impact on pop culture. The Divorcee is based on the 1929 novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrot. Her story about a woman who engages in a series of affairs after her marriage ends was so scandalous at the time that it was initially published anonymously and ultimately helped set the stage for many other stories about single women that would come in later years. So how do the book and the movie compare?

Book vs. Movie Differences

As was the case for A Free Soul, The Divorcee is a pretty loose adaptation of its source material. They’re both about a woman who sees several different men after her marriage ends, which is caused by her having an affair with her husband’s best friend. Eventually, she falls in love with a man who is married to a woman he feels obligated to stay married to after she is disfigured in a car accident he caused. She decides that partying and seeing many different men isn’t right for her and later decides to settle down. That’s about as far as the similarities go.

Chester Morris and Norma Shearer in The Divorcee.

If you watched The Divorcee and thought the character of Ted (played by Chester Morris, named Peter in the book) was a real piece of work, the movie version of the character is actually the significantly more likeable version of the character. I didn’t even get 20 pages into the book before I was rooting for Pat (named Jerry in the movie, played by Norma Shearer) to have no regrets about this marriage ending because he is so jaw-droppingly awful. While Jerry and Ted are childless in the movie, Pat and Peter do have a baby in the book. However, Peter wasn’t exactly thrilled about parenthood and when their infant son dies unexpectedly, Peter is unbothered and can’t understand why Pat struggles with the loss. He’s just happy to have a thin wife again. When Pat and Peter spend an evening together years later, the subject of their deceased child comes up and his response is basically, “You’re still going on about that?” The book also details some domestic violence from Peter, most notably an incident when Peter threw Pat through a glass door, causing injuries serious enough to require stitches. (Don’t worry — even though Jerry and Ted get back together at the end of movie, Pat does not get back together with Peter at the end of the book.)

Perhaps the most famous scene from The Divorcee is the one where Jerry tells Ted off for his double standards and tells him that from then on, he is the only man her door is closed to. That does not happen in the book. While The Divorcee very explicitly calls out double standards regarding infidelity, Ex-Wife doesn’t quite take the same angle. Instead, it depicts Pat and Peter as being a couple who got married young, didn’t really know what they were doing, and weren’t really ready to settle down.

In the book, it’s said that Pat and Peter were frequently out on the town and both engaged in behavior that made the other jealous. The book doesn’t even specifically say that Ted had been cheating on Pat. Instead, it talks about him acquiring “two or three slightly misunderstood pretty wives” who would often invite him to spend time with them and mentions that he’d often be flirty with other women at parties, which made Pat jealous, but she never called him out on it. When she has her affair with her husband’s best friend, it’s not specifically in retaliation for him cheating on her.

Chester Morris and Norma Shearer in The Divorcee.

While their marriage promptly ends afterwards in the movie, there’s a much longer gap between the time Peter leaves Pat and the official divorce. After Pat owns up to her affair, there’s a time when they try to work through it but it all falls apart after someone Pat knows comes to visit, tells Peter some lies about Pat’s past, and Peter decides he wants out because he thinks he’s in love with Pat’s (former) friend.

There is quite a bit of content in the book that never made it into the movie. In the book, Pat moves in with her friend Lucia (and subsequently with another friend, Helena) and the two of them often go out to parties together. Lucia had been through a divorce herself, so she frequently gives advice to Pat, but all of this is cut from the movie. And, for obvious reasons, a storyline about Pat needing to get an illegal abortion, resulting in her being asked out by the physician she trusted to escort her to the appointment, wasn’t even alluded to the movie.

In the book, we also see more of Pat’s day-to-day life, like her career as a fashion copywriter. Unlike Helen from Wife vs. Secretary, Pat views her job as something of a necessity, not something she does because she genuinely loves it. She also becomes something of a mentor to a younger writer who she works with for a while and Pat helps her both with her career and her personal life. And when Pat meets with the wife of the man she had been seeing who had been disfigured in a car accident, Pat ends up becoming a good friend of hers. Pat not only makes it possible for her to start over with her husband, Pat helps her get new clothing and face masks, giving her the confidence she needs to fully embrace this new start in her life.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Ursula Parrot Ex-Wife Book Cover.

