music friday: revisiting willie and lucinda
rock 'n' roll high school (allan arkush, 1979)

the divorcee (robert z. leonard, 1930)

I just finished reading a 1929 novel by Ursula Parrott, Ex-Wife. It was popular on its release, and was published anonymously, although it wasn't long before Parrott's authorship was discovered. Ex-Wife was a fairly "racy" novel, told from the point of view of the woman. It's a good read, as they say, recently reissued. It feels quite modern, with its protagonist fighting for her independence amidst lots of one-night stands.

A year later came a film adaptation, The Divorcee, with Norma Shearer. The pre-Code movie was a bit edgy, but it was a milder version of Parrott's vision, one in which the divorcee ends up returning to her ex-husband. Mick LaSalle, author of Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, is a great champion of Shearer, and he called The Divorcee "one of the best American films ever made about the breakup of a marriage." He believes the film was "subversive" and a "pre-Code landmark", claiming that the film goes places the novel did not, for the better. I think this requires a misreading of the novel ... I never thought the title character in the book was "a sex slave for her ex-husband". But LaSalle knows what he talks about when it comes to pre-Code films, and he makes a convincing case for the importance of The Divorcee, which won Shearer her only Oscar.

The problem is that, historical significance or not, The Divorcee isn't a very good movie. LaSalle has worked hard over the years to rescue Shearer's reputation from the likes of David Thomson, who wrote about "the fact—evident to anyone who cares to look at her films—that she was fluttery, chilly, and more nearly vacant than any other goddess." I am no expert on Norma Shearer ... I liked her in a dual role in the silent Lady of the Night, but while I am a fan of The Women, my memory is that Shearer was dull in comparison to her many co-stars. And I found The Divorcee to be less interesting than even Lady of the Night. It's a curio of a movie, worth seeing for that historical significance, but this is a case where you're better off reading the book.


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