–by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
PUBLICATION DATE: Nov 09, 2020
Norma Shearer, if known at all by casual moviegoers, may be remembered for playing the lead in the 1939 film, “The Women.” But in the pre-Code era she was a boundary pusher, not unlike Madonna or Lady Gaga. She played restless, intelligent women who rebelled against male power, showing her audience that women‘s options were not so limited. In 1930, Shearer stated, “The morals of yesterday are no more. They are as dead as the day they were lived. Economic independence has put women on exactly the same footing as men.”
Garbo and Shearer were both feminists with different on-screen personas. As author Mick LaSalle said, “Garbo was the love idealist and Shearer was the love realist. They both dealt with the consequences of love in the age of sexual freedom. Garbo was a mystery, Shearer was accessible.” It was precisely this accessibility that made her the number one target of religious and moral censorship groups.
Although she was born in the English-speaking Westmount suburb of Montreal, Canada, on Aug. 10, 1902, she became the symbol of ideal young American womanhood. After her father lost the family fortune in a series of bad investments, Norma, along with her mother and sister, went to New York where the girls tried their luck in the theater. While honing her craft, she was spotted by a young Irving Thalberg, head of the Mayer Film Company, which was just about to merge with Metro Goldwyn to become MGM. In 1923, Thalberg, whom she eventually married, brought Norma to Hollywood.
In the silent era women were depicted as types — The Flapper, The Vamp, and The Innocent, but the trends of the 1920s would start to change at an alarming rate. Superstars like Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, and Mary Pickford would be left in dust as actresses like Shearer surged ahead. In the late 1920s, Shearer was just beginning to develop her persona on screen and as a star. Soon all of those “types” would come together to depict the new womanhood in all its complexity.
By 1930, already starting to specialize in playing a modern woman, she set her sights on the lead in a movie called “The Divorcee.” Based on a popular book, “The Divorcee” dealt with modern marriage and infidelity. This brand-new generation was doing away with their parents’ traditions and that meant examining whether or not marriage was an outdated concept. Could it be a partnership that allowed women to truly be equal, and, if so, what did that marriage look like? How did it function?
In the film, after three years of a happy marital partnership that included one penthouse, two careers and zero children, Jerry (played by Shearer) finds out her husband has cheated while away on a business trip. After discovering him embracing another woman in their kitchen during a cocktail party, he confesses, telling her “it didn’t mean anything.” Deeply bothered, she decides to find out if it didn’t mean anything by having her own affair with her husband’s best friend. When Jerry’s husband returns from his business trip, she informs him that she has “balanced our accounts,” and he launches a verbal tirade that will sound familiar to couples in any decade.
Shearer smartly plays Jerry as a woman who is on a quest to find out who she is and what makes her happy. This was starting to really matter to women, as evidenced by the film’s tagline, “If the world permits the husband to philander, why not the wife?” Although the film flirts with a conventional ending, it still asks audiences to accept her character as a woman who has a right to a sex life without the story punishing her — a requirement after enforcement of the Code.
“The Divorcee” won Shearer an Oscar, and started a trend of films that examined what is repeatedly referred to in pre-Code films as a “modern marriage.” During the Code, she continued working, but after the untimely death of Thalberg, her films suffered in quality.
Notably, her final film was “The Women” in 1939 — dealing again with a cheating husband. Because of the Code, “The Women” isn’t much of a journey of exploration, but instead emphasizes relationships between women. In “The Divorcee,” Shearer’s Jerry quips, “You don’t exactly take the veil when your decree is granted, you know? What should an ex-wife do? Spend her days doing good deeds? Going to bed at night with suitable books?” In what seems like Code punishment, “The Women” features Shearer’s character pining for her husband, doing good deeds, and reading suitable books in bed.
For more Reel Cinema articles, resources, and photos, check out the Reel Cin blog at jenfior.com/blog-1
Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.