With The Divorcee being one of the most essential of all pre-Codes, I thought this was going to be a situation where the book was even more scandalous than the movie. And in many ways, it is. But in the end, I feel like this is a rare case where the 1930s Hollywood version of the story actually feels more modern by todays standards.

Ex-Wife is a rather fascinating product of its time. It feels quite modern in some respects. Like the part where Pat and Lucia talk about what it means to be an ex-wife and Lucia assures her that not all divorced women are necessarily ex-wives; that you’re not really an ex-wife as long as you don’t let it become a defining trait. I could absolutely picture a similar scene in a more modern movie. But while a sentiment like that may seem refreshing on the surface for a book first published in 1929, there are plenty of more old fashioned attitudes mixed in. The real reason Lucia doesn’t want Pat to wallow in being ex-wife is because she insists that getting back out there and trying to find a new husband is the best thing to do, even though Pat isn’t really in a hurry to remarry. She tells Pat platitudes like how all attractive women are given a certain number of pieces of gold and that it’s no big deal to squander a few of them, but after a certain point, you better start saving for old age. (Pat wasn’t even 30 years old by the end of the book.)

What I most sorely missed in the book was the condemnation of double standards and Pat getting the chance to really tell off her husband. Those parts specifically are what make the movie resonate strongly with many viewers over 90 years later. Without that aspect, it feels like the book just doesn’t pack the same punch that the movie does.

It’s very easy to understand why Ex-Wife caused quite the scandal when it was first published. It does, indeed, still hold the power to shock, but likely for different reasons. Pat’s string of affairs after the end of her marriage seems far less shocking today than than how generally horrible some of the men in Pat’s life are — specifically Peter.

Overall, I liked the book and Ursula Parrot’s writing style. The way it’s written, it reads like the inner thoughts of someone who has been through an difficult event and is trying to process everything that came along with it. It’s not always polished, but it’s absolutely perfect for this type of story. And if you’re interested in stories about life in New York City during the 1920s, there’s a whole lot to like about this book.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: A Free Soul

A Free Soul Lobby Card Clark Gable and Norma Shearer.

Without a doubt, 1931’s A Free Soul is a pre-Code essential. The story about a woman romantically torn between her conventionally respectable boyfriend and a known underworld figure is perfect pre-Code material all by itself, but when you add in the smarmy charm of a young Clark Gable and Norma Shearer wearing some very slinky evening gowns and robes, it’s pure gold. Lionel Barrymore also took home a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance and the movie proved to be a big hit for MGM. But before A Free Soul was a hit movie, it was a book by Adela Rogers St. Johns first published in 1927. So how do they compare?

Book & Movie Differences

To call the film version of A Free Soul a loose adaptation of the book is putting it mildly. They both feature a criminal defense lawyer and his daughter, whom he is very close with. The father, Stephen (played by Lionel Barrymore), struggles with alcoholism while his daughter, Jan (played by Norma Shearer), falls in love with a notorious gambler. They agree to a wager where they each give up what they love and take a trip to put things behind them, but the father struggles to give up drinking and later disappears for a while. Eventually, the father comes back to take care of a big trial because of a murder involving someone the daughter had been seeing. That’s about where the similarities end.

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the book and the movie is the fact that the roles of Ace Wilfong (played by Clark Gable) and Dwight Sutro (played by Leslie Howard) are essentially switched. In the movie, Jan and Dwight are happy together until Ace comes along and Jan can’t resist his more dangerous allure. But in the book, Dwight had been out of the country for a few years and when he comes back to San Francisco and finds out Jan had gotten married, that doesn’t stop him from trying to see if he can start something up with her again. And since Jan is a bit lonely because of the hours Ace keeps, it’s easy for her to go along with it. When Ace finds out about it, he shoots Dwight in his home.

