Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot? The Divorcée (1930)

The Divorcée

The Divorcée is an odd film.

To the eyes of a modern viewer (at least the cinema-seasoned eyes of this modern viewer), the 1930 M-G-M Norma Shearer vehicle, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, comes across as both shockingly bold and, on first viewing, annoyingly stilted and stagey. I’ll fess up: I did squirm at the oh-so-sophisticated depiction of divorce among the upper classes—where there’s no financial consequences, children, or overwhelming familial disapproval to make the rupture messy. This a fantasy divorce, make no mistake, in which virtually nothing peels away at the veneer of glamour, lacquered thick over the whole affair.

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On the other hand, I cannot quite choke back the glee when Norma Shearer informs her dismissive, one-time-philanderer hubby, “I’ve balanced our accounts.” Is there a wittier way of informing one’s, ahem, better half that you’ve attained sweet, sweet revenge?

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Norma gave us her matter-of-fact opinion on sex in motion pictures in this interview from the 30s.

I swoon at the glamour of Norma’s outfits by Adrian. Whether she’s a good girl or a girl behaving badly, career woman Norma parades around in some of the most to-die-for suits and evening gowns I’ve ever drooled over.

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Best of all, she barely dips her toe into vamp territory. We understand that she’s neither a home-wrecker nor a Gothic man-eater, a variation on the succubus. On the contrary, she’s just a sharp lady who wants to have a little fun. And look damn good while doing it.

Shearer won an Oscar for her performance—but she had to fight to get the role. Her husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at M-G-M, didn’t think she could handle the role. He worried it would eat away at her star image and her popularity. It took a photo shoot that Norma arranged of herself in steamy pre-Code lingerie to prove otherwise. Irving caved to her demands.

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And I must acknowledge that The Divorcée throws quite a few hard punches. Ones that send me reeling, that’s for sure. (Oh, and there are spoilers in this post. If you want to bail out now, I’ll let you.)

So, how are we to evaluate a film like this? One that feels tiresomely backwards—yet looks strikingly forwards? It’s New Years, so I think I have some time to contemplate this Janus-faced creation. In particular, I want to ask the question that the movie seems to cling to: should old acquaintance be forgot? Only, instead of talking about ex-husbands, I want to ask that question about this movie and give a few reasons why, despite a few mawkish angles, The Divorcée deserves to be remembered.

The Divorcée

First off, the title intrigues me. No surprises there. Somebody’s getting divorced! The title already announces a separation, so we, the viewers, know that the wooing, cooing couple we see in the opening scenes, Norma and Chester Morris, is going to end up splitting. But how? That’s suspense, right there. And some rather refined irony!

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Don’t get too attached to this couple!

With jazzy credits music and a bunch of people giggling in a country house, the film’s opening lures you in with the promise of a witty marital sex comedy (of the Private Lives ilk) then steers you right into ugly drama. The movie begins with a blithe little party among friends in the countryside. We get a rather ordinary love quadrangle: Jerry loves Ted, but so does Paul—even though Dorothy loves Paul. So, when Paul hears that Jerry is going to marry Ted. He doesn’t take it so well.

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He gets drunk, drives off the road, and the accident smashes up Dorothy’s face.

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Talk about going from zero to sixty! The scene made my jaw drop. The expressionistic angles of the crash, the sense of loss and irrevocable damage, the shrill shrieks of Dorothy’s sister as she cries for revenge over her sister’s disfigured body.

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In a split second, The Divorcée plunges us into darkness and we’re still gasping for breath when the light comes.

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Right from that nasty car-crash scene, we go to a chapel where Jerry and Ted are going to be joined in matrimony. Movie weddings often bubble over with joy—or at the very least hijinks—but at The Divorcée’s doomed wedding, the sheer inauspiciousness of it all virtually whacks you over the head.

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Sure, the bride blushes and the groom smiles, but something’s not right. We’re all too shaken—and full of presentiments—to bask in the joy.

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There’s a very significant dissolve from the priest reciting the service to this shot of the bride and groom taking their vows. Notice how abstracted it is—no heads, no personality. It’s a picture of Marriage, not of our marriage, not a union between two living, breathing people. It reminds me of a glib Victorian illustration.

