Robert Montgomery

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.

Letty Lynton (1932)

Wealthy heiress Letty Lynton (Joan Crawford) has been busy living the high life in Uruguay.  She’s been carrying on a sordid affair with Emile Renaul (Nils Asther) for a while, but when she decides to give him up, she gets on the next boat home to New York. Letty’s tried leaving Emile before and has always come back, so he figures this is just another one of her whims.

But during the trip home, Letty meets Jerry Darrow (Robert Montgomery), and everything changes.  They fall madly in love with each other, but Letty absolutely does not want Jerry to know about her wild past.  She even considers getting off the boat when it makes a stop in Havana so he won’t find out. But before she can leave, Jerry proposes and naturally, Letty accepts.  They happily continue on to New York, but when the boat docks, Letty is horrified to see Emile waiting for her.  She sneaks away from Jerry and finds out the Emile wants to bring her back to Uruguay, but when Emile later finds out about Jerry and Letty’s engagement, he threatens to show Jerry the love letters she’s written to him.

Letty would rather die than let Jerry find out about Emile, so when she goes to Emile’s hotel room to get the letters, she brings a bottle of poison with her to commit suicide right then and there.  Of course, Emile isn’t about to give them up.  When he isn’t looking, she slips the poison into her drink, but then Emile takes the poisoned drink by mistake. Letty watches in horror as he dies, but ultimately can’t bring herself to be sorry.  She flees his hotel room and goes with Jerry to visit his parents.  But of course, the police come looking for Letty and she and Jerry have to be questioned.

I wouldn’t say Letty Lynton is one of the best movies of Joan Crawford’s entire career, but it is one of my favorites from her pre-code era.  Story-wise, it feels a little different from the rest.  One type of role Joan was most well-known for was the working class girl trying to move up in the world.  In Letty Lynton, she’s already pretty high up on the social ladder.  I love the scene after Emile accidentally takes Letty’s poisoned drink and Letty starts yelling at him about how she’s not sorry.  That’s the kind of scene that made me understand why Bette Davis may have possibly envied Joan’s career at that time.  I’m sure Bette would have loved to have played that scene.  It was a total Bette Davis moment made two years before Bette even started playing those kinds of roles.

Even though I could totally picture Bette Davis in this movie, I love Joan in it.  She, Robert Montgomery, and Nils Asther made a very enjoyable cast and it’s a pretty entertaining movie.  As Joan Crawford fans know, Letty Lynton has been completely out of circulation since 1936 when a court ruled that it had plagiarized the play Dishonored Lady.  If you look around enough, you can find bootleg copies of it, but it hasn’t been played in a theater since then, let alone shown on TV or officially released on VHS or DVD.

Joan in Adrian’s legendary Letty Lynton gown.

Late last year, reports surfaced that Warner Brothers was trying to straighten out the legal issues out so it could be released on DVD through Warner Archives and for it to be shown at the 2012 TCM Film Festival.  They weren’t able to get it ready for the TCM Festival, but I’m holding out hope that it will eventually be put out on DVD because Letty Lynton deserves to be seen.  Not only would Joan Crawford fans be thrilled, but this is one fans of pre-codes in general would love.  And if you appreciate costume design, Letty Lynton is worth seeing if only for the spectacular Adrian gowns Joan Crawford gets to wear.  Adrian did some of the best work of his career on Letty Lynton and to only be able to see that work through bootlegs copies of the movie is just unfortunate.

In the past, Warner Archive has successfully gotten The Constant Nymph and Night Flight out of legal messes and I’d be ecstatic if Letty Lynton could be added to the list.  Of those three movies, I’d say Letty Lynton is the best of the bunch.

Night Flight (1933)

Delivering the mail by air through South America is a dangerous game and Riviére (John Barrymore) is determined to be the best at it.  He manages a mail-carrying airline and stops at nothing to uphold his its reputation for punctuality.  Even the owners of the airline think he’s too strict with the pilots.  He doesn’t even like airline employees to be friends with each other outside of work.  When he finds out that his inspector Robineau (Lionel Barrymore) had dinner with pilot Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery), he forces Robineau to give Auguste a citation for something he didn’t do just to prove to Auguste that being friends with a higher-up won’t do him any favors.

Riviére also fines the pilots 200 Francs if they’re late, which means the pilots often find themselves flying through dangerous situations even though common sense would suggest they land.  When Auguste has to make a flight to Buenos Aires, he runs into some very treacherous conditions along the way.  He gets there ten minutes behind schedule, but luckily he does make it.

Meanwhile, pilot Jules Fabian (Clark Gable) is making his first night flight.  His wife Simone (Helen Hayes) is waiting for him at home with a nice dinner, eagerly awaiting his return.  He’s flown that route before so she has no reason to suspect there will be any problems.  Everything is going smoothly for Jules until he unexpectedly gets caught in a terrible storm.  Rather than land, Jules keeps on going through the storm, loses communication with ground control, and gets thrown off course.  The airline frantically tries to make contact with Jules and Simone starts to worry when she finds out he’s been delayed. When she tries to contact Riviére, he won’t tell her anything, which only upsets her more.  She knows that he would be running low on fuel by then.