In the movie, we only see Jan as an adult, but the book paints a much larger picture of her life and her relationship with her father. The book tells stories about Jan’s childhood and teenage years. We find out that Jan has been dealing with Stephen’s alcoholism much longer than the movie suggests. For example, the book details an incident when 13-year-old Jan comes home in a cab in the early morning hours because Stephen had brought her to a gambling house, then got drunk and forgot about her, forcing her to find her own way home. We also learn why Jan’s mother wasn’t in the picture and why Stephen was determined to raise her in the unconventional manner that he had.

The book also gives us a more of a look at Ace Wilfong’s life, going back to the first time he crossed paths with Stephen and Jan Ashe when Ace was just a kid selling violets on the street and looked up to Stephen as a personal hero. We also learn more about Ace’s family, particularly his sister who has a rather rocky relationship with Jan because of jealousy over her marriage to Ace.

The character of Ace Wilfong is a great example of how, even in the pre-Code era, characters like gangsters, gamblers, and criminals needed to be written in certain ways in movies to avoid glorifying them. In the book, Ace doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy — aside from the part where he shoots Dwight, of course. Yes, Ace is a gambler, but he’s described as something of a respectable gambler. He seems to genuinely adore Jan and mentions wanting to eventually get out of gambling and into something more legitimate. Even when facing the death penalty, Ace remains loyal to Stephen when all logic and reason would tell him to work with a lawyer who isn’t just coming off of a long drinking binge. The movie version of Ace is rougher and more aggressive.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Out of all the books I’ve read as part of the summer reading challenge, A Free Soul is the one where I most strongly prefer the movie over the book. The film version of A Free Soul is a strong, well-paced drama with some great performances. The book has a much slower pace and it takes a long time before you get to the parts that are most related to what happens in the movie. It’s a very slow burn, reaching its most exciting point with the events leading up to Ace shooting Dwight. I usually don’t mind a book that takes time to build to something and the parts that were good were enjoyable, but you have to get through a lot of other material to get to that point.

On the whole, it wasn’t my favorite book by any means, but I’m glad I was at least able to check it out for the sake of my own curiosity. Perhaps if you’re A Free Soul superfan and love the characters so much that you want to spend more time with them and get to know them more in depth, then it may be worth tracking down a copy of the book. But while the same thing can be said of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I don’t know that anyone has the same level of affection for characters like Jan Ashe and Ace Wilfong that they have for Jeff Spicoli.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Defined by Divorce: Norma Shearer, The Divorcee, and The Women

Norma Shearer

By the late 1920s, Norma Shearer was one of MGM’s top actresses; consistently starring in films that were popular with the critics and successful at the box office. After facing setbacks in the early days of her career, she had become a bona fide star, proving show business dignitaries like D.W. Griffith and Florenz Ziegfeld wrong when they said she would never succeed as an actress. When she married producer Irving Thalberg in 1927, the two became one of Hollywood’s biggest power couples. But Norma Shearer always had a vision for life and her career and she knew it was time for a change.

Now that she was on top, she wasn’t about to let her image grow stale. She’d survived the transition from silents to talkies, but she needed to do more to keep audiences interested. Shearer was eager to shake up her image by playing a new kind of modern woman; not quite the personification of youth as flappers were, but a more sophisticated, independent adult woman who broke with traditional values and mores. Irving Thalberg, on the other hand, had a different path in mind for his wife’s career. The theater world had stars like Ethel Barrymore and Lynn Fontanne and Thalberg wanted Norma Shearer to have that kind of grand stature and respectability and he didn’t think those types of roles would bring her to that level. However, Shearer wasn’t the type to just give into her husband’s ideas when it came to her career.

Norma Shearer Chester Morris The Divorcee

When MGM bought the rights to the bestselling novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrot, Shearer knew it was just the project she was looking for. The title was changed to The Divorcee for the film version and Shearer made it her mission to land the part of Jerry, a woman who divorces her husband when she discovers his double standards regarding fidelity. Shearer later said that Jerry was, “Very strong, almost ruthless…she was perfect for me.”

