Thomas Piketty, in his seminal book on modern economic theory, Capital in the 21st Century, makes several offhand references to literature, and specifically that of Honoré de Balzac. Piketty notes that since early Western governments, fickle and fragile, kept slipshod records for economic data, a reliable source would be theoretical banking accounts for fictional characters; the intent was to demonstrate certain patterns of investment and commercial practice common to the time, proxy for hard, verifiable data. Piketty’s review, defense of, and argument for Balzac’s France as evidence for certain thematic-banking practices is convincing if not scientifically sound. With bygone generations lost to the annals of history, anecdote trumps nothing whatsoever. Though closer to contemporary, 1929/30’s The Divorcee allows a brief glimpse into the psyche and tremulous nature of relationships as they once were.
The idea of divorce, conceptually, as passé offers insight into high society perhaps unavailable otherwise. Typical, Christian wedding vows come with something resembling “’til death do us part,” and in order for a priest to ordain a couple married, they both must agree to this. Marriage does not offer an opt-out clause, but divorce exists anyway. High society folks, according to this film, seem to slip in and out of marriage as an activity occasionally worth doing. The characters involved in phony love triangles just make decisions, almost irrespective to their feelings, as the point of marriage – the point – is to extend The Beautiful to The Damned, and extend a life of leisure without purpose to the next pit stop. Divorce, then, is not a response to a damning relationship; it is a next stop for wealth malaise and boredom, as Balzac, too, describes via literary realism in his works. Piketty recognizes this realism as does The Divorcee’s director, Robert Z. Leonard. Even though none of today’s audience lived in 18th-century France or through the Great Depression, this film’s striking take on the unexplored impacts of meaningless decisions, like marriage and divorce, among the wealthy, and note that even though the husbands or wives might make haphazard choices in love or lust, their impacts can cause similar social rifts to those current audiences explore. Except today’s audiences have access to anything at the click of a mouse.
It is important to note that while 19/1930’s nominees, including Disraeli, predate Hays’ Code, it is impossible to tell if The Divorcee’s producers could have pulled off a similar glimpse without banned content, like divorce, infidelity, and adultery. Films would code ideology differently: characters would not cheat or divorce, but they would come close (see: The Philadelphia Story). A director would not dare imply sex, but would wrap it in so much metaphor that interpretation was both indefensible and comedic. Hays’ Code only forced screenwriters to be more creative at the expense of what in the future would be called New Wave by English filmmakers or Nouvelle Vague, and Cinéma vérité, later, by the French. Realism needed to respond to perhaps non-realism promulgated by Hays actors and directors. The Divorcee, among its peers, acted as a pre-neo-realistic film without pretense of shroud. Norma Shearer, as Jerry and as love-neophyte, devastatingly plays self-absorbed so well until the film’s dénouement, when divorce becomes Divorce, with serious consequences to the psyche of The Divorcee’s cast of misanthropes. To love and to learn is immortal, time-immemorial. “One should believe in marriage as in the immortality of the soul,” Balzac says. Piketty mirrors, “Over a long period of time, the main force in favor of greater equality has been the diffusion of knowledge and skills.” Soul capital; a new concept.
Note, too, that pre-Hays’ years only nominated five or fewer films, even though, as just two years later would prove film had exploded as a central medium for broad artistic freedom. Note, too, that likely much of the year’s flimsy film is lost for eternity to light-exposure or irreversible damage, so early Academy film holds a heightened sense of importance compared to that from a later period, perhaps inversely related. To say whether this film best represented the year, then, would be disingenuous, though on this side of history, one might reasonably consider All Quiet on the Western Front the best choice for reasons related to nationalism in times of crisis, or patriotism during Interwar. Divorce was not to be glorified, even if it did, and does, represent a Very Real facet of American, and Western, culture.