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And as if that uncomfortably headless shot wasn’t irony enough, another dissolve transports us to another marriage—the atonement marriage of Paul and Dorothy, who wears bandages in place of orange blossoms and a veil, as she reclines, mutilated for life, in a hospital bed. The Divorcée equates these two weddings and prods us to think hard about the apparent chasm between the dream wedding and the nightmarish one—because, in point of fact, they’re not so different.

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Hands actually play a very important part in this film. Once Jerry separates from her husband and embarks on a series of affairs, we see them transpire in rapid succession through a bunch of shots of hands meeting over tables.

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I love this clever montage for its acidly funny encapsulation of relationships. I’d also point out that the lack of faces allows the viewer to put herself in Jerry’s place and experience the vicarious rush of her lusty divorced life. But, most important, the sequence reminds me of Jerry’s and Paul’s weddings—and not just in a simple “that was right, this is wrong” kind of way.

On the contrary, I think all this hand-play encourages us to see both extreme forms of relationship—lifelong commitment and casual sex—as equally dangerous if undertaken without thought…when you leave your head out of the picture.

Living in the moment is dangerous, The Divorcée tells us, because every moment you’re bargaining with the rest of your life, even when you’re not vowing “ ’til death do us part.”

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The pleasure-haze of an addled brain—a kaleidoscope of good times.

We see this truth alluded to by the motif of drunken mistakes in this film: Paul’s accident, Ted’s infidelity, and, the most carefully portrayed, Jerry’s drunken affair with Don, who was the best man at her wedding. She learned a few hours ago that her husband cheated on her with a woman who “didn’t mean a thing” to him. But, unsurprisingly, that doesn’t make her feel better.

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So she goes out drinking, and we savor a cloudy, loud nightclub as a tracking shot jerks dizzily over to her table where we see written across Norma Shearer’s face a look of blank, despairing stupefaction. All the festivities are lost on her.

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Then Don leans towards her and in that close framing, we can practically feel their breath and smell the alcohol on it. She smiles—it feels nice to be appreciated.

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Without a line of dialogue, this scene nails the dim, sleepy, assault-on-the-senses ambiance of the situation, which could’ve felt contrived. It’s almost as though we’re watching someone’s fuzzy memory replay of what happened the night before.

So they go back to his place.

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As Don suggestively strokes Jerry’s fur coat, the soon-to-be-adulteress looks almost right at us, as if defying us to judge her, to think that we’d do any different in her place.

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Curtains close. Lights go out. Sex makes for the best ellipses, doesn’t it?

Even nowadays, I can’t think of too many movie women who get their bedroom revenge so quickly. I can’t think of any who make the walk of shame look as good as Norma does. But again, it’s hard to congratulate this movie. What’s the take-away message? That women should do as they like? Or that women are just as bad as men?

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Perhaps Norma’s Jerry says it best when she dismisses this kind of broadly gendered talk:

Oh, Ted, don’t let’s talk about men and women. They do all sorts of things. We’ve got to live our own life, dear. There’s so much of it ahead.

The Divorcée serves up a story about individual consequences that aims to look at mature situations. It’s not the clarion call of a sexual revolution. It doesn’t need to be, though. And I refuse to fault the movie for not being one. Even if I do get a little miffed at its contrivances, I can see the ways in which this 1930 sensation still echoes through to today.

As Don, Robert Montgomery dances his way through a performance so likable, yet loose of morals that you feel like he was born to provide consoling vengeance. He’s nice, handsome, rich, smooth, witty—and totally no-strings-attached. They could package him up in cellophane and sell him at Rebounds-Are-Us.

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I adore how fun and non-evil he is as the cheerful “other man.” Especially when, years later, he runs into Jerry’s husband (who has no idea Don slept with Jerry) and talks about Jerry’s mysterious rebound guy. “What would you do if you ever found him,” asks Don. “I’d kill him,” Ted replies. The look on Montgomery’s face is priceless.

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He’s so sweetly caddish that you can also easily trace his descendants in the sitcom, rom-com lineage, including Patrick from Stephen Moffat’s top-notch Coupling and Barney from How I Met Your Mother. (Yes, yes, I watch that stuff too!) Don is still with us, my friend!