Thalberg wasn’t so sure. He didn’t think Shearer was glamorous or sensual enough for the part. Undeterred, Shearer made an appointment with a then-unknown photographer by the name of George Hurrell to have some boudoir style photos taken. Shearer walked into Hurrell’s studio completely focused on proving to Thalberg that she could handle the role of Jerry. When Thalberg saw the photos from the session, he was impressed and the role was hers.

Taking on The Divorcee was a big gamble, but it paid off in spades. When it was released in 1930, it became an immediate success. Audiences loved Shearer in this kind of role and when the Academy Award nominations were announced, Shearer landed two Best Actress nominations — one for The Divorcee, the other for Their Own Desire. It was The Divorcee that would make Shearer an Oscar winner, elevating her to a whole new level of stardom. Her marriage to Thalberg may have made her the First Lady of MGM, but her Oscar win cemented her status as Queen of the Lot.

Norma Shearer Oscar

Throughout the pre-code era, Shearer would go on to play many other independent women who challenged societal conventions. In Let Us Be Gay, she played another woman who left her cheating husband and became a notorious woman of affairs. Her character in Strangers May Kiss wasn’t interested in marriage. 1931’s A Free Soul gave Shearer the chance to play the free-spirited daughter of a lawyer who becomes infatuated with a gangster played by Clark Gable. These sorts of films were provocative, but didn’t push audiences too far. Her characters took a walk on the wild side, but in the end, realized that lifestyle wasn’t right for them.

When the pre-code era came to an end in 1934, Shearer once again had to change gears and she moved into the “noble woman/prestige picture” era of her career, starring in lavish, big budget pictures featuring other top-tier talent. She’d become a grand dame of Hollywood like Thalberg had wanted her be, but she reached that level on her own terms and the next few films of her career would also be on her terms. Thalberg made it possible for her to star in Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette when she expressed an interest in doing so. But after Thalberg passed away in 1936, maintaining that level of autonomy over her career became more difficult.

While 1939’s The Women has gone one to become one of the most celebrated comedies of the 1930s, when viewed in the context of Shearer’s career and of her role as MGM’s Queen of the Lot, it actually reflects her waning power at the studio. The Women is far from being a bad movie; it’s the last truly great movie of Shearer’s career. But was Mary Haines one of the most fulfilling roles Shearer played in her career? No.

The Women 1939 Shearer Goddard

By the time The Women went into production, Norma Shearer was entering an uncertain stage in her career. Romeo and Juliet was the last movie of hers Thalberg oversaw before his death and he had put the wheels in motion for her to do Marie Antoinette before he passed away. The movies she made in 1939, Idiot’s Delight and The Women, were the first ones she’d made in a long time without Thalberg on her side. Even though she was a force to be reckoned with, so was Irving Thalberg and now that he was gone, Shearer simply didn’t have as much power as she used to.

Despite the fact that The Women is one of Shearer’s most enduring movies, it’s not a movie she was ever interested in making. While she described Jerry in The Divorcee as strong and almost ruthless, she thought Mary Haines was a boring character and initially turned it down. But, it’s rumored that after Louis B. Mayer found out about her short-lived affair with Mickey Rooney, Shearer had been taken down a notch and reluctantly agreed to do The Women to help keep the peace with Mayer. She’d also had other disputes with Mayer after Thalberg’s death and was nervous about being getting the dreaded label of “difficult.”

If you’re familiar with Shearer’s pre-code era films, it’s easy to understand why she found Mary Haines so dull. In both The Women and The Divorcee, Shearer plays happily married, well-to-do women who discover their husbands are cheating on them. In the end, both women choose to reconcile with their husbands. But because of the production code, Jerry and Mary aren’t able to react to that news in the same way. When Jerry tells her husband about her own affair, she is outraged by her husband’s hypocrisy, divorces him, and sets out to carry on as many affairs as she wants to. Mary, on the other hand, is literally railroaded into a divorce she doesn’t want.

