I was reading an article about Pre-Code films (sorry I don't remember where! She Blogged By Night, maybe?) and remembered that I really needed to see more Norma Shearer films. Lo and Behold, there's a scandalous double feature of The Divorcee- which nabbed her a Best Actress Oscar- and A Free Soul- which launched Clark Gable to leading man status- available on one disc. Oh happy day!
In The Divorcee, Shearer plays the effervescent Jerry, a sharp businesswoman who happily marries journalist Ted Martin (Chester Morris) despite his struggling career. On their 3-year anniversary, she discovers he'd been unfaithful to her. She is crushed, but he encourages her to "think like a man" and realize that it meant nothing. While Ted is away on a business trip, she sleeps with a rakish and caring friend (Robert Montgomery). When her husband finds out, he is furious and unforgiving, but Jerry calls him on his hypocrisy and asks for divorce. She becomes an even more successful businesswoman, traveling around the world and flirtatiously enjoying the company of many men. It's sexy.
While some at times it's a little moralistic, for the most part The Divorcee is a forward-thinking drama with a fantastic performance at its center. Shearer is gorgeous, sensual, and sympathetic in the lead role, with a killer hairstyle and a couple of tear-jerking moments. Her character is fun and strong-willed, allowing herself whatever romantic entanglements she pleases no matter what gossip or ogling it produces. While she does predictably wind up with a man in the end (I won't say which), it feels like it's on her own terms. Robert Montgomery is easily the other standout, with a devilish gleam in his eye and a host of wisecracks. The script isn't very well paced though- a lot of time passes and certain characters are quickly introduced and then don't show up until years later; it's a little confusing at points.
A Free Soul stars Shearer as a similar kind of independent, "modern" woman, but features a less interesting story. Jan Ashe is a lively lady determined to live her own life and make her own mistakes despite the bourgeois pretensions of her family. She lives with her alcoholic lawyer father (Lionel Barrymore), who lets her do as she pleases but worries her with his drinking. She is sort of engaged to the uptight but good-hearted Dwight (Leslie Howard), but sets off on an affair with Ace (Clark Gable), a mobster whom her father recently got off on a murder charge.
This movie is pretty all over the place, with weird changes in pacing and tone, and a totally ridiculous ending. Of course Shearer is still great in the lead role, and I loved her character's "My life is my business, I'll do what I want to do" attitude. She has these really exaggerated body movements and slinky-ness that gave her real dynamism. Barrymore (who won Best Actor in the role) is good but a little over the top. I think James Gleason as his pal Eddie is the only one really having fun in his role, and he basically steals all of his scenes. Clark Gable is a stud, clearly, but mostly he's just a supporting asshole and can't quite match Shearer's charisma. I have to admit the film just didn't really hold my attention despite the excellent cast, the writing just isn't very good.