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The New Year’s reunion at the end of this movie also, I daresay, inspired the conclusion to When Harry Met Sally. But, it’s a lot more problematic since, in the end, Jerry finds her ex and vows to rebuilt their life together. Lots of people would argue that this ending is lame and conservative—making an otherwise scandalous Pre-Code film palatable to a crowd of morality thumpers ready to knock down the studio doors. However, I would argue something different.

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As Jerry kisses her ex-hubby and “Auld Lang Syne” swells on the soundtrack, we get a vaguely happy feeling, but what’s done cannot be undone. These two adults recognize this—which is why their marriage stands a chance now. They’re people who’ve seen more of the world, enough to know that actions have repercussions. Even Jerry’s insistence that “all the world gets a fresh start,” sounds plaintive and a trifle reserved.  And that’s why, with broken illusions, they can embrace as the lights go black.

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Genuine bitterness: Ted knocks over a wedding cake when he discovers that Jerry’s paid him in kind.

It’s no accident that, at the very beginning of the movie Jerry and Ted were acting out a parody of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most clueless and immature lovers.

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When I was in seventh grade and first read Romeo and Juliet, I didn’t like it one bit. I thought it was mushy and dumb. It’s taken me many, many years to come ’round and see it as a delicate exposé of teenage romanticism—the kind of steam-heated, fast-expiring passion that is so very tragic, not just because it makes people do tragic things, but because if those same people had waited one more week they probably wouldn’t have even remembered the caprice.

Not looking forward is pretty stupid. That’s what the characters in the movie do at the beginning. They marry without knowing much about life. They can’t see past some nebulous notion of “forever.”

But not looking back is even worse. The past returns in a tangible and frightening form in The Divorcée when Jerry gets involved again with Paul who proposes to divorce his disfigured wife (there’s a keeper!) to marry her. Jerry is waiting for Paul in her apartment one day when a knock comes at the door. A woman wearing a thick black veil stands there—and the camera even pivots almost imperceptibly to heighten the unease of this apparition.

The Divorcée

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Whatever you want to say about this movie, the raw, surreal jolt that you get out of seeing the deathly figure appear out of nowhere, in such an ordinary, posh setting, cannot and will not be denied. Like I said, in its own way, this movie packs a punch. The Divorcée tugs at the complex tangle of time, past hopes and overshadowed futures. Poor faceless, blameless Dorothy, encased in layers of black tulle, totters into the film like a specter and, to me, remains the most memorable part of the movie.

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In a film that puts drama and comedy into a cocktail mixer and shakes ’em hard, Dorothy seems to come from a horror film—she’s like a ghost. She brings back the past, she’s almost one of the living dead. Even her sister says that it would be better if she died. Nobody seems to want Dorothy alive, yet she lives. And needs to be listened to.

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But—and this is why I chose The Divorcée for my last post of 2012—we can all learn not to turn our backs on the past.

And, when we do look back, we shouldn’t look back with smugness and condescension, like I wanted to when I put this movie on. This year, I’ve met a lot of lovely people who cherish old movies like I do. However, I’ve noticed a lot of old movie bashing and bristled at different enunciations of the idea that we know better now than they did then.

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Messy streamers in the first of The Divorcée’s two New Year’s scenes suggest that the connections between people never get fully severed. Just tangled up.

As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The past always comes back. It wears a veil, no doubt, but only idiots choose not to look at it. The past comes to us and tells us things that we don’t want to hear, things that we often chose to denigrate rather than decipher.

Well, guess what? Someday we’ll all be past—and a new crop of urbane scoffers will assess us.

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Paul catches a glimpse into Jerry’s train compartment. Fate intervenes to bring the past back to him and to Jerry.

We shouldn’t always look back in fondness. Sometimes we need to look back in anger. But, always, always, we need to look back with receptiveness and a little holy dread.

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So watch this movie. For the wisecracks, the shocks, the clothes, the feminist overtones. Whatever. But watch it.

Watch an old movie you want to discredit. Watch it and it might astonish you. I hope it does. It may not. But don’t sneer at it before you’ve given it a chance.

That’s why I watch old movies. Because I enjoy looking back. Because I like learning from and laughing with the past. Because I like remembering, even when it’s painful to remember.

Because someone damn well needs to.

Take this curtain, for instance, which shows up in the first of The Divorcée’s New Year’s scenes. You only see it for a few seconds:

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But I recognized that curtain! I’d seen it in the 1927 M-G-M silent, Mr. Wu. I wrote my thesis on it!