The Women is based on a successful stage play so it wasn’t intended to be a remake of The Divorcee, but it’s the closest anyone was going to get to doing one in the production code era. Here, Shearer was being asked to play a role that had quite a bit in common with one of her greatest career triumphs, but that was totally devoid the material that made Jerry such an interesting character. Mary Haines may have had two years to grow claws — Jungle Red — but she’s a completely declawed version Jerry. By lobbying to play Jerry in The Divorcee, Shearer was taking control of her career. By feeling obligated to play Mary Haines in The Women, she was beginning to lose control.

On the surface, The Women hardly seems like the sort of movie any movie star should feel disappointed to have been a part of. It features a cavalcade of some of the best female talent MGM had to offer, the great George Cukor directed it, it had a first-rate script, and Adrian created an astonishing wardrobe for the film’s characters. This was a major production; a far cry from the low-budget films some of Shearer’s contemporaries would later make when they were nearing the ends of their careers. But that doesn’t mean Shearer didn’t suffer several indignities during its production.

The Women 1939 Shearer Crawford Russell

Another reason Shearer wasn’t interested in being in The Women is because she knew there was a good chance she could be upstaged and those fears weren’t exactly without merit. During that era, stars of Shearer’s magnitude would pride themselves in being able to command top billing in credits and on theater marquees, posters, and other promotional materials. They were considered to be “above the title” and that kind of prestige was reflected in their contracts. But one of the downsides to being in a movie that features so many other talented actresses is that those other actresses aren’t going to be content with being left out of the billing. Joan Crawford was a major star in her own right and fought to get her name up there alongside Shearer’s, so Shearer ended up being forced to share billing with her professional rival. As production continued and it became clear that Rosalind Russell was stealing a lot of scenes, she also fought to get her name up there and Shearer eventually had a third actress to share top billing with, although Rosalind Russell’s name takes up less space on the posters than Shearer’s and Crawford’s.

Having to share the screen with Joan Crawford also wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience for Norma, either. Crawford had long felt that Shearer was given preferential treatment and first pick of all the best roles because of her marriage to Thalberg. The rivalry between the two was played up during the production to generate buzz in the gossip columns. While Shearer filmed her close-ups for the big dressing room confrontation scene, Crawford was sitting off camera, knitting as she read her lines back to Shearer; a move that would have been extremely unprofessional and disrespectful to do to any actor, let alone one of Norma’s stature. Eventually, Shearer got so fed up with Crawford’s antics that she asked Cukor to read the lines to her instead of Crawford.

The Women Shearer Russell Fontaine

Although The Women is an immensely quotable film, unfortunately for Shearer, most of the film’s most memorable lines went to other actresses. In many cases, Shearer’s lines set up jokes, witty remarks, and biting comebacks for Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, or Paulette Goddard to deliver. So even though Shearer gets top billing, it ultimately feels like her character is a springboard that gives other actresses a chance to shine.

Even though The Women performed respectably well at the box office, it wasn’t enough for MGM to recoup the costs of production, continuing a trend of Shearer’s movies losing money. Romeo and Juliet was her first 1930s film to lose money and the extravagant production costs of Marie Antoinette made it another loss for MGM. Idiot’s Delight also lost money, making it one of the few movies Clark Gable made at MGM which lost money. 1940’s Escape was Norma’s last film to turn a profit; her final two films, We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover, both also failed to break even.

After openly declaring that she wasn’t interested in playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and turning down roles in Mrs. Miniver and Now, Voyager, Shearer retired from film in 1942. During the 1980s and 1990s, Shearer’s legacy was effectively rescued by home video. Thanks to home video, many of the films she made during the pre-code era became readily available to the general public for the first time in decades, giving people the chance to see her career in a new light. In the time between her retirement and the advent of home video, Shearer became most closely associated with the “noble woman/prestige picture” stage of her career. The Women, Marie Antoinette, and Romeo and Juliet were the movies of hers that would most commonly be shown on television or at revival screenings, not The Divorcee or A Free Soul, leaving many people with a very incomplete picture of her career. Even though she won an Academy Award for her work in The Divorcee, many were under the impression that Mary Haines was a more typical Norma Shearer role than Jerry.

