Norma Shearer. For those in the know the name is enough to generate onomatopoeia of admiration and excitement. Perhaps not the most beautiful actress on the MGM lot (Garbo), but that didn’t stop her from becoming the queen. Norma Shearer’s ambition was unparalleled. It helped that she was gorgeous and talented, but it was her drive for success that what made her into a beloved star and successful actress.
There’s a fun story according to which she was waiting in line to be picked as a chorus girl. They only needed 8 girls, so when Norma saw they had already picked 7 and they were far from reaching her in the line, she coughed and attracted the attention of the man in charge. She smiled her angelic smile. He smiled back and picked her.
She was the one to arguably kickstart the whole Pre-Code era with The Divorcee, prompting Joan Crawford to observe malitiously: “How can I compete with Shearer? She’s sleeping with the boss.” The boss was Irving Thalberg, producer in charge of MGM, Shearer’s husband. Crawford thought the part of free-spirited Jerry in The Divorcee was tailor made for her, given that Crawford was the free spirited flapper par excellence, as nominated by F Scott Fitzgerald.
Norma wanted to discard her ingenue persona and make a real impact in the newly transformed medium, now that sound had arrived. Her previous attempt, The Trial of Mary Dugan, hadn’t quite rocked the boat. Thalberg himself didn’t think his beautiful wife could portray a highly sexual Jerry, who, now divorced, was free to have sex with as many men as she liked. Shearer, with the help of an unknown photographer named George Hurrell, would prove her husband wrong. She went and had a dramatic makeover. Thalberg yielded. The role was hers and so was the Oscar.
But why is The Divorcee such an important film in the history of Pre-Code Hollywood? Simply because it deals with double standards in a very clever way.
The story is based on a bestselling novel from 1929, Ex-Lady, written by Ursula Parrott. Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are happily married. When Ted confesses an infidelity, he assures her not it meant nothing. Heartbroken, Jerry forgives Ted, but she looks for consolation for his betrayal by sleeping with her friend Don (Robert Montgomery, who steals the show from Chester Morris). Yet for Ted, forgiveness isn’t as easy as for Jerry. His ego won’t let her escapade be as much of a “nothing” as his. Divorce is imminent.
The Divorcee goes beyond the concept of double standard by implying not only that men are allowed to philander, and women aren’t, but also by suggesting that when women do it, they cease to be “decent”. When Ted finds out that Jerry has “balanced our accounts”, he retorts by saying “I always thought you were the most decent thing in the world!” By this he not only implies that he had fetishized her, condemning her of being incapable of human mistakes, but also now, that she’s proven herself human, she is no longer a decent person. Men are allowed to cheat on their wives and still be considered decent people, but for women, the concept of decency is, as most things that are pinned on the “fairer sex”, a much more complicated one. Jerry stops being “decent”, at least in the eyes of her husband, as soon as she’s lowered herself to the same level as him. The man can live and thrive in the society without being decent, or better yet, can redefine the concept of decency any way he might choose.
This idea is reiterated by the scene following the Jerry’s confession: embittered and frustrated, with his masculinity in tatters, Ted arrives to their friends’ wedding party completely inebriated and causes a scandal. While evidently uncomfortable, the friends at the party try to smooth things over by forgetting the incident. Strangely enough, Ted’s confession of infidelity was also followed by a party, which, as if to add insult to injory, was attended by the other woman.
While hurt, Jerry managed to keep her composure in front of the other party friends, even though she was in the presence of the woman her husband had slept with. The nature of the emotions felt by both Jerry and Ted, as well as the manner in which they react to those emotions, is a perfect illustration of the inherent flaws in the society of the 1930s: The wife must keep up appearances, suffer in silence and endure the pains of the heart when she is betrayed. The husband cannot and will not keep up appearances, even though no more than his pride is hurt.
In the end, the reconciliation is imminent, mainly due to the overarching wisdom and unending love the wife has for the husband. The message is quite a traditionalist one: that the wife belongs to her husband and that, in spite of him not being a decent person, she will still love him unconditionally (almost as a mother).
By highlighting the two ways in which the man and woman reacted to similar situations, the film, while not fetishizing the female character, allowing her to make mistakes, gives her the opportunity to make a strong case against the double standards women are faced with. The Divorcee might have been too subtle a fable for the American society to draw wisdom from, if we are to judge by how little changed in society at the time.
One might also argue that things were already changing at a rapid pace, gender roles were becoming more fluid and the foundations of the status quo were beginning to show wear and tear. With such threats from such prominent public figures like Mae West and Norma Shearer is it any wonder that the male Catholics in power saw it necessary to form the Catholic Legion of Decency so that they could continue to “protect their American values” and stop giving women so much power, both onscreen and off?