Strabismus of Passion

THE DIVORCÉE (1930), an early talkie from MGM, is one those films that’s only really enjoyable when you watch it with my wife.

It’s so early, the MGM lion doesn’t actually produce any sound when he roars, he just sort of moves his lips like Jean Hagen.

This is the first image. So we know it’s going to be cutting edge entertainment. This cheeky fellow’s actually performing Singin’ in the Rain, because this is MGM — it segues into You Were Meant For Me a little later.

The film is stodgy and stagey, and what narrative drive it has is seriously hampered by awkward framing, acting and general pacing. Star Norma Shearer makes the mistake of marrying Chester Morris, overlooking in her ardor the fact that his nose is an extension of his sloping forehead, as if he were wearing a medieval helmet made of skin. When she finds out he’s cheated on her, she cheats on him with Robert Montgomery (only unclenched performance in the film) and then she actually clutches the drapes, so hard she leaves a permanent kink.

Fiona: “My God she’s terrible. And they must have used a lot of starch on those drapes.”

Me: “All that was left over from the cast.”

But the costume changes by Adrian kept us watching. “She’s a great clothes-horse.” Not just gowns but sportswear. Anything, really.

“She’s OK in THE WOMEN,” Fiona admits. Of which this is a clear precursor, having almost the same story but none of the funny, interesting or special qualities.

And Cedric Gibbons dresses the sets just as beautifully. The slow pace, and the desire to exploit the possibilities of offscreen sound, result in some nice empty frames of the kind you know I like.

“Look at that coffee set! My God, look at the creamer! I can’t remember ever being so excited by the china in a film. Look at that vase!”

Director Robert Z. Leonard manages to rustle up a montage of hands, the dialogue playing outside the frame, a sophisticated touch slightly deflated by the linking of shots by fades to black, in case things got too lively. There’s also a crazy drunken rear-projected car ride followed by screaming hysteria, smashed metal, bloody faces and stark lighting, an unexpected break from the drawing-room theatrics. And the turgid pace allows us to appreciate the invention applied to solving the problems of the immobile mic, location filming, unusual wide shots, etc.

“We need to watch another film as an antidote.”

9 Responses to “Strabismus of Passion”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Is this the one where she says something like, “You are the only man to whom my door is closed!” and tries to make it fierce?

    Some lines just refuse to be tossed off appropriately. In “Prisoner of Zenda” Ronald Colman manages to make “You’ll never get providence interested in this enterprise” a snappy comeback, but I can’t think of anyone else pulling it off.

  2. God, we just watched it last night and I can’t remember if that line’s in it. But she does have a right old knees-up while awaiting her decree nisi.

    Norma can’t really pull off any of her effects in this film, and at one point laughs prematurely at a straight line, and then has to repeat the laugh when the funny bit comes along.

  3. Norma has long fallen “out of fashion.” But she was at the height of her fashionability here — and won an Oscar to boot. Read Gavin Lambert’s bio. She’s an antique now — but a very decorative one.

  4. Until now I thought Minnelli’s “The Cobweb” was the only drape-fueled movie of note.

  5. I think drapery-clutching was a real theatrical fad, and I like to believe it was already old-hat at this point.

    The fantasy of a nice girl like Norma being wicked is quite alluring, I can see why it would be popular. Maybe we’ll look at A Free Soul next — it’s directed by Clarence Brown, maybe the best of the MGM romancers.

  6. “When Gloria Grahame changes the drapes it’s curtains for everyone!”

  7. chris schneider Says:

    No Shearer fan, I. But I do remember enjoying a moment or two in the Cukor-directed ROMEO AND JULIET. The two other Shearer performances I’d like to see are in HER CARDBOARD LIVER (Cukor) and ESCAPE (LeRoy), both films being unknown to me. I *have* seen PRIVATE LIVES, where she’s nowhere near Robert Montgomery’s equal and yet is not-at-all bad.

  8. chris schneider Says:

    “LIVER” was supposed to read “LOVER,” of course, but I rather like the new title.

  9. Her Cardboard Liver = sheer poetry! Well, I have to see the Cukors, sometime. I’ve seen the wrong Escape, the very minor Mankiewicz.

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