The fact that The Women went on to be regarded as a genuine classic, one of the highlights of Hollywood’s golden year, did nothing to help soften Shearer’s opinion of the role over time. When author Gavin Lambert was interviewing Shearer for his biography on her, she told him that of all the movies she made with director George Cukor, the only one she ever cared to see again was Romeo and Juliet.

In the end, the career of Norma Shearer was largely defined by divorce. Playing a divorcee in one film was the first bookend of her era as a Hollywood megastar while playing a divorcee in another signaled the end of her reign as MGM’s Queen of the Lot.

Lady of the Night (1925)

Lady of the Night 1925

When two girls are born at roughly the same time, they go on to lead very different, yet somehow similar, lives. There’s Molly (Norma Shearer), whose father was a convicted criminal and was sentenced to prison by Judge Banning (Fred Esmelton) shortly after Molly was born. Life wasn’t easy for Molly; as she grew up, she lost her mother and ended up in a reform school. Meanwhile, Florence (also Norma Shearer) was the daughter of Judge Banning and happened to be born around the same time as Molly. She enjoyed a life full of privilege and got to attend an excellent boarding school, but like Molly, she also lost her mother.

Both Florence and Molly graduate from their respective schools at about the same time. Molly gets a job as a dime-a-dance girl in a bar and gets together with her boyfriend Chunky (George K. Arthur). One day, a customer gets out of line with her and Chunky tries to put a stop to it. When the customer overpowers Chunky, his friend David (Malcolm McGregor) steps in and puts a stop to things. She’s immediately taken with David. While Chunky is the type of person Molly is accustomed to being around, David is an aspiring inventor and more polished. Although Molly loves David, he only sees her as a friend, but Chunky is jealous of the attention Molly starts giving his friend.

When David announces he has an invention that will open any safe, Chunky thinks criminals would pay hand over fist for it, but Molly encourages him to sell it to bankers so they can use it to keep criminals out. Following Molly’s advice, David presents his invention to the board of directors at a bank, which Judge Banning just happens to be part of. Not only does the board of directors love his invention, he also has the chance to meet Florence, who is also instantly smitten with him. David falls in love with Florence and although she cares about him, she doesn’t have the heart to pursue him when she meets Molly and sees that she loves him. But when Molly realizes how much he loves Florence, she only wants to see him happy.

Lady of the Night is nothing Earth shattering, but it’s a very pleasant little movie. Usually when a movie has an actor or actress playing a dual role, the end result can feel really gimmicky, but this is one movie that seems to actually pull it off; possibly because Florence and Molly only have one scene together. If you’re a big fan of Norma Shearer, Lady of the Night is well worth your time. She’s great in both roles, but I’m particularly fond of her performance as bad girl Molly, especially when she gets to wear that huge, spectacular feathered hat. This also happens to be one of Norma’s earliest films where she has a major role that’s widely available to the general public (He Who Gets Slapped is a year older and is the earliest of her movies that I know of to have a DVD release.)

What’s on TCM: November 2015

Norma Shearer

Happy November, everyone! Hope everyone had their fix of horror movies in Halloween and is ready for a new month of movies to look forward to.

Before we take a look at November’s TCM schedule, a little bit of site news! If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I traditionally spend every November writing about the fabulous pre-code era on a daily basis as part of National Blog Posting Month. But after five years, I feel like I’ve written about most of the most significant pre-code movies and at this point, the pre-codes I have access to (and haven’t previously written about) would make for a pretty lackluster month of posts. So for the sake of quality, I have decided to go in a different direction this year. I’ve decided to shift my attention to another era of filmmaking that I adore, but have long felt I don’t give nearly enough attention on here — the silent era. Stay tuned every day in November for a review of a different classic from the silent era.

Now, back to TCM’s schedule. I’m thrilled to see that Norma Shearer is November’s Star of the Month. She’s one of my favorite actresses, so even though I’ve seen most of the movies they’re showing for her this month aren’t new to me, it will be a pleasure to revisit some of them and catch up on the few I haven’t seen. On Wednesday nights, there will be a spotlight on movies based on the works of southern authors. And in between, there are plenty of delightful days in between.

