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.
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|
The nominees include… Their Own Desire (1929)
|Belle Bennett, Norma and Lewis Stone|
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...|
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...|
|Meeting Mr Wrong?|
Oh delicious pain… Can Lally be involved with the son of the woman who ruined her parent’s marriage? No spoilers…
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...|
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...|
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.
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...|
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.