It takes a brave celebrity couple to star in a movie called I Want a Divorce, especially if they are married in real life and the subject of regular magazine coverage regarding their glamorous relationship. Joan Blondell and Dick Powell were one such couple and were half way though an eight year marriage when the movie came out in 1940. Luckily the reviews were so bad that the film quickly disappeared into obscurity to the point that when they eventually divorced in 1944 it was a long forgotten footnote rather than a punchline. Still, a married couple even entertaining the notion of a movie with such a title in the notoriously relationship fickle world of Hollywood was surely just asking for trouble.
I Want a Divorce is a strange little film that knows exactly what it wants to say but can’t settle on the right way to go about saying it. It advertises itself as a rip-roaring comedy (“A Lovable Wise-Cracking Comedy Drama!!” declares the poster) but in execution resembles a particularly pious Public Service Announcement. It’s ninety minutes of half-hearted attempts at comedy competing with a dreary, bad tempered atmosphere of moralising in which every character is affected in some way by the demon divorce and most come out of it losing someone they hold dear, if not more.
The mood is set with the first scene as Joan Blondell’s character Geraldine walks through the divorce courts looking for the room where her sister is campaigning to ditch her husband and have the sort of carefree lifestyle she has always desired. As Joan walks through the halls we meet a litany of miserable broken families, from a young girl screaming “You think dad’s a heel but that doesn’t make me believe it!” (Her mother’s touching answer: “Oh shut up!”), to a little boy wailing “I don’t wanna live with you, I want my mommy!”). When she arrives at the right courtroom we see her sister Wanda, played with impeccable disdain by Gloria Dickson proclaim that she wants a divorce because her husband’s occasional criticism has caused her public humiliation (“He also criticised my clothes!”). Her lawyer sums up that this despicable act has caused her “great mental anguish, seriously endangering (her) health”. Divorce granted, next case!!
All that was needed was perhaps the wailing sounds of motherless babies cast aside by their divorce happy parents accompanied by the sounds of lawyers counting their money and the intended picture of a modern day Bedlam would be achieved. Divorce is bad. Divorce breaks up families. Divorce makes everyone miserable. Okay, we get it. So, when exactly does the lovable wise-cracking comedy start?
Next we meet the rest of Geraldine and Wanda’s family, namely their grandparents and Wanda’s son David. These characters are used to hammer home the message even more as the grandparents have been married forever and have endless nuggets of homespun wisdom to impart about the sanctity of marriage, while the son is supposed to be an adorable young scamp (he's not) whose innocence is in peril by the actions of his selfish mother. Even the now ex-husband David (played with a dignified restraint by Conrad Nagel) comes across as a good and loving parent brought down by Wanda’s actions and lifestyle. Inappropriately, Grandma starts her sermonising the minute the sisters get back from court, telling Geraldine "Divorces don't take long these days. What should I be saying to her, 'Sorry, congratulations or many happy returns?'" When she is told that it seems she got up on the wrong side of bed this morning she replies "Yes and it's the same bed I've slept for nearly 50 years. And with the same man". She's a delightful character.
After that the comedy portion finally begins, and it really wasn’t worth the wait. Joan Blondell and Dick Powell co-starred successfully in many movies during the 30s but for whatever reason, by the time this film was made they have little or no chemistry on screen. Joan tries her best, but Dick (as up and coming lawyer Alan MacNally) just seems to be going through the motions (honestly, he looks so bored) and it doesn’t help that the script is so leaden for the majority of the movie that there is nothing for them to work with. Anyway, events conspire to make our stars meet and soon they are courting, everything is wonderful and before we know it they decide to get married. Fittingly the ceremony itself is a rather mute affair as the camera pans round the group of friends and family in the church staring furtively as the priest intones the solemn wedding vows to the blank faced couple. It’s the furthest thing from the joyful celebration of union, but I guess that’s the point – marriage is a serious business. Divorce has even taken the fun out of getting married!
Just in case you really haven’t picked up on the message the movie is trying to impart, Geraldine and Alan are getting on swimmingly as newlyweds until Alan gets offered a chance to make more money and rise up the ranks at his law firm by becoming (gasp) a divorce lawyer! From there the marriage immediately falls apart, and the legal eagles start circling the wagons. In the end it takes the suicide of Wanda, inconsolable after realising the mistake she made, to wake everyone up to the fact that divorce destroys lives (all part of the lovable wise-cracking comedy of course). Finally, while Geraldine is in shock, numb at the fact that her sister has died, Grandma decides to monologue about how it was all Wanda’s fault and that “She broke a promise she made to the Lord God almighty. She started something that grew big and evil and it finally was too much for her”. Grandma continues in this vein, oblivious to the human cost of the ensuing drama, and indeed her own family. The incessant nagging must have worked though, as the couple reconcile and order restored.
