“THE DIVORCEE” (1930) Review
I just watched “THE DIVORCEE” last night. This 1930 MGM film tells the story of a happily married couple, whose marriage crumbles under the taint of infidelity. This is the second time I have seen this film and again, found myself surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
Norma Shearer portrayed Jerry Martin, a happily marrried New York socialite, who discovers that her husband, Ted (Chester Morris), had a drunken one night stand with some blowsy woman. She tried to pretend that it was bridge under the water and openly forgave him. But his infidelity continued to bother her. And when he leaves New York for a business trip to Chicago, she has a one night stand with his best friend, Don (Robert Montgomery). Jerry confesses her infidelity . . . and discovers that as far as Ted is concerned, what was good for the goose, was not for the gander. The couple divorces and spends an unhappy year trying to forget one another. They eventually reconcile at a party in Paris.
I understand that the Jerry Martin role nearly evaded Norma Shearer, because husband and MGM production chief Irving Thalberg did not feel that the role suited her. She used a series of sexy photographs taken by George Hurrell to convince Thalberg that she could do the role. And she certainly proved that she was the right woman for the role. What I liked about Shearer’s take on Jerry was that she was not one type of woman or another. She was a complex woman who discovered that she could not hide her feelings – whether she was disturbed by her husband’s infidelity and hypocricy; or her longing to reconcile with him, despite enjoying the company of other men. Shearer certainly deserved the Academy Award she had received for Best Actress.
Although he had some moments of over-the-top acting as Ted Martin – Jerry’s husband, Chester Morris did a pretty good job portraying the newspaper man, who tried to dismiss his own infidelity . . . and discovered how his wife truly felt in the worst possible way. What I found interesting about Ted’s character was how alcohol led to a great deal of his troubles. It was alcohol that encouraged Ted to cheat on Jerry. And it was the booze that he had indulged, following the breakup of his marriage that led to the loss of his job. Morris did a great job in portraying a complex and flawed man without becoming some one-note antagonist.
Robert Montgomery was at turns rather funny and sexy as Don, Ted’s best friend with whom she cheated on. Many have dismissed Conrad Nagel as a boring actor, who performance in the movie was not worth mentioning. Mind you, his role as Paul, Jerry’s former boyfriend was not as splashy as Morris or Montgomery’s, but Nagel still managed to invest enough angst as a man who is dealt a double blow in life when the woman he loves (Jerry) marries another man and he finds himself in a loveless marriage with a woman (Judith Wood), whose face he had disfigured due to a drunken car accident.
While watching this film, I was surprised how the attitudes and personalities of most of the major characters seemed revelant today. Despite the late 20s/early 30s wardrobe and slang, the so-called “Bright Young Things” were really not that different from the Twenty and Thirtysomethings in the dating scene, today. I felt as if I had been watching some comedy-drama about a marriage, set in the late 20th or early 21st centuries. As a sideline, I also enjoyed the movie’s East Coast setting and set designs by Cedric Gibbons. And I especially liked Shearer’s wardrobe, designed by the famous Adrian.
I realized that “THE DIVORCEE” had a “happy ending” that many modern viewers do not care for. But for me, it was an ending in which both husband and wife were humbled. They not only forgave each other, but forgave themselves. Hell, I bought it. But more importantly, “THE DIVORCEE” continued to be an entertaining and fascinating movie, even after eighty-one years.