Wow, two Chester Morris films back to back, both nominated for the big one in the same year? He must’ve been pretty highly regarded indeed, or at the very least fairly fortunate. Morris aside, The Divorcee ended up being a vehicle almost entirely for its star actress, Norma Shearer, who initially wasn’t to get the role at all, as her husband, studio head Irving Thalberg, wasn’t convinced she had the romantic appeal for the part; some vote of confidence from your own loved one, right? Well, Shearer was determined to overcome any pretense of denied nepotism, and arranged a sultry photo shoot that convinced her husband she was the right gal for the role; apparently she was, as she won the Oscar for Best Actress for it. Shearer is unquestionably the star of this one, but what really surprised me was how up to the task the rest of the film was at matching her contribution.
I hesitate on the plot summary, because there’s a lot that happens in this film that really must be experienced by a viewer on their first go-through; not to mention that most of the plot summaries I’ve seen for this one opt for the route of explaining the whole thing but leaving the final decision of the main character up in the air as a half-incentive to watch the film yourself & see how it’s resolved, so I’ll try my best at not doing that. Shearer is Jerry, a young bride-to-be with an excellent circle of friends, including Paul, who’s had a crush on her for a while and is devastated that he is not the upcoming groom. It’s during a social gathering at their three-year anniversary that Jerry finds out her husband Ted (played by Morris) had had an affair early in their marriage, and in her grief and frustration, coupled with Ted taking an inopportune work trip away for a week, leads to Jerry having an affair of her own to, in her words, balance the account that is their marriage. Ted is furious, and the two are divorced, and both lead exorbitant lives of their own in an effort to try and cope, but mostly to see if they really are better apart from each other than together, which is made more complicated when Paul manages to re-enter Jerry’s social arena. So, besides Shearer, who shows why she did end up winning the Oscar (even with the meddling of her studio head husband, who *cough* campaigned on her behalf), what does work with this one? As it turns out, a heck of a lot. Even though the sound era is indeed moving along to recoup some of the losses of technique that came with the advent of the technology, I don’t think I’d seen a film chronologically as wholly complete and well put together as this one was, until now. There were a lot of shots that were well-framed, and a number of shots that were cut into the film to add to the feel and effect of the picture, instead of the bare-bones thriftiness and economy that ended up miring most other early-era talkies. The quality was just well above that of other films and nominees of the time, and I was really surprised at the film even barely into the running time, so much so I found myself invested in what was actually happening with the characters, another aspect of the film that was also exceedingly well done, thanks to the film’s almost excessive use of subtext due to being a pre-Code film.
This is another inexplicable entry in the Hollywood canon; it’s so simple in plot, so basic in construction, and so without frills and baubles that it begs the question of why one should sit through it, especially a good 80-some years after it was made. Well, because it’s just a really good film, that’s why. Probably more than half of what goes on in the film isn’t actually stated out loud, but occurs through gestures and expressions, and in the empty void that happens when the characters don’t say anything. Considering this film is about two people who divorce after each is unfaithful to the other, this is just the way it needed to be. This is a smart picture, well put together and well acted, though I did detect some hamminess out of Chester Morris, and there was one character in the film that seemed to exist solely to ensure there wasn’t a complete lack of a blatant comic relief character, and whose antics wore thin the very instant he first appeared on screen. Those quibbles aside, if you find a good quality copy of this one, give it a go; I think you’ll find plenty to be surprised about.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10