The Divorcee is available on limited streaming platforms worldwide.
Censorship in American films is as old as cinema itself. However, until the mid-1930s, filmmakers mostly ignored the regulations as advice rather than a strict mandate. As a result, many films found themselves distributed even if they broke the loose rules surrounding them. The Pre-Code era refers to a period in American Cinema between the Hays Code moral guidelines of 1930 and the formation of the Production Code Administration in mid-1934. This unique four year stretch of American film history contained some of the boldest and most progressive films ever seen, even by today’s standards.
The Production Code Administration was designed to enable rigid enforcement of the new code within productions. Here they provided a list of do’s, don’ts and cautions relating to acceptable and unacceptable content for the audiences across the United States. The practise only began to stall in the late 1950s due to TV, foreign films and directors who pushed the accepted boundaries. As a result, 1968 would mark the final year of the code as it was replaced by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system, still in use today.
Pre-Code films freely depicted taboo subjects of the time, many of which were prohibited after the Code’s enforcement. For example, abortion was a plot point in Christopher Strong (1933) and Chance at Heaven (1933). While at the same time, homosexuality found itself nervously reflected in, Call Her Savage (1932) and Our Betters (1933). Meanwhile, Heroes for Sale (1933) and Three on a Match (1933) depicted illegal drug use on screen. While adultery, infidelity, prostitution and sex found a voice not only in Mae West’s films but also in A Free Soul (1931), The Prodigal (1931), Faithless (1932), Baby Face (1933) and Red-Headed Woman (1933).
On a thematic level, these films dared to introduce challenging topics and plotlines, refusing to condemn characters who challenged the moral status quo. The result is a Pre-Code era of unique movies that film historians still discuss at length. Of course, the realism these films portrayed would be replaced by a sugar-coated world view once the code came into effect. However, pre-code films are not exclusively the result of lenient censorship; another – historical – aspect allowed their existence. By the early 1930s, the post World War One world had begun to splinter as the roaring twenties came to an end; an era where freedom, corruption and sexual liberation sat beneath the on-screen glamour. As one age died, another was born alongside the darkness of the great depression, which sparked a new desire for escapist cinema.
In American cinema, three genres benefited the most from this need for escapism; horror, crime and melodrama. Here the melodramas of the era embraced female protagonists while exploring themes of liberation. Women in these films transcended the traditional homemaker role seen previously, becoming complex, independent and strong-willed characters. Here women would begin to appear in parts formerly considered masculine, a change that would prove popular with cinema audiences.
Often referred to as a cornerstone of American Cinema, The Divorcee is widely acknowledged by film historians as the first Pre-Code film; housing all the elements that illustrate what made the era so original. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard and written by Nick Grindé, John Meehan and Zelda Sears. The Divorcee is based on a 1929 novel by Ursula Parrot called Ex-Wife. The film begins where most traditional love stories end, with Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) getting acquainted, falling in love and entering into marriage just 15 minutes into the story. But, we then jump years ahead as Ted and Jerry celebrate their third anniversary, conveniently skipping the happiest years of their marriage for something darker.
During the party, Jerry finds her husband in a compromising situation with his ex-girlfriend Janice (Mary Doran). Here Doran’s performance carries much of the melodrama she was famed for in the silent era as she becomes a somewhat over-the-top villain. This heavily contrasts Norma Shearer’s more modern and subtle acting, further amplifying the difference between the women. Ted eventually admits having had an affair with Janice and begs for Jerry’s forgiveness as he swears “it didn’t mean a thing”.
That night Ted leaves for a business trip and Jerry impulsively decides to get back at him by cheating on him with Don (Robert Montgomery), a friend she has never had feelings for previously. Even by today’s standards, the scene is nothing short of radical, and it was especially groundbreaking for the era. After all, on the codes enforcement in 1934, even married couples couldn’t be shown sleeping in the same bed.
Jerry admits her affair on Ted’s return, stating she had “balanced their accounts”. Ted is hypocritically furious in a fascinating example of male double standards. Here, he cannot accept Jerry’s reasoning of “it didn’t mean a thing” while using the same argument. After all, it is okay to commit adultery as long as it is not your wife doing it!
The two file for divorce and part ways. Here, Jerry seems less shaken by the events and starts enjoying life as a single woman through partying and travelling. However, the divorce is much more challenging for Ted as he turns to alcohol. Meanwhile, Jerry plans on running away with a married man, a friend from their social circle. However, she reevaluates this decision after meeting the man’s disabled wife and reflecting on the damage she would cause in breaking up their marriage. Therefore Jerry decides to rekindle her relationship with Ted.
While the end can be interpreted as a regressive compromise as Jerry returns to her husband in a forced happy ending, personally, I have always read the conclusion as highly provocative. After all, Ted has to accept their relationship as equals to get Jerry back. In a typical melodrama, the male protagonist will try everything to win back the woman, diminishing her independence to a mere sexual prize in the act. But, here, we have a woman who has had numerous affairs and openly discusses using sex as a weapon. The result is a conclusion that neither punishes nor condemns her actions as Ted is forced to respect and accept her sexuality, strength and independence.
The star of the film, Norma Shearer, was one of the most prominent and provocative actors of the early 1930s. From 1930 to 1934, she starred in eight talkies, seven of which subverted the accepted view of marriage while questioning the institution’s relevance. These films would use the female protagonist’s viewpoint to portray the frailties of marriage. As Mick LaSalle points out in his book Complicated Women, “Shearer hardly represented traditional family values on-screen – independence, sophistication and adventure being the most consistent elements of her screen image.”
Shearer came up with the idea of changing the film’s title from “Ex Lady” to “The Divorcee,” which is undeniably more appropriate since it emphasises the role of the independent female protagonist. This is especially interesting, given that 1934s musical The Gay Divorce had to change its title to The Gay Divorcee due to Hays Office pressure. Here censors would insist that while a person could be referred to, the act of divorce could not. Shearer loved the role of Jerry, claiming it to be “very strong, almost ruthless, and “Perfect for me.” She was, of course, correct; her performance elevates the film. Here Shearer perfectly navigates the interface between the innocent wife and the liberated modern woman without losing the audience’s respect.
Of course, The Divorcee has its problems, too, especially as filmmakers and scriptwriters (and even some actors) struggled to adapt to the new invention of sound recording. However, the female viewpoint and the progressive ending make The Divorcee genuinely groundbreaking. It’s historical importance as one of the first true Pre-Code films earning it a place in cinema history.
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