Double Feature

The Divorcée & A Free Soul, Reviewed


 November 26, 2019 

orma Shearer was never much of an actress. With the right material and the right director she could at the bare minimum be proficient, true. In 1939’s

From 1930's "A Free Soul."


all-women-ensembled The Women, for instance, she’s the straight man and by far the least interesting character. But she manages to avoid sticking out too much like a sore thumb, which isn’t all that easy a thing to do when you’re starring opposite firebrands like Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford, who eat the film up like hyenas feasting on raw hamburger. (Comparatively, Shearer is a gazelle.)


Shearer began her movie career at the end of the 1910s. Then, shortly into the 1920s, she established herself as a top star, making multiple movies a year and seeing them mostly do well at the box office. While many actresses in her class were eventually ruined between 1927 and 1929 — the gangly adjustment period that saw sound officially eclipse silence — Shearer lucked out, and continued to thrive. This isn't to say that 

From 1930's A Free Soul.

she adjusted organically. In her "talkies," it's obvious that Shearer came of age (on the screen, that is) in silence. She acts for the camera and nothing or no one else. This can get you far in a silent movie, where arguably your close-ups matter a lot more than how believably you play against another actor. But in a film assisted by the Vitaphone, dialogue, and comparably emotional and engaged performances, the tactic doesn’t work and cannot work.


It can be painful, then, to watch Shearer act in the 1930s and beyond. It’s like she’s incapable of absorbing anything the person opposite her is saying or doing. Yet for most of her career, somehow her insufficiencies neither seemed to bother critics nor audiences. Shearer was a top star at the box office for almost all of the '30s, and she was ultimately nominated for an Oscar five times. She retired from the movies in the early '40s. While most actresses who dip at the height of their fame tend to become even more iconic, e.g. Greta Garbo or Grace Kelly, Shearer quickly faded into obscurity and never recovered. Her popularity, decades later, puzzles. Even her marriage to totemic MGM head Irving Thalberg can only answer so much.


The Divorcée (1930) is the movie that won Shearer her sole Academy Award. Going into it I figured it was on course to be the movie to change my opinion on her, not just because it was agreed on that no actress was better than her almost 90 years ago but also because, in The Divorcée, Shearer plays a confident and sexually unrepentant woman — a pre-Code persona that even her detractors rather liked. In certain moments of The Divorcée Shearer can be decent. But later I realized that those moments, which pop up infrequently, are the ones where Shearer is essentially throwing it back to her silent-movie days. (One of them is truly terrific: Shearer is in a theater with Chester Morris, who plays her husband in the movie, and the camera rests dramatically on her face for what feels like several minutes, suspensefully conveying to us that her mind is miles away from the people on the stage.) I also realized that Shearer always convincingly looks the part of the modern and independent woman but struggles to give life to her in a way that doesn’t additionally tell us that she's using every bit of sinew and bone in her body to make us think that she is, indeed, a modern and independent woman. But in the end, it's the self-consciousness we notice the most.


Shearer isn’t good in The Divorcée. But she is, I suppose, efficient, and her sans-nuance performance makes her character’s pivot from fizzy free spirit to regretful, temporarily single woman shout a little louder in a way that works more than it doesn't. In the movie, Shearer is Jerry, an optimist who, at the beginning of the movie, marries Ted (Morris), a man from her same upper-crust social circle. The film leaps around in time a lot; most of it is set during a short period three years after the two tie the knot. On that third year, we learn that, for Jerry and Ted, the seven-year itch has arrived 1,460 days early. Jerry starts getting jealous of other women, then cheats on the husband she’s been happily married to essentially out of wrong-headed spite — a decision that almost leads all to ruin. 


If The Divorcée weren’t dedicated to being moralistic, it’d be a lot more compelling. This is the kind of marital drama that asks commonly posed and therefore still-urgent questions: Am I supposed to be married to this person? What would my life be like if I weren’t? Some of The Divorcée chews on intriguing what-if scenarios: Several characters in the movie, for example, are there to suggest that they might have been the spouses of either Jerry and Ted in another life. The Divorcée is so close to being an interesting movie about answer-seeking that turns out badly.


