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The Divorcee: The first true Pre-Code film

12 mins read

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 strict edicts. As a result, most 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 designed to enforce them. 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. They provided a list of ‘do’ ‘don’t’ and ‘caution’ relating to acceptable and unacceptable content for the public audience across the United States. The practice only began to stall in the late 1950s due to television and foreign films, alongside directors who pushed boundaries. As a result, 1968 marked the final year of the Code; replaced by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system, still used 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 through highly problematic characters. For example, 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.

Finally, adultery, infidelity, prostitution and sex as a weapon 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). Just as ​The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) was groundbreaking in its portrayal of interracial relationships. Even if a white actor in the lead Asian role, now takes away from its progressive nature.

On a thematic level, these films dared to introduce challenging topics and plotlines; refusing to condemn the characters who challenged the moral status-quo. The result of which makes the Pre-Code era unique in the eyes of many film historians. The realism these films portrayed 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. There is another – historical – aspect that allowed their existence. By the early 1930s, the post World War One world had begun to splinter. The Roaring Twenties coming to an end; an era where freedom, corruption and sexual liberation sat beneath the glamour, as movies found mass popularity. The Great Depression sparked a new need for escapist cinema, while its ramifications led to global political unrest.

In American cinema, three genres benefited the most from this escapism; horror films, gangster films and melodramas, with the former two having their first golden age during this period.
Melodramas of the era embraced female protagonists while exploring female life. Women in these films departed from the homemaker role; becoming complex, independent and strong-willed people. In addition to this, Women also began to appear in parts formerly considered masculine; a change that would prove popular with cinema audiences.

The Divorcee (1930) 20th Century Fox

Often referred to as a milestone 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. We then jump years ahead, as Ted and Jerry celebrate their third anniversary; conveniently skipping the happy years of their marriage.

During the party, Jerry finds her husband in a compromising situation with his ex-girlfriend Janice (Mary Doran). Doran’s performance carries with it much of the melodrama she was famed for in the silent era, which transforms her into a somewhat over-the-top villain. This heavily contrasts Norma Shearer’s more modern and subtle acting, further amplifying the difference between the women; making Shearer’s Jerry all the more sympathetic.

Ted eventually admits having had an affair with Janice. He begs for Jerry’s forgiveness and swears it didn’t mean a thing. He leaves for a business trip that night and Jerry impulsively decides to get back to him by cheating on him with Don (Robert Montgomery), a long time friend she has never had feelings for. 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 finally admits the affair to Ted saying she had ​“balanced their accounts”. Ted is hypocritically furious. And here it is interesting to see the double standards of how he cannot accept Jerry’s reasoning “it didn’t mean a thing” while downplaying his own affair with the same argument; it is okay to commit adultery as long as it is not your wife doing it.

The two file for divorce and part ways. Jerry seems to be less shaken by the events and starts enjoying life as a single woman, turning to partying and travelling. Ted, in the meantime, takes the divorce harder and becomes an alcoholic. Jerry eventually plans on running away with a married man, a friend from their social circle. However, she reevaluates her decision after having a heart-to-heart with the man’s disabled wife and cannot break up their marriage. In turn, deciding to rekindle her relationship with Ted, starting with a clean slate.

While the end can be interpreted as compromising or even regressive by having Jerry return to her husband; a forced happy ending unnatural to the realism previously depicted in the film. I have personally always read the conclusion as subversive. Only once Ted realises they are equals, the two can live happily ever after; him rather than her having to change. In a typical melodrama, the male protagonist tries everything to win back the woman, diminishing her independence to a mere sexual prize. But, here, a woman who has numerous affairs under her belt openly discusses using sex as a weapon. The film’s conclusion neither punishing nor condemning her actions. While at the same time, the man is forced to respect her sexuality, strength and independence. The film’s ending making it clear this is exactly what Jerry wanted all along.

The star of the film, Norma Shearer, was undeniably one of the most prominent and provocative actresses of the early 1930s. She starred in 8 talkies between 1930-1934, seven of which entirely subvert the viewers’ preconception of marriage’s sanctity while also questioning the institution’s contemporary relevance. These films often use the female protagonist’s viewpoint to portray the frailties and negative aspects 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 title from “​Ex Lady​” to “​The Divorcee​” which is undeniably more appropriate since it emphasises a more 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; censors insisting that while a person could be referred to as lighthearted the act of divorce could not. Shearer herself loved the role of Jerry, claiming it to be “very strong, almost ruthless. Perfect for me.” And she was right, her acting absolutely elevates the film, and her best actress Oscar is well deserved. She perfectly navigates the character between the innocent wife and the liberated modern woman without losing the audiences’ respect for Jerry.

The film is not perfect by any means; being one of the first talkies at the turn of the decade it is evident the filmmakers and scriptwriters (and even some actors) were still struggling to adapt to sound filmmaking. However, the female viewpoint and the progressive ending make it groundbreaking. Even with its flaws, it is worth watching for its historical importance as the first true Pre-Code film, inaugurating one of the most interesting and entertaining periods in cinema’s history.



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