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There’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s no excuse not to look at what gets recycled, at what we keep, at what we remember.

Should old acquaintance be forgot? Not on my watch.

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Freaks, or What’s the Attraction?

Calling Freaks a horror movie would actually mistakenly categorize and limit the film, which is itself an anomaly—a freak, if you will.

I’m not the first person to remark that it’s part revenge fantasy (an important text in the genesis of the “revenge film” genre), part heartwarming dramatization, part kinky Pre-Code exploitation. As I re-watched it the other day, it occurred to me that Tod Browning’s film constructs itself as a sideshow, with a director surrogate figure, the carnival barker, providing a prologue and frame story centered around a major reveal at the end.

As many of you may know, director Tod Browning did have a background in circus clowning and contortionist feats which makes the “step right up” hype spiel at the beginning even more connected to him. Even though there’s an audience in the movie, we can’t escape the feeling that this guy is talking to us, the non-diegetic audience.

In other words, the fourth wall is shaky from the beginning and it stays that way.

Which brings me to the idea that Freaks is a great instance of the “cinema of attractions” rearing its head in the midst of narrative Hollywood. This term “cinema of attractions,” coined by the critic and scholar Tom Gunning, has come to characterize the era of newborn motion pictures which often operated in a presentational manner rather than a representational manner (I totally recommend Gunning’s writings on this).

In other words, if these early movies could talk, they wouldn’t say, “Get absorbed in the plot and identify with the characters.” They’d said, “Holy sh*t, have look at this!” That is, they intended to thrill, shock, and spellbind audiences in a way that often directly acknowledged the viewer. If there was a plot, you could tell that it was just building up to some kind of privileged “money shot” (like the close-up of a lady’s ankle in The Gay Shoe Clerk). In other words, spectacle was the name of the game.

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Freaks doesn’t have much of a narrative. It’s a pretty short film, but even for its barely-over-an-hour runtime, the plot feels stretched thin. As Irving Thalberg said when he read the script, “I asked for something horrible. It’s horrible.” Let’s face it, you don’t go to Freaks for well-balanced story-telling. You rush to the theater to gawp at real life anatomical abnormalities. In other words, Freaks harkens back to the sideshow attraction quality of cinema.

And yet it also brings together two strands or bloodlines of that early cinema: research and spectacle. Browning documents the unusual bodies of the freaks and thus fufills the research in reality component of the Lumière Brothers’ films, while also presenting these bodies as a spectacle, something which magician Meliès pursued without end. Jean-Luc Godard once said that he made his films as “research in the form of a spectacle.” I would argue that Freaks is the opposite. A spectacle which actually turns out to be a kind of documentation, research, loving scrutiny.

This shot of the lovely Frances O’Connor, for instance, contains all the “wow” factor of a magic trick, but, situated as it is within an unremarkable dinner scene, we also realize that this woman eats like this every day of her life. We come to Freaks to gawk, but we leave with an understanding of the ways being born with a physical difference affects daily existence. At its best, Freaks is mundane, not sensationalized. Spectacular because of its ordinariness.

Time to Shine

Freaks animates an unprecedentedly varied ensemble cast with small vignettes that pull focus onto the strengths and gifts of each character. As I revisited Freaks this last time, Browning also impressed me with how he worked to emphasize the unique movement patterns of his unusual stars. I particularly appreciate how he used a ground-height dolly shot to capture the capering grace of Johnny Eck, the “Half Boy,” as he “walks” on his hands underneath a circus caravan—silhouetted by flashes of lightening.

Schlizte, on the other hand, lacked the dynamic travelling movements of Johnny Eck, but Browning gives him almost as many medium shots and medium close-ups as leading lady Olga Baclanova! And with good reason, for Schlitze lights up the screen. He’s fantastically photogenic, bubbling over with the kind of unihibited joy that few professional actors can project. It’s easy to project sadness, but happiness is hard.  Not for Schlitze, though.

One scene that will forever stick in my memory, the proposal with the Hilton Sisters (the cool Hilton sisters, not those rich freak-shows who own hotels), the beautiful and very talented conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet, provides an instance of bizarrely tender comedy. As the fiancé kisses Violet, Daisy, who’s been doing her best under the circumstances to read unobtrusively, closes her eyes and smiles as she feels this apparently quite enjoyable intimacy. We, the viewer, also share in this sublime cuteness.

