Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
The Divorcee begins with a group of friends which make up the in-crowd of New York society. Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are in love. They decide to get married. Paul (Conrad Nagel), who also loves Jerry, is firmly relegated to the friend zone. Gutted, he proceeds to get drunk and gets into a car accident that disfigures one of the other women of the group: Dot (Judith Wood). Ur-‘Nice Guy’ that he is, he marries her out of pity. Wedding bells and domesticity, sacrifice and unrequited love. So far, so Hollywood. Female facepalm. But then halfway Shearer delivers the following searing monologue:
“And I thought your heart was breaking like mine. But instead you tell me your man’s pride can’t stand the gaffe. I don’t want to listen. I’m glad I discovered there’s more than one man in the world, while I’m still young and they want me. Believe me. I’m not missing anything from now on. Loose women are great. But not in the home, eh, Ted? Why, the looser they are, the more they get, the best in the world! No responsibility! Well, my dear, I’m going to find out how they do it. From now on you are the only man in the world my door is closed to.”
See, Jerry has found out that Ted had a fling with Janice (Mary Doran). And when Jerry can’t manage to be a good sport about it, in her misery, she “balances [their] accounts.” Ted of course does not believe this is the same thing at all! It ‘means nothing’ when it’s him doing the adultering, but the rules are different for a woman! She pleads with him, to no avail. And that is when she delivers the monologue above.
The plot carries on. Jerry ‘works hard and plays hard’, as a succesful businesswoman, an empty subsititute of a life, apparently. More amorous complications ensue. Many great dresses are ravishingly worn. She repents (rather dissapointingly!) to make the point that we all have but one shot at true love, or maybe one shot at the altar. That professional success and parties are just no substitute for love: a woman’s only true destiny. Or something. But still: get a load of that monologue. This is 1930, and we have a woman fervently exposing the hypocricy of moral values when they apply to men versus how they apply to women. “Welcome to the Pre-Code era, Welcome to Norma Shearer. Welcome to the twentieth century,” writes Mick LaSalle in Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. A-men.
With The Divorcee a trend was set for sophisticated women’s films, becoming a winning box-office formula. By 1931 Norma Shearer was in the top ten box office stars. She was one of the most daring of her era, as far as the material she chose and she was also one of the stars most in tune with the attitudes of her time.
In films like these, female audiences could have brief fantasies about liberation, and still go home feeling like the way they were living their life was right after all. A kind of pseudoliberation, as Jeanine Basinger calls it. But they were also a way of addressing the actual problems of women, a way of being safely subversive for an audience trapped in a largely subservient reality. In these pictures, women are important. In these films they are central in ways they were not in their daily lives. Oh. And in these films they had sophistication and glamour, of course, which were also conspicuously absent from the day-to-day in 1930 and after. But these films were more than pure escapism, in a very key way: they were, for all their frou-frou, truthful about women’s unhappiness.
The pre-Code party couldn’t last. In 1934 the Hays Code put an end to portraying female characters which such loose morals. Wives were back to being good sports in the face of their spouse’s adultery. Back to sainthood, sacrifice and setting a good example. The woman’s film, however, endured. As with all genres which are underrated, they continued to be subversive under the guise of silly woman’s entertainment. We have, however, never quite managed to catch up with the fearless innovators of the pre-Code era in terms of putting women, in all their human strength and fallibility, centre stage.
Books that were used to write this article are:
- Jeanine Basinger, A Woman’s View, How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930 – 1960
- Mick LaSalle, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.