Welcome to another Film Friday! As I have mentioned in previous weeks, I’m not much for modern cinema; I’ve only seen two new movies in the past year — THE GREAT GATSBY (a mediocre Luhrmann special) and OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (a film completely lacking in humanity). I suppose I am a bit of a film snob. But I have to be honest with you: my preferences have always been television and theatre. Movies are a definite third. Most of my love for film stems from an appreciation for the wonderful actors and personalities that have shaped American cinema, and on a larger scale, the American culture.
Today’s post is the first in a series that will highlight films from Norma Shearer’s Pre-Code talkie years (1929-1934).
Norma Shearer (1902-1983) was once known as the “Queen of MGM.” Arriving in L.A. in 1923, Shearer was among those cast in the newly formed MGM’s first official picture, He Who Gets Slapped (1924). From there she became a major box office draw and was one of the studio’s biggest stars. Of course, it didn’t hurt that in 1927, she married L.B. Mayer’s righthand man, producer Irving Thalberg. Then with the advent of talkies, Shearer’s success grew. In 1930, her career rocketed when she received an Oscar for her role as the sophisticated modern wife in The Divorcee (1930). With a new persona in place – sexy, modern, and fun-loving – Shearer became the “Queen of MGM.” Though her image cleaned up with the implementation of the Production Code in 1934, Shearer continued to thrive in big-budget costume drams. After Thalberg’s death in 1936, Shearer continued to make films until her retirement in 1942 at the age of 40. Remembered today as a “perpetual virgin” in the post-Code films of the late ’30s, her role as Queen has often been subject to harsh debate. Fortunately, with the recent release of many of her Pre-Code films, audiences can once again see why the daring Norma Shearer was indeed the “Queen of MGM.”
Today’s post will cover two of her Pre-Code talkies: The Divorcee (1930) and A Free Soul (1931).
The Divorcee (1930)
When a woman discovers that her husband has been unfaithful to her, she decides to respond to his infidelities in kind.
Starring Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Robert Montgomery, and Florence Eldridge. Based on a novel by Ursula Parrott. Treatment by Nick Grindé and Zelda Sears. Continuity and Dialogue by John Meehan. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.
This is the picture credited with ushering in a wave of sexy, sophisticated women in film. The Divorcee, an 83-year-old marital drama is still interestingly fresh. With performances that are delightfully understated, dialogue that sparkles with truth, and characters that seem TOO MODERN to exist in 1930, this is a very enjoyable watch.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Shearer’s husband, Morris, has an affair with another woman. So while he’s away on business, Shearer decides to sleep with his best friend, Robert Montgomery. Upon Morris’s return, Shearer confesses and begs for forgiveness, but when he insists that her infidelity is worse than his, she decides to leave him with this wonderful 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 young and they want me. Believe me, I’m not missing anything from now on. Loose women…great, but not in the home, eh, Ted? Why, the looser they are, they more they get. The best in the world, no responsibility! Well, my dear, I’m going to find out how they do it. So look for me in the future where the primroses grow. And pack your man’s pride with the rest. And from now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to!”
Adding to the story is Conrad Nagel, who has always loved Shearer, despite being married to another woman out of obligation. The plot is engaging enough. But most viewers are going to see this film for Shearer, who in addition to looking magnificent, turns in a layered performance of heartbreak, gaiety, and honesty. Seeing 1930 lust is exhilarating. Especially when it’s handled tastefully by professionals, as it is here.
A Free Soul (1931)
An alcoholic lawyer who successfully defended a notorious gambler on a murder charge objects when his free-spirited daughter becomes romantically involved with him.
Starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Clark Gable, and James Gleason. Based on a book by Adela Rogers St. Johns. Based on a play by Willard Mack. Adaptation by Becky Gardiner. Dialogue and Continuity by John Meehan. Directed by Clarence Brown.
Shearer’s third film after The Divorcee, A Free Soul presents another “liberated” woman – a gal who’s going to do just want she wants to.