The movie at one point feels en route to a rather dreary but still nonetheless pessimistically satisfying conclusion: that Jerry’s three-year mistake is a bolded and italicized mistake and that, had she not made it, everything could have been OK. But now, it’s too late. Unfortunately, though, ending with an “it’s too late” twist is too daring a thing for the way-too-many people who had a hand in writing the film. Stupidly, the feature closes with Jerry and Ted back in each other’s arms after the slow near-decline. That’s boring and safe, and I think also antithetical to what the movie probably wants to do. Life seems to prefer not to work the way it does in The Divorcée. The film, which is clearly attempting to be 1930's marriage movie du jour, is ultimately too rose-colored to convince.

he Divorcée, though generally overwrought, doesn't necessarily suffer as a result of Shearer, as many of her vehicles have. The film and its star are about on the same level, so there isn't really any one-sided suffering. A Free Soul (1931), in contrast, is a


sailing ship riddled with holes — and Shearer’s shoddy performance in it hastens the capsizing process. She’s the hedonist of the title — a young woman named Jan whose father, Stephen (Lionel Barrymore), is a lawyer. Father and daughter have become outcasted by their loved ones as A Free Soul opens. Jan’s free-wheeling lifestyle in young adulthood has led most of her family to turn their noses up when they’re around her. A greeting from her, to them, is like smelling an unwashed armpit. The rejection of Stephen is a little more recent. It's because he's decided to defend Ace (Clark Gable), a gangster, from a murder charge despite knowing full well that there’s a good chance he’s guilty. Things aren't better in other areas. Stephen’s alcoholism, once at a level where he might be called high-functioning at the least, progressively worsens as the film wears on. In the meantime, Jan starts having an affair with Ace, even though she’s engaged to a square (Leslie Howard) who loves her and we’re made to think she loves, too.


The movie gets more soap-operatic than that. There’s a violent confrontation between Ace and Jan’s fiancé at one point. Then, at the end of the film, Stephen gives a (platitudinously) moving speech in the courtroom that results, if you can believe it, in a scream-inducing death. (Screams were not pushed out of me — the courtroom.) A writer with more of a predilection to lick their lips while scribbling down dialogue might have turned A Free Soul into one of those melodramas so aggressively and spiritedly hokey that you couldn’t help but get immersed in its wrong-turn-ridden world, where bad stuff always seems to be happening to rich and beautiful people. But it’s impossible to have a good time watching A Free Soul, and not just because it's no fun. There's a marketing-committee vulgarity to it, like the filmmakers were working hard to make an “important” movie to magnetize the then-new Academy. 


What happens in front of the camera makes that conclusion ring even truer. Shearer visibly strains to play a wild child. It’s like she’s trying to reassure us that she’s nothing like this in real life, and is a bit frantic about us possibly coming to the wrong conclusions. But with that comes a hint that Shearer wants to be recognized by award-givers for this departure. Barrymore is blatantly phoning it in, and the final courtroom scene is among the most naked pieces of Oscar bait I’ve seen in a film: it's so out of place that its existence can only be explained by a thirst for acclaim. (Barrymore is quite a fisherman: he won an Oscar for his performance.) Howard is typically edgeless.


But Gable, who became a star in part because of his work here, is dynamite, and the reason to watch the movie if you can tolerate everything else. He’s seductive and swaggering — a snake even the snake charmer can’t help but be charmed by. He’s the freest soul in a movie where the free soul in question would rather tell us she's free than actually live up to it. Gable is so lively, especially when against Shearer's imitation of liveliness, that in their scenes together we can see why one person became immortalized while the other dimmed, never again to so much as flicker in the public consciousness. 


The Divorcée C+

A Free Soul C-