The Divorcee (1930) Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Robert Montgomery, Florence Eldridge (83 min.)

Norma Shearer finds the freedom of the New Woman illusory in this steamy Pre-Code melodrama, the first film to challenge the newly minted Production Code. Based on a notorious best seller, Ex-Wife, Shearer is horrified to discover that its okey-dokey if husband Chester Morris sleeps around, but not her.

Ex-Wife was so shocking in 1929 that it was published anonymously. Later printings revealed it was the debut novel of Ursula Parrott. She was an ex-wife herself, in between her first and second husbands (she’d have four). The novel is a Jazz Age fugue, set in an hedonistic, edgy New York where everyone drinks, goes to first nights, drinks, goes to parties and drinks some more. Three Scotches before going out…how did they ever stay on their feet? They drink Manhattans, Martinis and Clover Clubs, a Martini with grenadine, lime juice and egg white added; sort of a salmonella cocktail.

Patricia (renamed the androgynous Jerry for the film) has married Peter; she thinks he’s her true love. He’s handsome, but shallow and mean. After he cheats on her, she does the same, and discovers there is, after all, no Single Standard. He hits her once in a while and shoves her through a glass French door. “Brought up under the tattered banners of ‘Love Everlasting’ and ‘All for Purity’ we have to adapt ourselves to life in the era of the one night stand.” Patricia uses “sex as an anaesthetic.” The men she likes she doesn’t sleep with (one of them is dying of syphilis). She runs around the track at the gymnasium after work and says she’s “Running through days of posing as an efficient young business woman, through nights of posing as a sophisticated young woman about town. Running from the memory of Peter, towards something or nothing, it didn’t matter which.” Her ex-husband is never a serious reunion candidate (although she does see him and sleep with him on occasion). And when she finally gets her divorce, “It is so silly to mind. Just an incident in the career of a Modern Woman. What the hell!” She eventually marries a pal and sets off on an around the world cruise, hoping to run into her new true love (unfortunately married, and now stationed in Japan).

An autographed copy, or a librarian’s aid to shelving an anonymous book?

(2017 Update: This is not Ursula Parrott’s signature)

Francine Prose writes in a recent introduction to the novel, “Yet Ursula Parrott’s dead-accurate ear for small talk is by no means the only reason why the novel impresses us as so oddly modern. What seems even more contemporary is a certain recklessness in its tell-all confessional tone (a tone we have come to expect from the celebrity bio and talk show guest with the checkered past) as well as in the events it describes–events that cannot help surprising us, a new generation of readers who, like every generation imagine that we have invented sex and self-destructive behavior.” Parrott sold 100,000 copies of the novel in 1929, and the movie rights for $20,000, a staggering sum in the crash year. She wrote tirelessly, novels and short fiction for women’s magazines, suppporting herself in a style to which few working women in the 30s could aspire.

The Divorcee is quite a bit different from Ex-Wife, preserving the New Woman’s freedom but insisting on a conventional happy ending. It opens with Shearer and Morris’ giddy courtship, where he compliments her on her man’s point of view. They are equals, “that’s why we’re going to make a go of it.” Blissfully married (she thinks) he promises to “make love to you until you scream for help,” but she “can’t scream.” She discovers that his halo has slipped with blowsy Janice, he’s sorry, but it’s no big deal…until she decides to balance the account with his best friend and discovers (like Patricia) that his talk of equality is a lot of hooey.

Chester Morris and Norma Shearer

Shearer has three suitors in this film, almost all of MGM’s heavy hitters (sans Neil Hamilton) Chester Morris, the sleep-inducing Conrad Nagel and Robert Montgomery in his reprobate days. Shearer was roughly half way through her film career when the talkies hit. She was in a uniquely good position at the studio. Her films were successful and often well reviewed, but her star image was unfocused. She had a pleasant speaking voice that recorded well, and a slight Canadian accent that would not typecast her. But, best of all, she was married to Irving Thalberg, MGM’s powerful head of production, much to the disgust of her rivals, particularly Joan Crawford.

Much is made in all the writing about Shearer of her physical flaws, which she dedicated herself tirelessly to overcoming. Most notable is the cast in her left eye that made her appear slightly cross-eyed. She was long waisted and her legs were a bit heavy, but she knew how to pose for the camera to compensate. Today, when actresses (particularly on television) have had so much plastic surgery that they are beginning to look alike, these so-called flaws are endearing. And, it is impossible to look bad in costume designer Adrian’s devastating outfits.

