Saturday, 11 July 2015

Shearer vs Shearer… The Divorcee (1930) and Their Own Desire (1929)

In 1930 Norma Shearer was nominated for two Oscars for her performances in each of these films winning on Divorce but losing on Desire. Sometimes too easily associated with her mighty husband Irving Thalberg, Ms Shearer deserves a lot of credit for evolving screen acting from silent to sound along with Greta, Joan and co.

I like her relaxed focus, her uncluttered expressiveness and the unconscious way she’ll pay attention to the granular details in order to reinforce the naturalistic surface. She has energy – literally – standing up against the men as well as a wit and native intelligence which transcends her characters.

Norma Shearer
Then there was her look… falling somewhere between Clara/Jean’s inherent sexiness and Garbo’s ethereality, Norma had a naturally-fascinating face, one you could see on many streets but one that came to life on screen animated by a gentle expressiveness that presents convincingly as real.
In these early sound  films her voice can come across as slightly shrill and high pitched but that’s technology as much as technique and is more noticeable in Desire than Divorce. She may not have had Greta’s range or Joan’s ferocity but she was a force to be reckoned with even for her husband.

Norma gives Robert Montgomery a piece of her mind
Famously, Joan Crawford was up for the part in Their Own Desire with even Thalberg doubting his wife’s ability to sex-up. Norma’s response was to commission a photo shoot that so emphatically proved her point that she got the part. That’s acting… and the assurance of the moral high ground at home for months.

The nominees include… Their Own Desire (1929)

Belle Bennett, Norma and Lewis Stone
Their Own Desire was directed by E. Mason Hopper, written by the ubiquitous Frances Marion based on the novel by Sarita Fuller. It was released just after Christmas in 1929 and is a slick early talkie with evident “pre-code” leanings…

Cue Norma in tight top and jodhpurs (the swim suit comes later…) taking part in a polo game, playing daughter Lucy - aka “Lally” - to her lovingly-competitive dad, Henry Marlett (Lewis Stone). She falls and there are anxious minutes as she recovers yet she won’t let a little winding slow her down.

A bit like my weekends...
Back home to see mother, Harriet (Belle Bennett) who seems old before her time, especially in comparison to the widow Beth Cheever (Helene Millard) a woman who hasn’t forgotten where the peroxide bottle is. She’s clearly on the lookout and, whilst Lally makes fun of this she doesn’t suspect that there’ be any danger…

Cut forward some months and the worst has come to the worst and Lally still knows nothing even after her parents have agreed to divorce which they are hoping to disguise by her and mother going off to Europe for a few months…

The other woman...
But Lally blunders across the truth when she walks into her father’s workshop to find him and Mrs Cheever in a compromising cuddle. She can’t take it all in and refuses to balance her father’s wish to spend time with “The one” against her mother’s misery.

Meeting Mr Wrong?
Team Mom heads off on their break and Lally meets a sparky young man called John (Robert Montgomery) whilst demonstrating a sleek swimsuit at the local Lido. He sneaks a sub-aquatic kiss and a romance begins. All is swimmingly-swell until a fateful moment when he reveals himself to be Mrs Cheever’s son.

Oh delicious pain… Can Lally be involved with the son of the woman who ruined her parent’s marriage? No spoilers… 

And the winner is… The Divorcee (1930)

This film was released just under four months later and, allowing for the Thalberg’s Christmas break and January skiing holiday, must have taken less than three months to produce.

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard from a novel by Ursula Parrott, The Divorcee is a “tighter” film and less obviously melodramatic than Desire. The drama comes out of the central couple’s relationship and the eternal questions of fidelity and communication between men and women.

The guests are all shocked in different ways...
It starts off with a gathered of NYC high-flyers at a large log cabin – large enough to include the wise-cracking housekeeper Dorothy (Judith Wood) and separate rooms all round.

As the jollity proceeds, everyone wonders where Ted (Chester Morris) and Jerry (Norma Shearer) are? Jerry’s former/nearly-love (?) Paul (Conrad Nagel) stands watch at the door; still hoping, still pining whilst a young woman Dorothy (Judith Wood) looks longingly at him: a daisy chain of the disappointed.

Ted and Jerry encouraged by a local youth...
We cut to Jerry and Ted enjoying some affectionate larks by a stream as he kind of pops the questions and she, kind of, accepts – it’s carefree as emphasised by a young boy urging her to say yes “for the love of Mike” as he waits to resume his fishing… They return to the party to congratulation and celebration led by Ted’s best mate Don (Robert Montgomery – again!) as Paul turns quickly to the bar with disastrous results. As everyone leaves he crashes his car disfiguring Dorothy for life and eventually marrying her out of the obligation of pity.

Shifting forward three years we re-join the crowd at a party to mark Ted and Jerry’s anniversary. All looks to have been blissful until an uninvited guest arrives: Janice (Mary Doran), a woman who seems on familiar terms with Ted.

Now comes the test as Ted reveals to Jerry that he had a one-night stand with Janice…. Protesting that “it “doesn’t mean a thing…” Ted clearly isn’t able to admit or comprehend the huge misstep he’s taken and, with a business trip looming, he’s about to be away from two whole weeks before he and Jerry can really process the betrayal… and, by the time he gets back things have developed momentum.

Ted departs that night and one thing leads to another as Jerry  gets tipsy with kind, loyal Don and, as the curtains are drawn in his apartment Jerry decides to “balance the account”.

Jerry about to balance the account...
Jerry’s not really that kind of girl and on Ted’s return, as he tries to go back to normal she reveals the truth (careful to keep Don’s name out of it). Oddly enough Ted takes this badly and seems to have lost touch with the whole “meaning nothing” vibe... He loses it and Jerry, realising by now that she’s married to a narrow-minded hypocrite, decides to become the kind of lady that he imagines men to be: she will enjoy herself.

Ted turns to drink and runs off to Europe whilst Jerry enjoys a string of relationships smartly represented by various tableaux involving Jerry’s and a variety of suitors’ hands as they hit the towns… Are they punishing themselves or trying to run away? The escape is going well until Jerry finally runs into Paul again…

The Divorcee is a better film than Desires both technically and in terms of content but I think Norma Shearer’s performances are equally good in both and she is the main reason to view. For all the sexy pre-code accoutrements – infidelity, wine and skimpy – both films are ultimately morality tales that promote the values of loyalty, forgiveness and the importance of love over pride.

The Divorcee is available as part of the Forbidden Hollywood box set volume two whilst Their Own Desire is on Warner Archives DVD.

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