Norma Shearer

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

Private Lives (1931)

The phrase “happily divorced” is one that easily applies to Amanda (Norma Shearer) and Elyot (Robert Montgomery).  Their marriage was extremely volatile, but now that they’re divorced (and thrilled to be rid of each other), they’ve both moved on and remarried; Amanda to Victor (Reginald Denny) and Elyot to Sibyl (Una Merkel).  After each of their weddings, they each head off to their honeymoons.  Imagine their surprise (and horror) when Amanda and Elyot find out they’re both honeymooning in the same city, in the same hotel, in rooms right next to each other.

They each beg their respective new spouses to leave immediately, but they both end up getting into arguments that end with Sybil and Victor storming out of their rooms.  Left alone, Amanda and Elyot step out onto the terrace outside of their rooms and start having a conversation.  They start looking back on their relationship and suddenly remember what it is that made them fall in love in the first place.  They kiss and impulsively decide to run away from their honeymoons and go to St. Moritz together.  The only thing standing in their way of happiness is their tendency to constantly get into fights, but they even think of a way to stop those.

At first, all is going well between Amanda and Elyot, but soon their arguments start popping up more and more often.  Eventually, their plan to stop arguments quits working and they get into a knock down, drag out fight that involves Amanda breaking a record over Elyot’s head and completely trashing their rented chalet.  The next day, they find that their new spouses have teamed up to track them down.  Sybil and Elyot decide that they aren’t going to divorce and Amanda and Victor do the same.  The two couples sit down to have breakfast together, but when Sybil and Victor get into an argument, Amanda and Elyot get such a kick out of seeing what they must look like, they once again decide to run off together.

Private Lives has some of my favorite acting by Norma Shearer.  There are some scenes where she says so much with just the glance of her eyes or the tone of her voice.  Definitely watch for her expression when she first realizes that Elyot is in the room next door and listen to the way she uses her voice when she and Elyot are reminiscing about their relationship, it’s great stuff.  The movie itself is fully of smart, witty lines that lent themselves perfectly to being delivered by Norma and Robert Montgomery.  The two of them had such a wonderful rapport with each other, it was a real delight to watch the two of them go to town with this material.

The Divorcee (1930)

While staying at a resort with some friends, Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) decide to get married with one stipulation — that their marriage will be a marriage of equals.  Their friends are thrilled for them  and spend the rest of the night celebrating their good news.  Well, everyone except for Paul (Conrad Nagel), that is.  He’s been carrying a torch for Jerry and spends the evening getting drunk.  When the party’s over, Jerry and Ted leave separately while some others get into a car driven by the now very inebriated Paul.  Of course, this does not end well and he crashes the car and disfigures their friend Dorothy.

Ted and Jerry get married and out of guilt, Paul marries Dorothy.  Ted and Jerry couldn’t be happier together but that all comes to an end the night of their third wedding anniversary.  When some of their friends come over for a party, a woman named Janice (Mary Doran) tags along with one of the guests.  Not only has Janice already met Ted, but they had an affair one night when he was drunk and away on business.  When Janice corners Ted in the kitchen, Jerry catches them and immediately knows what’s going on.  She confronts Ted about it and he tries to brush it off, claiming that it didn’t mean anything, but Jerry is heartbroken.  After Ted leaves for Chicago on business, his best friend Don (Robert Montgomery) keeps her company while he’s out of town.  Since this was supposed to be a marriage of equals, Jerry decides to even the score and have an affair with Don.  After all, they were supposed to be equals, right? But when Ted gets back from his trip, Jerry breaks the news to him and suddenly Ted’s singing a different tune when Jerry says it didn’t mean anything.

As much as Jerry wants to make their marriage work, she can’t deal with Ted and his double standards and divorces him.  Jerry sets out on her new life determined to have plenty of affairs and boy, does she!  But while on a trip for work, she runs into her old friend Paul.  Paul is still married to Dorothy, but has never been able to forget Jerry.  The two of them begin having an affair and travel together all over the place.  Paul and Jerry even talk about getting married, but after Jerry meets with Dorothy, she doesn’t have the heart to take her husband away from her.  Meanwhile, Ted hasn’t been faring so well and has been hitting the bottle pretty hard in Paris.  When New Years Eve rolls around, Jerry decides to spend it in Paris, hoping she would run into Ted.  They meet again at a party and decide to start the new year by giving their marriage another try.

The Divorcee is one of the most essential pre-code movies and rightfully so.  I love the story, actually I think it would still make for an interesting movie if it were made today.  I don’t think it really gets enough credit for what an important movie it is.  The Divorcee is basically the movie that really put the whole pre-code era into high gear.  And if you’re unfamiliar with the pre-code era, then getting to see a woman like Jerry is a very interesting change of pace from how women were often portrayed in movies made under the code.  Norma Shearer is phenomenal in it, easily one of her finest moments.  I love the story about how Norma had to fight Irving Thalberg to get the part.  She desperately wanted the part, but Thalberg didn’t think she was right for it so to prove her point, she went and had some saucy pictures taken.  After seeing the results, he finally saw Norma’s point of view and let her have the part that went on to get her an Oscar.  It’s a great movie and if you have even the slightest interest in the pre-code era, you absolutely must see it.

Fashion in Film: My 10 Favorite Costumes

10.  Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” dress from Gilda

On a lot of other women, that gown would have been pretty unremarkable.  But Rita Hayworth had so much charisma in that movie and had such an incredible screen presence that she turned what could have been a forgettable gown into the most iconic costume of her career.

9.  Elizabeth Taylor’s white slip from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

This right here is proof that Elizabeth Taylor could take the simplest garment and turn it into a definitive screen costume.  Nobody worked a white slip better than Elizabeth Taylor.

8.  All of Norma Shearer’s gowns from Marie Antoinette

I’d be very hard pressed to pick just one favorite costume from Marie Antoinette.  Adrian put an enormous amount of time and effort into designing all those exquisite gowns, no detail was overlooked.  They are all works of art.

7.  Debbie Reynolds’ “Good Morning” dress from Singin’ in the Rain.

Plain and simply, she looks absolutely adorable in it.  She had a lot of wonderful costumes in Singin’ in the Rain, but whenever I think about her in that movie, this is the first costume that comes to mind.

6.  Myrna Loy’s striped party dress from The Thin Man

I just think this dress is pure Nora Charles.  It’s fun, but classy.  She looks like the life of the party.

5.  Grace Kelly’s black and white outfit from Rear Window

This just epitomizes Grace Kelly to me.  It is so clean and simple, it’s not bogged down with a lot of accessories or jewelry, but it’s one of the most elegant dresses I’ve ever seen.

4.  Jean Harlow’s party dress from Dinner at Eight


It’s slinky and ridiculously glamorous.  This is Jean Harlow at her finest.

3.  Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo from Morocco

In an era when women rarely wore pants, Marlene Dietrich went all out and donned a tuxedo.  Not shocking by today’s standards, but it’s no surprise that her tux caused a commotion when Morocco was released in 1930.

2.  Gloria Swanson’s outfit from her first scene in Sunset Boulevard

This outfit tells us right off everything that we need to know about Norma Desmond.  She looks rich, she looks like a movie star, and she’s definitely got some issues.

1.  Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp

As far as I’m concerned, this is the most iconic movie costume of all time.  It doesn’t just represent one movie, it represents Chaplin’s entire body of work and it’s a symbol for that whole era of film history.  When you see that hat, the cane, those shoes, that mustache, there’s no mistaking him for anybody else.  Even when people who don’t know silent films try to describe silent films, odds are they’re going to describe Charlie Chaplin and what he wore.