When Norma Shearer selected Adrian to do her costumes for this film, it paved his way to becoming MGM’s preminent costume designer

Norma described the role in The Divorcee as “Very strong, almost ruthless. Perfect for me.” She said, “I knew that MGM owned the story, and that MGM was considering borrowing someone from another lot to play it. I was there on the lot, under contact, and I felt in my heart I could do it. But…Irving laughed at me when I told him I thought I could do The Divorcee–it was so utterly different from the type of thing with which I’d always been associated.” Thalberg later recalled that even Shearer’s maid, Ursula (!) had said, “Oh, Miss Shearer, you don’t want to play a part like that. She’s a bad woman!” Thalberg had been one of the authors of the Production Code, drafted by Hollywood producers in 1930 as a effort to stave off threats of external censorship. How could he consider buying such a racy property for MGM? He prevaricated that Ex-Wife “presents divorce in the light of the growing evil it is looked upon to be, but…with less suspicion that it was looked upon before.” He promised that the film would not mention the source material in the advertising, much as the novel had first been published anonymously.

Note: The name of the novel is not mentioned, as Thalberg promised, but Ursula Parrott had only written one novel at that point!

Shearer said later, “I was determined to prove to him that it wasn’t ridiculous. But Irving won’t give me the part, he thinks I’m not glamorous enough.” She enlisted the help of George Hurrell, a Los Angeles photographer who had just taken some portraits of her colleague Ramon Novarro in a manner quite different from what had been the MGM house style under Ruth Harriet Louise. Hurrell devised a suite of lush deshabille poses that convinced the startled Thalberg his wife certainly was sultry enough, as well as opening the door for Hurrell to become the preeminent MGM portrait photographer. Of course, the fact that Shearer had usually played more virtuous roles contributed to both the finessing of the censorship issue, as well as providing her a personal victory (and Academy Award).

Nostalgia-based film history, from the 1960s and 70s, greatly misunderstood The Divorcee. Paul Michael, in a standard history of the Academy Awards writes, “The biggest surprise of the Awards banquet was the fact that Greta Garbo did not win best actress honors for her grand performances in Anna Christie and Romance. Rather it was Norma Shearer in a rather nondescript film, The Divorcee, who was acclaimed. She was ably abetted in this complicated and heavily plotted film by Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery and Conrad Nagel.” Or, in Jack Jacobs career review of Shearer in the August-September 1960 Films in Review, “The Divorcee was based on Ursula Parrott’s Ex-Wife and Shearer was quite good as the wife who revenged herself on an unfaithful husband. But the film as a whole suffered from the fact that Robert Z. Leonard directed it in the style of the silent screen.” Both these statements indicate, at the very least, that the authors had not recently seen the film (and certainly didn’t care to).

Norma Shearer tells Conrad Nagel she’s marrying Chester Morris.

Mick La Salle points out that one of the subversive elements of the screenplay is Shearer’s refusal to countenance her husband’s philandering, a tough-minded attitude that would erode as the 30s progressed. In a later Shearer film, The Women, her on-screen mother admonished her to turn a blind eye to her husband’s affair, much as she had for Shearer’s father. But, the New Woman insisted on taking the Single Standard at face value. “The Divorcee may be an antique, with some of the crudeness of an early talkie, but it tells the truth about men and women,” La Salle says. Shearer’s Jerry may be a bit “actress-y” with some stiffly calculated effects, but one advantage that Shearer had over her rivals was that she was a “nice” girl that you could imagine casually going to bed with Robert Montgomery. Walking away from the fabulous Art Deco apartment she shares with her husband at 10 West 68th Street, she takes his advice to “snap out of it.” Just not the way he means.


(Photo sources include: Shearer and Adrian from American Fashion, Shearer and Morris from Paul Michael’s Academy Awards, APictorial History, ad from The Great Movie Stars by David Shipman, Shearer and Nagel from the August-September 1960 career article on Shearer in Films in Review, title page of original printing of Ex-Wife from the Duke University Library. Sources include Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott, introduction by Francine Prose (1989), Norma Shearer by Gavin Lambert. Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits and Sin in Soft Focus by Mark A. Viera, Mick LaSalle, Complicated Women, American Fashion Sarah Tomerlin Lee, editor, 1975; Adrian essay by Robert Riley. Laura Jacobs article on Adrian in the June 2000 Vanity Fair. More Pre-Code Shearer: A Free Soul, Pre-Pre Code Shearer: A Lady of Chance, Code Shearer: The Women.