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.

The Divorcée

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.

The Divorcée

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.

The Divorcée

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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The Divorcée

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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.

The Divorcée

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.

The Divorcée

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!

The Divorcée

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

The Divorcée

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.

The Divorcée

Pardon My French: Foreign Languages and Wit in the Movies

If they ever make a movie about the Tower of Babel, it ought to be a romantic comedy.

After living in a France for two months, I learned just how funny linguistic confusion can be. Notice I said after, because those kinds of problems are only humorous in retrospect, or when they’re happening to someone else. Which brings us to movies and the mildly sadistic pleasure we derive from the befuddlement of others, so long as they’re fictional.

Language versus Body in Design for Living

Some of the most innovative comedy scenes I can think of involve the unexpected interjection of a foreign language—and would fall completely flat without that language, unlikely to be spoken by the majority of viewers. Consider this sublime opener to Lubitsch’s 1933 Design for Living, in which two male friends, George and Tom, (Gary Cooper and Fredric March) meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) who’ll become the focus of the love triangle that fuels the movie.

(If, for some reason, you can’t play the video here, I direct you to the unlisted video on my YouTube page and ask that you please not share the link for commercial purposes.)

Look, there’s a lot that’s funny about this, but I’m going to stick to the French. So—apart from how hilarious it is to consider that anyone would ever mistake Gary Cooper for a Frenchman—what’s remarkable about the clip is that the first lines spoken by the main characters wouldn’t have been understood by most audience members. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for giving viewers a lot of credit in the brains department. In fact, Darryl Zanuck actually hired a man he knew to be an idiot because, “I know if a situation is clear to him, it’ll be clear to anybody.” Thus is the importance of clarity to the studio system and, I’d argue, to cinema in general!

This opener harkens back to silent aesthetics, since it relies so heavily on gestures and facial expressions to carry across its meaning. The sound tells you nothing for most of the clip. The image shows you everything. It’s all very physical: from Gilda’s, and our, deduction of Tom and George’s personalities from their sleeping faces to the subjective blurred image of her dainty foot as seen by George. Am I dreaming or is there a fetish object in my lap?

Then again, imagine the scene after everybody wakes up with English instead of French chatter and what have you got? Well, basically an exaggerated argument between quibbling artists.  Goofy, yes, but not truly funny and definitely not witty. The foreign language completes the alchemy of the opening. To a certain extent the misunderstanding that Gary thinks Miriam is French and vice-versa is funny, but even without the great “Aw, nuts!” reveal, the scene would be droll for an American audience.

In my opinion, the humor resides foremost in the fact that we may possibly understand others just as well without speaking their language. It’s just a funny thought: I don’t know what you’re saying, but I know exactly what you mean. We can get the significance even if we don’t get most of what’s being signified linguistically.

It’s the superfluity of language that becomes amusing. There they are, trying so hard to debate the hell out of Frederick March’s upper maxillary bones in a second language, and they might as well have just pointed with the occasional growl. The intellect that it takes to discuss anatomy in French offers a droll juxtaposition to the crude and obvious nature of the gestures and the emphasis on the body in the opening shots. It’s embarrassing, because they (and most other humans) like to believe that they’re perfectly fluent linguistic communicators and thinkers, above caveman grunts. Gilda exclaims her frustration when she feels she can’t win the argument by talking and defending her artistic choice: “Ceci est une caricature!

And what does she say when she breaks into her native language? “Aw, nuts!” It doesn’t get more anatomical than that. The inelegant, staccato English slang even suggests the crassness of what she’s saying and overturns the implicitly civilized nature of all language, which makes all things more abstract and general. The mind and the tongue, the “higher” parts of our nature, serve the body, the physical, the tangible. The way the body and the mind wrestle with each other makes up most of comedy. Lubitsch makes it palpable by switching from a comedy of images to a comedy of words versus images.

I believe that Lubitsch is suggesting that, in the end, humans are pretty primitive. We canget by with gestures, even when discussing something as sophisticated as artistic perspective. Though a fully modern, spirited woman, Gilda can’t help but focus on the physical, too, forming a relationship with the physiognomy of the two men long before she meets them.

And Tom and George, roused (ahem), by a woman’s tiny foot, are not all that far from “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” They’re homo sapiens in nice suits with a smattering of continental charm, but the physical dimension still rules their lives, as it is at the heart of our need to communicate. A big preoccupation of language is courtship. How many times have we mentally face-palmed ourselves after a particularly awkward exchange with a desired individual of the opposite sex?