Despite Jules being lost, Riviére pushes ahead with the schedule and calls a Brazilian pilot (William Gargan) to deliver some mail to Rio de Janeiro, which his wife (Myrna Loy) begs him not to do.  Despite her protests, he goes ahead with the flight and manages to make it safely.  However, Jules isn’t nearly as lucky.  Lost over the ocean with no fuel left, Jules and his wireless operator have no other choice but to jump from the plane into the dangerous waters.

I really wanted to love Night Flight, and I did enjoy it, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with it and I’m having a hard time pinpointing exactly why.  I loved the cinematography and I really liked Helen Hayes, especially in the scene where Simone has dinner by herself and pretends Jules is there with her.  And, of course, it does have some pretty exciting flight scenes.

If you’re curious about Night Flight because of its cast, don’t go into it expecting to see a lot of interaction between all these great stars because you will be let down.  For example, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy have no scenes together.  In fact, Myrna Loy doesn’t even have a very big role and most of Clark Gable’s scenes are him by himself.  But that isn’t what disappointed me about the movie.  Like I said, I really wanted to love Night Flight, but something about it just didn’t resonate with me the way I hoped it would.  If I had my choice, I’d definitely pick Only Angels Have Wings over Night Flight, but I’m really glad Night Flight is finally becoming available after being out of circulation since 1941.  If you like movies about aviation or you’re a big fan of anyone in the cast, it’s worth seeing, but there are better movies about pilots and all of the cast has been in better movies.

What’s on TCM: May 2012

Happy May, everyone!  It certainly looks like it’s going to be a busy month on TCM.  Joel McCrea is the star of the month, which is something I know a lot of people have been wanting to see for quite some time.  He’ll be featured every Wednesday night this month.  Every Thursday night will be all about movies based on true crime stories.  Plus there’s the annual 48-hour war movie marathon for Memorial day will run from May 27-28.  So without further ado, let’s get to the schedule:

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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.

Faithless (1932)

Before the stock market crash of 1929, Carol Morgan (Tallulah Bankhead) was living the high life as the daughter of a successful banker.  But when the stock market crashes, Carol refuses to scale down her extravagant lifestyle and is in complete denial that things could get tough for her, too.  Her accountants try to warn her, but she won’t listen to them and goes about living her life as usual.  Her boyfriend Bill Wade (Robert Montgomery) works in advertising and prefers living a much more modest lifestyle.  Carol is very much in love with him, but he’s hesitant to get married because he doesn’t want people to assume he married her for her money.  Although they briefly get engaged, Carol ultimately can’t deal with being married to someone who only makes $20,000 a year and their engagement is called off.

When Carol finally faces the fact that she has lost everything, she goes back to Bill and finds things aren’t so great for him, either.  He’s just lost his job and although he has a lead on another one in Chicago, Carol decides she’d rather live off the hospitality of her still wealthy friends rather than marry Bill.  Bill does get his job in Chicago and Carol travels all over the country, staying as long as her friends will put up with her.  Eventually, she makes her way to Chicago and stays with Mr. and Mrs. Peter M. Blainey.  Mrs. Blainey is willing to pay Carol $1,500 for giving them the privilege of being able to use her name to get into the society pages, but throws her out when she catches Carol borrowing money from her friends.  Carol packs her things, but before she can leave, Mr. Blainey (Hugh Herby) offers her $1,000.  He says there are no strings attached, but the strings come later and before she knows it, she’s his mistress.

Carol absolutely loathes Blainey, but she doesn’t have any other options.  One night, she is pleasantly surprised when Bill finally tracks her down and drops by.  But her happiness is short lived when Bill figures out what’s going on and leaves.  No longer to put up with Blainey, she leaves him and tries to find a job, but has no luck since she has no marketable skills or experience.  Her luck starts to turn around when she runs into Bill again one night.  He’s found a job as a truck driver and the two of them decide to get married on the spot.  Even though he soon loses that job, he gets another one, but is injured in an accident.  Now Carol has to get money for medicine and has no other choice but to turn to prostitution.  Unfortunately, she makes the mistake of trying to pick up Bill’s brother Tony and he turns her into the police.  The officer takes pity on her when she vows to never do it again and gets her a job as a waitress.  She hadn’t been ready to tell Bill about how she earned the money for his medicine, but is forced to confront the issue when Tony breaks the news to Bill for her.

Faithless isn’t a terribly remarkable movie, but it is enjoyable enough.  Tallulah was pretty good in it, especially in the beginning when her character still thinks she’s rich.  She totally owned her character’s awful attitude in the beginning of the movie, but when her character is totally desperate in the end, she didn’t quite go into that part with the same zeal she did earlier.  Robert Montgomery was more consistently good, though.  It’s no must see movie, but if you do have an interest in Tallulah Bankhead, I’d recommend checking it out anyway.  She was mainly a theatrical actress and didn’t make very many movies, so it’s nice to get to see her in action.

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.