A Summary of Discussion on The Divorcee

Posted by Sarah

Here is a summary of the group’s discussion on Lies’ choice of film The Divorcee. Do comment or email me on sp458kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.  


The group’s discussion of The Divorcee encompassed several areas including its relation to the ‘woman’s film’ and melodrama genres; male/female relations; the film’s ‘pre-Code’ status.

In terms of suffering, one of the prerequisites for melodramas according to the AFI, the main female character Jerry (played by Norma Shearer) experiences anguish as her husband Ted (Chester Morris) has an affair. While he expects forgiveness for his indiscretion, when Jerry admits to her subsequent fling, with Ted’s best friend Don (Robert Montgomery), Ted ends the marriage.  Interestingly, he is seen to suffer too – emotionally and financially. He is unable to move on from her, and he loses his job. Supporting characters are also seen to suffer. Near the film’s beginning Paul (Conrad Nagel) is upset at Ted and Jerry’s engagement. He crashes his car while drink-driving and a passenger, Dorothy (Helen Johnson), is disfigured, causing Paul to be subsumed by guilt.

We also noted the importance of costume (designed by Adrian), and hairdressing to Jerry at various stages of her journey. Post-divorce her clothes became more glamorous. (For a discussion of costume and female characters see Jane Gaines, “Costume and Narrative: How Dress Tells the Woman’s Story,” in Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, eds. Jane M. Gaines and Charlotte Herzog (New York and London: Routledge, 1989) pp.  192-96)

While the film certainly foregrounds the Double Standard as men are able to engage in extra-marital affairs but women are not, the film handles this in a more complex way.Firstly the husband was seen to suffer too (even if this was largely from his own vanity and pride). And although the film showed the difficulties negotiated by a recently divorced woman in relation to etiquette (and Jerry and Ted ended up back together at the film’s close), it also provided a positive view of divorce for women. Jerry and Ted only reconcile because they love each other, while Jerry’s friend Helen (Florence Eldridge) is happily divorced, independent, and onto her next ‘rich as mud’ husband.

The Production Code was also discussed. Even though the film was pre-Code and contained some rather shocking dialogue between husband and wife, other aspects were clearly beyond the pale. The couple are shown to occupy separate beds and Jerry’s adultery is implied by the discreet closing of curtains rather than represented on screen. It is also notable that soon after Jerry’s divorce her Jerry’s suitors are mostly shown in a rapid montage. In these shots both Jerry and the men in her life are largely anonymous (restricted to hands and voices), though we are able to discern that there are several of them. 

Many thank to Lies for choosing such a rich and enjoyable film for us to watch.

The Divorcee Introductory Notes

Posted by Sarah

Below are Lies’ introductory notes from her film choice The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930)

the divorcee2

The film was loosely based on the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott, a vaguely autobiographical account of the life of a recently divorced young woman; the novel was quite controversial at the time and its title does not appear in the film’s credits. Photoplay reported, in advertising The Divorcee, that Ex-Wife was considered a highly problematic book to put on the screen and even claimed it elicited a great deal of commentary from the censors and was “banned from the screen”. The film differs from the book in numerous ways; the main characters have different names, certain parts of the plot were altered, and it also received its new title at this stage.

In terms of genre, the AFI classifies the film as a romance rather than a melodrama; their definition of romance, however, mentions that it may also apply to dramas, melodramas, or comedy-dramas that have a central emphasis on an affectionate male-female relationship. The film certainly has a number of elements that follow the “classic” definition of melodrama; both protagonists suffer as they try to navigate the new sexual politics of the time, and especially the subplot of Dorothy and Paul veers toward heavy melodrama.

The Divorcee is interesting in terms of woman’s film as a follow-up to our previously screened film, The Sheik, even though the two films are completely different and were made almost ten years apart. In terms of The Sheik, we discussed the way in which this film dealt with modern womanhood, with Lady Diana as the “defiant Englishwoman” who thinks of marriage as “captivity, the end of independence”. After being captured by the Sheik, however, she ultimately settles down to a much more traditional life. Jerry, the main character of The Divorcee, on the other hand, does not want to assert her independence by refusing marriage; instead, she wants to remake it to her own wishes. Before she agrees to marry her husband, she makes him promise they will have a “modern” marriage and it is not his cheating, but ultimately his failure to live up to this ideal that leads to their divorce.  It is a woman’s film, but of a different, modern kind.

An article in the LA Times, published in May of 1930, corroborates this and emphasizes that honesty is the key issue stressed in the film, and that it “dares to do what other films have been afraid of; it handles the question of infidelity openly, but delicately”. Photoplay made a similar point and also said that though the film is enjoyable, it will undoubtedly make you “go home and have a good long talk with your spouse” – bringing the reality of the film perhaps a little too close to home.