Here’s the plot: Shearer’s alcoholic father, Barrymore, is a lawyer defending gangster Clark Gable. Though she’s engaged to Leslie Howard, Shearer and Gable hit it off and begin dating on the side. It’s mostly a physical thing on her part, but their feelings for each other soon deepen. When drunk Barrymore learns of their illicit relationship, he demands that his daughter stop seeing Gable. She agrees to give up her addiction if he gives up his – booze. When Barrymore falls back off the wagon and runs away, Shearer returns to Gable, who forcefully demands that he marry her. Leslie Howard reenters the picture and kills Gable for threatening Shearer. What to do? Get ill Barrymore to return and defend Howard.
With a bigger plot, more twists, and higher drama, A Free Soul may appeal to some viewers more than The Divorcee. I watched both films this week in preparation for this blog and the two other viewers with whom I watched preferred A Free Soul. However, I preferred them both equally. The acting in A Free Soul is first-rate, but The Divorcee has much more honesty. Meanwhile, although Gable’s character in A Free Soul was always represented as tough, his quick turn to domineering didn’t ring true. No fault to his acting, the script didn’t seem to offer a better transition. That quibble aside, the story in this film is probably more engrossing, as are the characters, who have desires that exceed the romantic machinations of those from the previous film.But in terms of sheer entertainment value, they both deliver and are equally worthy of viewing.
Mention should also be made of Shearer’s shear tight white gown that apparently to this day elicits gasps when seen on the big screen. Very sexy.
Both The Divorcee and A Free Soul added to Shearer’s popularity and created a boldness that justifiably earned her the title “Queen of MGM.” But don’t just take my word for it. Check out these movies, both of which have been released on DVD, and see for yourself!
Thanks for sticking out another week with me! Tune in next Friday for a spotlight on two more Pre-Code Shearer films. And come back Monday for another Gershwin show that you’ve never heard of!
Norma Shearer is fantastic. So is your series on her Pre-Code work! The first film I saw her in was the (now) lauded “The Women”, and I was shocked to discover that the film was somehow overlooked by the Academy and did not garner a single Oscar nomination — Norma Shearer positively broke my heart in that role. I suppose I would have to be knowledgable about the context at the time, and I realize 1939 was “the” year in terms of competition, but I would have much preferred to see “The Women” in the line-up for Best Picture over “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, “Dark Victory”, “Stagecoach”, or even “Wuthering Heights”. No one was going to beat Vivien Leigh, of course, but at least the consolation we have is that “The Women” has only grown in stature and acclaim since its release and is now rightfully considered the classic it is.
Having been convinced Norma should have gotten recognition for her role in “The Women”, I sought out the role she did happen to win her Oscar for, 1930’s The Divorcee. I was completely disarmed by how charming, effervescent, and MODERN (yes, in caps! I agree!) she and everyone else in the film was. My mind flashes to that scene where she’s living it up at the party (still feeling very 1920s). The way she gestures her hand and the adorable, cheeky look on her face all but scream NOW. I was so impressed by her. I was never bored; far from bored, in fact. All the players were so unexpected, the script refreshing. The layers Shearer was able to convey and live and capture..I make it a point now to record every Norma Shearer film I see come up on the TCM schedule. I unfortunately have not yet seen A Free Soul, but I can’t get enough Gable, so I’ll have to add it to my ever-expanding watch list! Lovely to see her given her due here, Jackson.
Hi, Izak! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Shearer really led the way for the A-level Pre-Code heroine during the early part of this era (1930-31), and for those who know the actress best from her later, nobler roles (like in THE WOMEN or MARIE ANTOINETTE), these early films are a revelation! There’s a scene she shares with Gable in A FREE SOUL (1931) that I think is one of the hottest moments that Hollywood ever captured on celluloid. WOWZA!
Well hot damn, then! I’m going to seek out a copy posthaste! There *is* something about the lust, as you named it, of this era (and how it’s depicted on film) that’s so much sexier than the vulgarity rampant in all forms of today’s media. It’s more more attuned to human desire, for sure.
And yes, that’s the perfect way of putting it — it was, indeed, a revelation to see her play her part in The Divorcee so marvelously after I had only known her from The Women!
Indeed. It’s more honest. Fewer pretenses.