The Divorcee (1930)

I'm stretching to discuss this here - the combined time spent on the holidays (in this case a couple different New Year's Eves) accounts for a minuscule portion of the overall runtime. Granted, those moments are thematically important and one of them closes the film, but even so, I wouldn't review a modern movie with this little seasonal screentime. But The Divorcee was released in 1930, making it one of the earliest talkies with any holiday connections I've located, and it was extremely successful at the time, picking up nominations for Best Picture, Director, Writer, and winning Best Actress for Norma Shearer. And while it feels very different than later Hollywood genres, elements of the structure resonate with modern romantic comedies (though this is definitely a drama). And seeing as one of those elements is the aforementioned New Year's Eve conclusion, I felt like I should discuss it.

Shearer plays Jerry, a woman destined to be the titular divorcee, though the movie opens on the night of her engagement to Ted. This isn't entirely without complication, as her friend, Paul, had been hoping to win her hand, as well. Paul gets drunk that night and gets in an accident, which results in the disfigurement of a woman who was interested in him. He marries her, and Jerry marries Ted.

We jump ahead a few years to the night of Jerry and Ted's anniversary party, which is crashed by a woman who Ted recently had a one-night stand with. Jerry finds out and is upset - Ted attempts to downplay the significance, assuring his wife it meant nothing and wasn't a big deal. Unfortunately for both of them, he needs to leave town that night on business, and Jerry winds up sleeping with his best friend. When Ted gets back, Jerry confesses and asks for forgiveness. But while she's willing to overlook both their indiscretions, Ted's wounded pride stops him from doing the same, and they get a divorce (though not before wrecking a friend's wedding party).

The movie quickly transitions to the first of two New Year's Eve sequences involving a lavish party. This one's extremely brief: Jerry sees Ted and goes over to try and retain his friendship, but - once again - he reacts poorly. This sequence signals a transition to a montage of Jerry attempting to enjoy herself with a series of flings (though we mainly see her receiving gifts and refusing to spend the night with various men). Eventually she runs into Paul, who invites her on a vacation, on which he proposes, or more accurately proposes to propose after he's obtained a divorce. He explains his marriage is an unhappy one, and both he and his wife will be better off apart.

Initially, Jerry is open to the suggestion, though she changes her mind when Paul's wife visits her and asks her not to take him away from her. She breaks things off with Paul and resolves to find Ted and try again to win his forgiveness. She catches up with him at a Paris New Year's party and finds him apologetic as well, having realized he acted badly earlier in the movie. They trade some dialogue about the significance of the New Year and embrace at midnight.

I doubt I need to explain the symbolism of New Year's here - hell, the movie pretty much spells it out in dialogue. In both instances, it represents a transition to a new time: the first, a period of Jerry trying to define and enjoy herself as a divorced woman, then - once that's failed - a time in which the couple is reconciled, having presumably learned from their mistakes.

I really can't stress how brief these sequences are. The conclusion, in particular, feels rushed, and I don't think that's just my reaction as a yuletide nerd. Given the emotional weight of the moment, I think it should have had more room to breathe - I strongly suspect it would have had this been made a few years later, but keep in mind the medium was in its infancy at the time. Even so, it stands out as an early example of what would quickly become a romantic comedy cliche, right down to Auld Lang Syne playing during the ending. Countless movies have ended this way, but to date, this is the earliest I've encountered. I'm skeptical it's actually the first. But as I said at the outset, whether or not it originated the moment, it almost certainly popularized it and contributed to it becoming a staple of emerging genres.

Ultimately, though, it's the movie's other themes that are more interesting. When it's not preaching about the importance of marriage, it's exploring gender roles. As her androgynous name implies, Jerry is described favorably by Ted early on as sharing a man's perspective on love, a compliment that foreshadows when she later "balanced the books" on their relationship (her words). The movie is built on the idea that men are hypocritically drawn to women with similar ideas on sex but expect leniency they won't share. I've got a lot of issues with the choices the movie makes around Jerry, but I appreciate that it never paints Ted's toxic responses (which include getting in a few fistfights) as remotely acceptable. 

I also appreciate that the movie doesn't idolize virginity or even strictly embrace monogamy. Jerry's act of retaliation is treated as a mistake, but certainly not an unforgivable one. A few years later the Hays Code would have prevented a script like this from being made at all, let alone picking up an Oscar for Best Actress.

All that being said, I'm less keen on some of the moralizing around the sanctity of marriage. I realize that sounds like a contradiction given the previous paragraph, but while the movie is forgiving of indiscretions, it ultimately implies marriage vows are eternal, and that trying to find happiness after a divorce is a doomed enterprise. In addition to Jerry, another character is a divorced friend who starts happy with her situation but ultimately reveals a great deal of regret and depression - the movie ultimately endorses monogamy as the best (and perhaps only) way of living... it just also encourages forgiveness around "mistakes."

To that end, the movie is crystal clear that Jerry is only ever really happy with Ted, and that her real mistake was not immediately forgiving him. While that's somewhat offset by the movie implying Ted's mistakes were more serious, it still feels like the narrative's being unfair to Jerry. She's really the victim here, but the movie portrays it as a situation in which both parties are to blame.

I suspect The Divorcee felt more progressive in 1930 than it does now, and - in some respects at least - it's aged pretty well. The context of how society viewed marriage and divorce were of course different, and the fact the movie was willing to even broach some of these questions almost certainly angered some conservative viewers. But I can't deny aspects now feel dated and regressive, which is really more important when considering whether this is something worth recommending. Obviously, it has a great deal of historical value to anyone interested in the era and early film. On top of that, it's well-directed by Robert Z. Leonard, with the caveat there are a great number of artifacts from the era it was produced, though that's generally the case with its contemporaries as well. But it's not hard to see why it was nominated for Best Picture, nor is it a surprise Norma Shearer took home an award for her performance (she really is fantastic).

Ultimately, this has a lot of value both in terms of its contributions to film and insight into how its subject matter was approached before regressive rules would make such a story impossible. But as far as a casual viewing experience goes, its limitations come off as frustrating, and its dramatic tone is too different from the genres we've become familiar with. This is a good film, but unless there's something about the synopsis that already has you intrigued, I'd suggest passing on it. That goes double for anyone looking for a Christmas/New Year's movie - the handful of minutes where the holiday is featured aren't going to scratch that itch.