With no further ado, let’s take a closer look!

(more…)

Let Us Be Gay 1930

Let Us Be Gay (1930)

After years of marriage, Kitty Brown (Norma Shearer) still adores her husband Bob (Rod La Rocque) and is faithfully devoted to him and their two children. She doesn’t dress stylishly and she doesn’t spend much time on hair or makeup, but she’s happy. At least, she’s happy until Bob’s mistress drops by the house one day. She’s heartbroken and wants nothing to do with him. But she’s not one to sit around and feel sorry for herself. After he divorce, Kitty gets a makeover and earns a reputation for being notorious maneater.

Three years after her divorce, Kitty is invited to spend a weekend at the home of Mrs. Bouccicault (Marie Dressler). Mrs. Boucciault’s granddaughter Diane (Sally Eilers) is engaged to be married to Bruce (Raymond Hackett), but is not-too-secretly seeing a man named Bob on the side. She invites Kitty because she’s practically an expert at stealing men away from women and asks her to work her magic on Bob. She agrees, not realizing Bob is her ex-husband.

Bob hasn’t seen Kitty since their divorce and he can barely recognize her as the woman he used to be married to. Although it’s an awkward reunion at first, but old feelings start to come back.

I liked Let Us Be Gay more than I expected to. At the time of writing this post, it gets 6.5 stars on IMDB, so really, a pretty average rating by IMDB standards. But it was a pretty entertaining little movie. I loved Norma in it. Seeing Norma play dowdy was certainly a fun surprise; she was hardly recognizable. But after Kitty has her makeover, we get to see Norma doing everything that makes me love her early 1930s roles. Marie Dressler was a lot of fun as the over-the-top Mrs. Bouccicault. And Sally Eilers was a real treat, especially in her drunk scenes. The ending was a bit of a letdown, but I had so much fun watching everything else leading up to that point, I still really like the movie on the whole.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee 1930 Norma Shearer

Plot

When Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) decide to get married, one of the most important things they both want is for their marriage to be a marriage of equals. They live together happily married for three years, but that all changes on the night of their third anniversary party. Several of their friends arrive at Ted and Jerry’s home, including Janice (Mary Doran). Ted and Janice had a brief affair some time ago and it doesn’t take long for Jerry to pick up on the fact that they aren’t just friends. She pressures Ted into admitting to the affair, but he swears it doesn’t mean a thing.

Jerry is devastated by Ted’s infidelity, but since their marriage was supposed to be built on equality, she evens the score by having an affair with Ted’s best friend Don (Robert Montgomery). She admits to it and also tells him it didn’t mean anything to her, but Ted is furious. However, Jerry is even angrier at Ted’s double standards and insists on a divorce so she can be free to pursue as many men as she pleases. But will that kind of lifestyle make her happy?


My Thoughts

I really don’t think The Divorcee gets enough credit nowadays. Although it’s widely accepted as one of the greatest pre-code films, it doesn’t get enough recognition for being a good movie in general. Time has actually been quite kind to The Divorcee, which is a lot more than can be said for many other movies from this era. It lacks the general creakiness that is characteristic of many movies from the late 1920s and very early 1930s. The writing is great and the story still feels very modern and relevant. You could do a remake of it today and audiences could forget how long ago the original story was written. Norma Shearer’s performance is still wonderful; not the sort you have to say, “Well, standards were different back then” about. It’s a very smart, well produced movie that deserves a little more recognition beyond its pre-code factor.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

When Jerry tells Ted she’s “balanced their accounts.”

The scene where Jerry furiously tells Ted that from then on, he’s the only man her door is closed to.

The whole plot in general.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The Divorcee is based on the novel “Ex-Wife” by Ursula Parrot, which was a bestseller in 1929 because of its scandalous content. Obviously, trying to turn it into a movie was going to be a very risky endeavor because being tied to such a book was going to practically set out a welcome mat for censors and moral crusaders. You might notice that the book is never directly credited as being the basis for the movie; it’s simply stated as being “based on a novel by Ursula Parrot.”