In terms of its popularity, it is hard to figure out exactly how well The Divorcee did in theatres. Photoplay mentions that it broke all the records set by Anna Christie at “a Los Angeles theatre” which, though extremely vague, does seem to point at some measure of success; this is also supported by the fact that it won Norma Shearer her first and only Academy Award. As such, in Photoplay, both the film and Shearer’s performance were a part of the “best of the month” in May 1930, and throughout that year, the film was referred to in “do not miss these recent pictures” lists and called a movie “destined to be one of the most talked of pictures in years”. Photoplay also noted during the next few months that it was the film that drew the most fan letters and a selection of these was published throughout the year 1930.  Most of these letters were very positive and praised particularly Shearer’s performance.

In terms of Norma Shearer’s career, The Divorcee was the one film that would to a large extent define her pre-Code output. She played a very similar character in Let Us Be Gay, her next film, and then moved on to play a young woman with a desire for love but none for marriage in both Strangers May Kiss and A Free Soul. As such, she was referred to in the Payne Fund Studies (published in 1933) as “a torch-bearer for the single standard” whose films always dealt, in some sense or other, with the sexual equality of men and women. The LA Times stressed this aspect as well and noted that “Miss Shearer is a staunch advocate of the modern girl, her roles usually portray one type or another”. It would be an important part of her star persona until the mid-1930s.

In regard to Shearer’s star persona and career, it is interesting to compare this film with The Women, which she would make in 1939. This later film also deals with a divorced woman but in a crucially different way.


Dale, Edgar. The Content of Motion Pictures. Macmillan, 1933.

Lambert, Gavin. Norma Shearer: A Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Lasalle, Mick. Complicated Women. Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Parrott, Ursula. Ex-Wife. Grosset & Dunlap, 1929.

Vieira, Mark A. Sin in Soft Focus. Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

The full 1930 run of Photoplay magazine is available via www.archive.org.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 20th February, Jarman 7, 5-7pm

All are welcome to attend the third of this term’s melodrama discussion and screening sessions which will take place on the 20th of February in Jarman 7, from 5pm to 7 pm.

We will be showing Lies’ film choice: The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930) 83 mins

The Divorcee

Based on Ursula Parrott’s autobiographical novel Ex-Wife (which was so controversial its title was deliberately not featured in the film’s credits),The Divorcée helped redefine the concept of the “woman’s film” in the pre-Code era. Starring Norma Shearer in a role she would reprise in a number of similar movies, it tells the story of a young, married woman who becomes a divorcée when she decides to test the “single standard” – and finds it lacking.



Exciting Melodrama Research News: We Need to Talk about Maternal Melodrama

Posted by Sarah

Some exciting news from Catherine Grant (formerly of the uni of Kent’s Film Department) about melodrama research which I’m sure we’ll all be interested in.

Below is a link to a news item about ‘We Need to Talk about Maternal Melodrama’, a new publication atSEQUENCE Serial Studies in Media, Film and Music (part of the open accessREFRAME platform in Media, Film and Music), as well as a Call for Papers in response to, or in connection with, the topics raised by the lead article, an essay bySue Thornham. The title of Thornham’s essay is ‘”A HATRED SO INTENSE…”:We Need to Talk about Kevin, Postfeminism and Women’s Cinema’.


If you work on film or media representations of motherhood, or melodrama, and you think you’d like to respond to, bounce off of, or otherwise fruitfully interact with Thornham’s work, or with its topics more broadly,SEQUENCE would be very excited to hear from you. You can read more about respondinghere.
Thank you.
Best wishes

DrCatherine Grant REFRAME Editor, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies School of Media, Film and Music University of Sussex Silverstone Building Falmer BN1 9RG
E:C.Grant@sussex.ac.uk T: +44 1273 678876 Editor: Film Studies For Free Guest Editor: Frames, Issue 1, July 2012: Film and Moving Image Studies Re-Born Digital?

The Son of the Sheik

Posted by Sarah

A little information on the sequel to The Sheik (George Melford, 1921), The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice, 1926).

son of the SheikThis too starred Rudolph Valentino, this time in dual roles. As The Sheik (married to Lady Diana of the first film, again played by Agnes Ayres) and the Sheik’s son. The son’s love interest is played by Vilma Banky.

The sequel was more controversial than the first, especially in its more violent depiction of the threat of rape.

Lies has kindly provided links to this scene in particular, and the film in its entirety on youtube, should you wish to view them:

The excerpt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OAlbfZRCvY&feature=youtu.be

The film (68 mins, though according to Lies the link includes two versions of the film:one with, and one without, music):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Urm8MakXdcQ


Some extra information on The Sheik’s filming locations and intertitles

Posted by Sarah

To answer a question raised by the group yesterday, here is some information on The Sheik’s filming locations.

The Sheik exteriors

Emily W. Leider in Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino (2004) states that the desert exteriors were shot in Oxnard, California and the Guadalupe Dunes of Santa Barbara County. However Gregg Niemann in Palm Spring Legends: Creations of a Desert Oasis  claims, perhaps unsurprisingly,  they were filmed in Palm springs (2006 pp. 168-171). Other sources more reliably suggest filming of exteriors actually took place at the “Walking Dunes” in East Hampton, Long Island, fairly near to the Famous Players Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, New York,where most of the shooting occurred.