I can only describe this humor as a strange love child of Cronenberg and Lubitsch. The connectivity of the bodies provokes an eruption of giggles by virtue of its foreignness to the majority of viewers. And yet, the subtle sexiness of the vicarious experience, of something wonderful shared with a close friend, infuses what could be a punchline with warmth.

Haven’t you ever had a dear friend or family member who confided in you so much that you could almost feel their memories and relive their flashbacks? Don’t all sisters communicate their dramas and receive each other’s emotions, to some extent? The universality of this feeling elevates the joke above the “freak show” physicality that it might immediately suggest. The audience also partakes in this girlish complicity and connects to the sisters with a bond of sympathy, not flesh.

Who You Calling Freak?

Seriously, watch Freaks again and check out how many shots reveal the oppressed characters just looking towards the camera, if not at it. Peeping through windows. Glaring at off-screen characters. Peering up from a hiding place. A few examples:

Often lob-sided, strangely framed, or partially obscured by bars or shadows, these shots disrupt screen space and attack the eye of the viewer. The compositions make us increasingly aware of being looked at. Yep, we’re back to that shaky fourth wall that the film pushes at from the carnival barker at the beginning.

However, this time, the gaze of the downtrodden characters threatens us much more.

In the end, how do you react to “freaks” presented at a sideshow? Why, you look at them. You gawp at them through a peep hole, a partition, bars. Whether you get to feast your eyes or merely catch a glimpse, you’re throwing your gaze over and onto something.

To this day, audiences watch Freaks in order to gape at the unusual bodies presented therein, but, Browning turns the tables on us. The “freaks,” the subjects of the spectacle empower themselves to look back. No passive objects of scrutiny, they return our gaze with pride and menace in these jarring shots.

In fact, it might almost be said that they’re looking over the barrier of the screen and of time to study us. What is a freak after all? As the prologue-spouting showman of the beginning reminds us, but for an accident of birth, any anatomically normal person could be one of them. I’ll go one step further: isn’t the desire to see freaks on parade pretty freaky in and of itself?

The withering stares of the cast remind us of the extent to which ordinary film viewers harbor a germ of sadism and perversity in their love of seeing. When the voyeur gets looked at, in return, he blushes. He realizes his own absurdity. In this case, the characters look at us and we become the freaks.

Moreover, to whom does the unbearable Cleopatra actually deliver her tirade at the wedding feast? In her long, shrill rampage, we don’t see anyone but her, isolated, railing in the direction of the camera. Our and the camera’s point of view fuses with the perspective of the wedding guests. In other words, it’s us she’s calling freaks.

A throwback to the cinema of attractions, Browning’s Freaks plays to the audience in order to shock us, but not just for idle thrills, but rather for a more legitimate purpose. The questions palpitate in the air, “What if you were one of us? What if you already are?”

The spectacle, the ostensible freaks of the title, turns on the spectator and reverses their positions.

Formally, the prevalence of looking shots and manipulations of perspective mirror the plot of the film. Just as Cleopatra, who’d scorned and abused the freaks, transforms into the horrific chicken woman, the viewer, lured in by the promise of peering at carnival abnormalities, must endure the accusatory stares of these fully-realized people. The attractions tie into, and echo, a narrative direction in a rather salient, border-line “meta” manner.

While Freaks does harken back to the so-called primitive attraction-driven cinema, the movie also looks forward to a more aggressive kind of spectacle—a delicate balance of identification, wow factor, and uncomfortable viewer acknowledgement that later cinema (Hitchcock and Godard come to mind) exploited and mined.

Then again, you could have guessed the movie was going to be revolutionary from the opening titles, when a hand rips through from behind the movie. The humanity of the film reaches through and tears away at the diegetic divider. It’s a startling acknowledgement of the film’s illusion, even if it does take place during the credits.

You’re not allowed to numb-out here, Browning seems to tell us. You’re not just going to watch. Something might be watching you. The great thing is, Browning doesn’t make us squirm with at the sight of the freaks. He makes us squirm when we feel like we are one of them, that we’ve traded places.

Gooble, gobble, gooble, gobble!