Taking on a provocative character like Jerry was also definitely a big career risk for Norma Shearer. By the time she made The Divorcee, she was an established star, but audiences loved her for playing respectable characters. But she was bound and determined to liven up her image with something more scandalous; a move that could have either brought her career to a new level or been career suicide. Her husband Irving Thalberg didn’t think she was right for the part and even Norma’s maid thought playing such a character would be a bad idea. But she certainly proved them all wrong and not only successfully changed her screen image, but won an Academy Award in the process.

Fashion in Film: Berets

If you’re like me, you often find yourself watching films and seeing tons of fashion styles you would love to wear in real life.  I watch movies from so many decades and from so many different genres, if I actually did copy all the styles I like, I’d have one diverse wardrobe.  But if there’s one accessory you could easily get a lot of mileage out of, it’s a beret.  Berets have been a popular hat style for decades, so if you want to go for a Norma Shearer inspired look one day and a Faye Dunaway inspired look the next, a beret could easily work for both styles.

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Dueling Divas: Joan Crawford vs. Norma Shearer

The Women_Joan and Norma

Bette Davis may be Joan Crawford’s most notorious rival, but personally, I don’t think Joan had nearly as much to fear from Bette as she did from Norma Shearer.  One thing you have to remember is that Bette and Joan only spent six years working together at the same studio, so for most of their careers, they at least weren’t directly competing for roles.  They may not have liked each other very much, but at least they were out of each other’s hair for the most part. On the other hand, Norma and Joan spent seventeen years together at MGM, so on many occasions, they were vying for the same material.  Plus, Norma had the advantage of being married to Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production.

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A Free Soul (1931)

A Free Soul Norma Shearer Leslie HowardJan Ashe (Norma Shearer) and her father Stephen(Lionel Barrymore) have a very close relationship.  Even though a lot of their family judges Stephen for his alcoholism, Jan stands by him every step of the way. When she and Stephen are invited to a family dinner, Jan’s grandmother asks her to keep an eye on Stephen and make sure he doesn’t drink. But sure enough, he shows up to dinner drunk.  Not only does he come over drunk, he brings gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) along with him.  Stephen is an attorney and had just defended him in court earlier that day.

Even though she’s engaged to Dwight Wintrhop (Leslie Howard), Jan is very attracted to Ace, who she finds much more exciting than Dwight.  They start seeing each other and before long, Ace asks Stephen for permission to marry Jan.  Stephen does not approve of their relationship, but that doesn’t stop Jan from seeing him.  However, when Jan finally can’t take any more of Stephen’s boozing, she makes a deal with him that she’ll leave Ace if he quits drinking. Stephen and Jan take a trip out of town to get their minds off their vices and at first, all is going well for them.  But as soon as they get home again, they’re right back where they started.

When Jan goes to see Ace, he’s angry at her for leaving him and insists they get married right away.  She doesn’t want to marry him and wants to go back to Dwight, but Ace continues to force her into it.  Finally, Dwight is ready to put an end to this once and for all and shoots Ace.  Dwight owns up to it and is willing to take the fall for everything, just to keep Jan’s name out of the whole mess.  But Stephen isn’t willing to let him throw his life away and makes a very dramatic appearance in court to defend him.

A Free Soul isn’t one of my favorites, the story really drags at times.  But it does have some excellent performances and it’s worth seeing for that reason alone.  Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, and Clark Gable all shine in it.  Barrymore won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, Shearer earned a Best Actress nomination, and it was a big breakthrough for Gable, who was pretty new to the film world at the time.  Leslie Howard was also a movie newcomer then, and he’s fine in A Free Soul, but he wasn’t given a chance to do very much in it. Of course, it’s interesting to see Gable and Howard together in a movie as newcomers eight years before they co-starred in Gone With the Wind when they were both at the peaks of their careers.