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The Divorcee

The Divorcee(1930)


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teaser The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee (1930) was the one that almost got away for Norma Shearer. As the wife of MGM's director of production, Irving G. Thalberg, she pretty much had a lock on any strong female role that ended up on the production roster. But her marital situation almost proved her undoing on this one. Thalberg had such an exalted opinion of his wife, that he initially refused to consider her for the lead in this steamy tale of divorce and infidelity.

The original novel was so hot, author Ursula Parrott had it published anonymously. When MGM acquired rights to the best seller, the Production Code Administration, which ran the industry's self-censorship program, informed them that they couldn't even use the original title Ex-Wife. So the story of a woman who takes revenge for her husband's infidelity by divorcing him and going through a string of lovers went on the schedule as The Divorcee. Just to keep things clean for the kiddies, the writers transformed the husband's affair into a romance before the marriage, while the wife's infidelities became just so much dating. But it was still a hot role- only it had been assigned to another up-and-coming studio star, Joan Crawford.

To convince her husband that she wasn't too ladylike for the picture, Shearer enlisted the help of a photographer who was just getting started in the business. George Hurrell had set up shop on the West Coast, where his first celebrity client was Latin lover Ramon Novarro. He had shot Novarro costumed for a variety of operatic roles as part of the star's campaign to become a classical singer. Shearer was so impressed that she hired Hurrell herself. She mussed up her hair, wrapped herself in silver lam - and lounged suggestively as he shot away. The photos convinced Thalberg that she could handle the role and, according to Hollywood legend, significantly improved their romantic life as well.

With Shearer in the lead, Thalberg gave The Divorcee all the attention a top production at MGM could get. Adrian designed the perfect wardrobe for her, while writer Francis Marion made some uncredited script changes, creating the kinds of lines and scenes that would show Shearer off to full advantage. For her part, the star insisted on endless rehearsals and retakes until her performance was just right. The film previewed so well, that it was one of the few MGM productions released without further tinkering from Thalberg, whose efforts in that direction had brought the studio the nickname of "Retake Valley."

The Divorcee's success led to further sophisticated and sexual roles for Shearer, including the screen version of Private Lives (1931) and A Free Soul (1931). But it brought her more than that. Shearer won her first Oscar® nomination for the role, though most people expected the award to go to Greta Garbo for her talking film debut in Anna Christie. A few days before the ceremonies (and long before the competition became world famous), the Academy announced that Shearer had won. To this day, rumors persist that Thalberg had ordered all of MGM's employees to vote for her. "What do you expect?" studio rival Joan Crawford used to say. "She sleeps with the boss."

Director/Producer: Robert Z. Leonard
Screenwriter: Nick Grinde, John Meehan, Zelda Sears
Cinematographer: Norbert F. Brodin
Editor: Truman K. Wood, Hugh Wynn
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Costume Designer: Adrian
Cast: Norma Shearer (Jerry), Chester Morris (Ted), Conrad Nagel (Paul), Robert Montgomery (Don), Florence Eldridge (Helen)
BW-82m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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teaser The Divorcee (1930)

A classic pairing of one of the Hollywood musical's most famous couples, The Gay Divorcee (1934) was the second film team-up of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and follows the frustrating efforts of American dancer Guy Holden (Astaire) to woo an unhappily married woman, Mimi Glossop (Rogers), who's in the process of divorcing her deadbeat husband.

Guy is first introduced along with his best pal Egbert "Pinky" Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton), an incompetent English lawyer whose own father doesn't trust him to run the family firm. Later, arriving in England after a sojourn to Paris, Guy spies the gorgeous Mimi with her skirt caught in her suitcase and her magnificent legs revealed. It is love at first sight for Guy who begins a relentless pursuit of this lovely but the elusive woman is not interested in being chased. Guy finally tracks Mimi down at the English seaside town of Brightbourne where she is conspiring with her flighty aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) and lawyer Egbert to be caught in flagrante delicto, thus establishing grounds for divorce. Into this delicate plot stumbles Guy and a madcap battle for a happy ending begins.

The combination of smashing musical numbers and loopy comic incident in The Gay Divorcee is best exemplified by the film's opening number ("Don't Let It Bother You") at a Paris nightclub floorshow, where a bevy of beautiful dames on a rotating stage make tiny lady hand puppets dance in chorus line synchronization. Another segment at an English beach resort, "Let's K-Nock K-Neez," is equally eye-popping and boasts an appearance by seventeen-year-old future pin-up queen Betty Grable. Other dance numbers in The Gay Divorcee prove more representative of the magic Astaire/Rogers touch. One of the movie's best numbers "Needle in a Haystack," features Guy's fruitless, obsessed search in London's streets for his dream girl. Equally inventive are the elaborate, glamorous "Continental" number, in which Astaire and Rogers and a plethora of gorgeously turned out dancers trip the light fantastic, and the couple's romantic dance against a backdrop of a glistening nighttime beach to Cole Porter's "Night and Day." In the film's perpetual battle of the sexes, pitting the overzealous Guy against the romance-shy Mimi, the only harmony is achieved during these stunning musical numbers where the couple put aside their quibbles and simply dance.

Meant to capitalize on their success with Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee was the first time in the team's nine collaborations that they received top billing after having only secondary roles in Rio. Oddly enough, the amount of time the couple spent actually dancing in The Gay Divorcee totals a meager 10 minutes. Thepairing of Astaire and Rogers proved enormously advantageous to both of their careers, though Astaire initially resisted being teamed with Rogers again, fearing he would be stuck in a screen couple after only recently ending his longtime collaboration with sister Adele.

Director Mark Sandrich's film was actually based on a Broadway musical by Dwight Taylor and Cole Porter called The Gay Divorce in which Astaire, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore all appeared. Hollywood's censorship-prone Hays Administration insisted that the title be changed to The Gay Divorcee with the strange reasoning that divorce could not be a happyevent, but a divorcee could be happy. Considered one of the best Depression-era musicals, The Gay Divorcee was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards and won the first Best Song Oscar® for that catchy tune, "The Continental." Ironically, another Astaire-Rogers film was nominated that same year for Best Song, the "Carioca" number from Flying Down to Rio.

A publicity stunt for The Gay Divorcee in which RKO organized "Continental" demonstrations and parties never really helped the dance catch on, but one thing in that extravagant number did start a fad. Reportedly, sales of Venetian blinds soared after audiences got a taste of the window treatments in Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark's inventive set design.

Director: Mark Sandrich
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: George Marion Jr., Dorothy Yost, Edward Kaufman based on themusical play The Gay Divorce by Dwight Taylor and Cole Porter
Cinematography: David Abel
Production Design: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Fred Astaire (Guy Holden), Ginger Rogers (Mimi Glossop), Alice Brady (Hortense Ditherwell), Edward Everett Horton (Egbert Fitzgerald), Erik Rhodes (Rodolfo Tonetti), Eric Blore (Waiter), Lillian Miles (Hotel Guest), Charles Coleman (Valet), William Austin (Cyril Glossop), Betty Grable(Hotel Guest).
BW-105m. Closed captioning.

by Felicia Feaster

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