In Design for Living, we see how often humor is about sex and rivalry, and how often sex and rivalry are humorous. And, in this brilliant opener, we also see how intimately language is bound up with physicality. Language and the mind are the slaves of the body, Lubitsch chuckles at us from behind the screen, and don’t you forget it.

Wooed by Mr. Wu, or Very Creative Intertitles

I could go on forever with examples of comedic moments hinging on language. In Gilligan’s Island, not known for particularly intellectual comedy by a long shot, Ginger announces that she can speak some Hawaiian that she learned while singing in a bar in Waikiki which she promptly rattles off, sounding sultry and exotic. Skipper asks what it means. “The bar is off-limits to all military personnel,” she matter-of-factly replies. That’s another (rather funny) problem with languages we don’t understand. The textures, the feel of the sounds, become more powerful than the meaning. Who needs significance when you have a beautiful, mysterious signifier? Which brings me to case two…

Intertitles, in theory at least, disambiguate the plot of a silent picture. For proponents of pure cinematic art, captions were the bête noire of the silent era, threatening to sully the image with words designed to impose an interpretation. The prejudice continues. When I was a little girl, I read in the Eyewitness Guide to Film, “Poor-quality silent films made heavy use of caption cards, but good directors preferred instead to rely on the cast to tell the story.” In other words, intertitles served as support for the narrative, filling gaps, sort of like plumbers caulk, and nothing more.

That, however, is not always the case.

I had the privilege of seeing the silent film Mr. Wu at the Cinémathèque Française. It’s a very strange film, comprised of 80% Oriental hokum, 20% pure stylistic genius, which comes in flashes. In one scene, a young British imperialist cad, Basil Gregory (the lovely Ralph Forbes), finds his way into the palace walls of a powerful Chinese warlord. Basil immediately proceeds to try to woo the Big Boss’s daughter, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée). As maidens are wont to do, she stumbles and twists her ankle. After some aggressive flirting on Basil’s part and some mute shock on Nang Ping’s, the young lady’s compainion Loo Song (Anna May Wong) arrives to intervene.

That’s when it happens. The screen explodes with dancing calligraphy. Slashes, curlicues, strokes of white, all governed by some order that assimilates them into an unknown meaning, burst across the black screen in vertical bars, pairs, slants, single characters, superimpositions, constellations. In Eisensteinian dynamics, black titles flash into starburst drawings and lines that radiate from the Chinese characters. The maidens talk in shot-reverse-shot, but their words combust.

The audience becomes Basil, beguiled and confused by this plunge into a world of mysterious signifiers. And yet, it’s funny! Even the stiffly urbane spectators at the Cinémathèque couldn’t repress a chuckle at this sly metafilmic subversion.

We read intertitles to understand, but these deliberately vex us. The character-strewn cards use a language we know, the cinematic language, to remind us of a language we don’t. The slight worry on Rénée Adorée’s stretched brows and Anna May Wong’s pout of disapproval give us the gist of the scene (I don’t like that guy one bit! Oh, but he’s so cute!),but the exact exchange escapes us. We are closed out of comprehension. By the very thing that’s supposed to render the film explicit. We’re helpless in the dark. So, of course, we laugh.

Once the clash of symbols has subsided, Nang Ping surprises her suitor by announcing that she does indeed speak English. She may understand without being understood. It’s quite meaningful that the women speak both languages, but the man doesn’t. The female of the species contains the allure of the symbol still to be learned by a foreign male. The woman is the cipher, the indecipherable character.

“We’re speaking different languages!” So goes the refrain of so many failed relationships. Basil and Nang Ping’s relationship—spoiler alert!—is doomed from the start. I can’t help but admire the aptness of the intertitles’ metaphor.

So, I’d observe that the sudden interjection of a foreign language, of something incomprehensible, punctuates a movie with comedy because it touches on a sore spot: the absurd things we manipulate language for… and how language, in turn, manipulates, embarrasses, and tantalizes us— especially when we don’t understand.

Movies are so popular, I suspect, because they largely dwell within the universally, often instantly comprehensible language of images. When a language we can’t make sense of pops up, however, there’s a combustion. We become aware of what we can convey without speaking and we also become more aware of what we don’t know, what we can’t decipher. Language comedy imposes a certain amount of vulnerability on the audience who’s placed its confidence in the readability of the image. It’s a shocking and brash betrayal. And all we can do is laugh.