I also found what might be a useful link for those of us not quick enough to write down all the intertitles: http://intertitleorama.webs.com/sheik.html Though I can’t vouch for the accuracy!

A summary of the The Sheik Screening and Discussion

Posted by Sarah

We started with an introduction to the film and its significance for the group’s interest in melodrama research.

The Sheik (George Melford, 1921) is clearly very different from the thrilling ‘suspense melodrama’ The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952) which we screened a fortnight ago.  I feel, however, discussion on genre definitions follows on from that session quite nicely. To recap, last time we looked at Steve Neale’s work on melodrama definitions. He noted that in the 1930s and 1940s the term ‘melodrama’ was used by the trade press to describe films which we might now refer to as film noir. Such films included elements of ‘action, adventure and thrills’ and predominately belonged in the genres of war, adventure, horror and thriller (1993, p. 69). These were ‘traditionally thought of as, if anything, “male”’ (ibid) . This is quite different to how the 1970s feminist film academics (notably Laura Mulvey 1963 and 1986 and Christine Gledhill 1987) and other writers on film melodrama used it. Their definition of melodrama was closely tied to melodrama’s rejection of realism, its relation to the ‘woman’s film’, and its debt to Victorian theatrical melodrama (Neale, 1993, pp. 66-7).

I have found the definition used by the American Film Institute (the AFI) useful, even though it is of course retrospectively fitted to films.  This is because it ties in well with what most people would understand the term ‘melodrama’ to mean. The AFI defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm)

While The Sheik is not categorised as melodrama by the AFI I have chosen it for several reasons. Firstly my research focuses on Hollywood stars, although admittedly mostly star couples, and Valentino was a huge star. This film ‘made him’ as it was very popular. Emily W Leider in Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino (2004) notes that the film broke attendance records at two major New York theatres (The Rialto and the Rivoli) and that the New York Telegraph estimated that in the first few weeks 125,000 people had seen the film (p. 154). The Sheik was also popular abroad.  It was in circulation in Sydney for six months, and ran for 42 weeks at a theatre in France (ibid). Within its first year it grossed $1m worldwide, having cost just $200, 000 to make (ibid).

I also think the fact The Sheik was produced in 1921 is important. During 1921, according to my trawling of the AFI catalog, there was a huge upsurge in the number of film melodramas produced in the US.  In 1920 melodramas accounted for 1.75% of films produced in the US. By 1921 the figure was 49.63% – very nearly half of all US productions. In addition, by 1922, according to figures compiled by Mark Purcell and quoted by Richard Koszarski in his contribution to The History of the American Cinema series, half of the top 10 box office hits were melodramas (p. 33). The melodramas (according to the AFI) were:  2: D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm –starring the Gish sisters, 3: John S Robertson’s Tess of the Storm Country starring Mary Pickford, 5: Frank Lloyd’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist starring Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney 8: D. W. Griffith’s  One Exciting Night, 9: Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. (As a side note Fred Niblo’s Blood and Sand starring Valentino was no. 4. Although this was given the broader category of drama by the AFI.) Melodramas weren’t just being produced in large numbers then, but attracting huge audiences too. I’m intrigued as to why they exploded at this point, since films had become feature length some time earlier. It wasn’t the case that they only became able to relate complex melodramatic plots to an audience.  I am particularly interested in film melodrama’s relation to stage melodrama, literature, and other social and cultural factors of the period.


Gledhill, Christine. Home is where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. British Film Inst, 1987.

 Koszarski, Richard. An evening’s entertainment: The age of the silent feature picture, 1915-1928. Vol. 3. University of California Press, 1994.

 Leider, Emily W. Dark lover: the Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004.

 Mulvey, Laura. Notes on Sirk and melodrama. 1963. (Reprinted in Gledhill, 1987).

 Mulvey, Laura. “Melodrama in and out of the home.” High Theory/Low Culture: Analyzing Popular Television and Film (1986).

 Neale, Steve. “Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term ‘Melodrama’ in the American Trade Press.” Velvet Light Trap 32 (1993): 66-89.

Discussion after the screening

The discussion ranged widely and included: the fact that both protagonists suffered; the romantic comedy elements of The Sheik– especially in relation to the possible categorisation of the film as melodrama; the film’s interesting gender politics – particularly in reference to ‘Stockholm Syndrome melodrama’ and racist overtones; acting styles and melodrama.

Further reading

 Hansen, Miriam, and Miriam Hansen. Babel and Babylon: spectatorship in American silent film. Harvard University Press, 1991.

 Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. Columbia University Press, 1996.

If anyone would like to take these thoughts further, or mention anything omitted here (or indeed anything else melodrama-related), please comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk

Caption Competition Winner


Many thanks to those who responded to our competition. The captions have been read, and the winner decided upon….see the winning entry below…


Lady Diana: “No, I won’t do it. You can’t make me do it! I won’t dance the Gangnam style!!”

 Congratulations Katerina Flint-Nicol for your delightfully apposite caption. Your prize will be with you shortly.