Friday, March 4, 2011

Norma Shearer and the Pre-Code Era

"The morals of yesterday are no more. They are as dead as the day they were lived. Economic independence has put woman on exactly the same footing as man." Norma Shearer

I have had the pleasure of attending a film class at Stanford University for the past 10 weeks and have been introduced to a stunning actress and film era that is in danger of being forgotten.  My professor, Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, author and historian, presented a film a couple of weeks ago called "The Divorcee" starring Norma Shearer.  I had heard of Norma Shearer but had never had the pleasure of seeing one of her films.  Mr. LaSalle gave us a wonderful introduction to the era that she worked in, namely the 20's and 30's, in what has become known as "the pre-code" era.  Starting in July of 1934, a censorship code, developed by a Jesuit Priest and a lay Catholic and adopted by the studios to avoid government censorship, was established in Hollywood and all films were held to a very strict "moral compass."  Thus depictions of sex outside of marriage were never to be portrayed as attractive or beautiful or made to seem right and permissible.  There was to be no swearing, no interracial couples, no homosexuality, all criminal acts were to be punished, and the clergy could never be presented in a comic or evil light.  Basically, they took all the fun out of movies.

Prior to July 1934, pre-code films had become quite bold and the biggest stars of the day were women.  The biggest star being Norma Shearer.  She was beautiful, charming, a wonderful actress and a force in Hollywood.  These films depicted strong independent women who had love affairs, jobs, marriages, divorces, and called the shots in their own lives whether it be good or bad.  Even the clothes they wore were daring.  The beautiful silky gowns of the 30's showed a pride and confidence in their sexuality that was apparently too much for the clergy at the time.  The film we watched, "The Divorcee," is about a woman who discovers that her husband has had an affair and how she deals with it; namely by having an affair herself.  The dialogue between Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) when she realizes that the flirtations of a woman at a party are not innocent, could be said today.  Ted comes over to Norma to kiss her after talking with the other woman and Jerry says, "There is something about the way she was looking at you that makes me want to kill her."  And one of the last lines of the film is my favorite.  Jerry says it to Ted after he has come back to her to tell her that he forgives her for her affair even though he never took responsibility for his own - that was different, you know.  Jerry says, with so much pride and courage, "From now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to."  "The Divorcee" is a film that still feels modern (despite the sometimes stilted acting that was popular at the time) and I highly recommend it.  It is available on Netflix along with another film starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore and Clark Gable called "A Free Soul."  This film is also a very good representation of the pre-code era and has an amazing scene with Lionel Barrymore at the end.   Lionel Barrymore won the Academy Award for Best Actor for this film and it also catapulted Clark Gable's career.  

Hollywood has never quite recovered from the Code.  Women like Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard were the stars in the early 1930's depicting real women facing real issues.  After the Code, Hollywood became male dominated and women were pushed into supporting roles.  I urge you to take a look at some of these films and actresses and see a body of work that could be presented today and should not be forgotten.    

1 comment:

  1. One of the great movie tragedies was the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard. She was one of the best film comedians ever.