Obviously, times and attitudes have changed since 1940 and divorce is now no longer a scourge of society but one would hope that even back then people would be rolling their eyes at the incessant, heavy handed lecturing in the movie. The movie shows the worst excesses of the Production Code in action, pushing message at the cost of entertainment, and even advertising itself as a screwball comedy to do so. Quite what Dick Powell and Joan Blondell were doing in such nonsense is difficult to understand. Apparently they got a very good financial incentive to come to Paramount but it doesn't appear that bothering about a good script was included in the deal.
The movie is fascinating mostly for how far it hammers the point home about divorce and its destructive effects. From the opening court scene where we see the broken families and hear the obviously fabricated testimony of the selfish plaintiff, to the juxtaposition of the happily married grandparents from an earlier simpler time (I guess divorce was only invented in the 20th century) the message is stay together at all costs. In the key line of the movie, Grandma tells Geraldine “Getting married isn’t the important thing, it’s staying married that counts”. In the movie, marriage is about the long run and the institution is the most important thing. It’s understandable that they are trying to tell young people to stick it out throughout good times and bad but the inference is also that if you are stuck in a broken, unhappy marriage that it’s your lot in life (and probably your own fault) and you should just grin and bear it. That combined with the frequent assertion that all a woman needs to be kept in line is a swift slap (and that men too can be kept in line with a fist or some flying crockery) gives the impression of a society where being single sounds the best option.
If the picture given of the ideal marriage is bad, then the view of divorce is even worse. There are two things in particular that the movie saves its disdain for, two things that it considers the lowest of the low. Firstly it’s divorce lawyers, who seem to be the pushers in this scenario, planting the seed of doubt in the minds of the married and making it so, so easy to take a trip to Splitsville, all the while gleefully pocketing the cash. When Alan and Geraldine get married, the nuptials go south the minute he decides to take up with the devil’s brigade of the divorce lawyer. Though he is saved from this soul destroying fate in the end, he still feels the need to repent his sins and convert his occupation to good, becoming a “Child Conciliation“ lawyer and thus putting broken families back together for a living (presumable whether they wanted to or not). I hope it’s enough to pay the bills.
The second thing that raises the ire of the movie is women. Or rather women who dare to divorce. The movie seems at pains to point out how the lowest thing a woman can do is file for divorce and break up the sacred family unit. Though to be fair, no one would want to be married to Wanda in the first place as she is vain and selfish and concocts the divorce plan to spend less time at home and more in the nightclub. In reality people get divorced for all sorts of complicated reasons but it’s telling here that the reason is portrayed as almost entirely the fault of the woman and everyone else suffers for her sins.
However, lest we forget I Want a Divorce is supposedly a comedy and does spend at least a small proportion of its running time attempting to raise a smile. Unfortunately because the script can’t decide if it’s a searing melodrama or knockabout comedy the result is that it’s successful at neither. Luckily, despite the miserable atmosphere and the fact it looks for all intents and purposes like a Monogram B picture, it is saved but a decent cast of reliable faces. As mentioned earlier, neither Joan Blondell nor Dick Powell are at their best here. It’s 1940, so Joan Blondell is firmly in her brown hair and big shoulder pads phase (and she wears some extraordinary examples here – I’m surprised she could get through doors!) but there is the occasional flourish of the charm that made her famous. In particular a scene where she asks Grandma about love while waiting for her new beau to arrive (and fetchingly dressed in a big hat and checked farm girl outfit). She sighs dreamily as Grandma begins once again to lecture about marriage then suddenly her face lights up with innocent charm when she spots Dick Powell approaching. With her big round eyes and wide smile, for just a brief moment it’s 1934 again. The simple problem with the comedic sections of the movie is that they are not funny, nor do they have any remotely comic situations for Joan and Dick to enact. There’s no one liners, no snappy dialogue and really nothing for the stars to wring some laughs from. It’s as if the romance sub plot exists to kill time until the punchline (ie divorce) and thus allow the movie to go back to preaching.
The supporting cast do at least provide some amusing moments, with entertaining appearances from Dorothy Burgess (a brief but wildly over the top turn as a Mexican Spitfire type), Louise Beavers (a sensitively played maid) and a genuinely funny cameo from Roscoe Ates as a summons server. However it’s the presence of Frank Fay as their jaded friend Jeff that steals the show. I never thought I’d say this but (whisper) Frank Fay is by far the best thing in this movie. Obviously it’s no secret that in real life Frank Fay was a despicable and reviled human being, an egotistical, alcoholic, racist wife beater, but if it’s possible to put that aside (and granted it is very difficult) he’s rather wonderful in I Want a Divorce. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t had a dramatic part in a movie in close to eight years, or that he had finally begun to accept that he was no longer the star he once was, but his character has a melancholy demeanour that is quite compelling. He is used entirely for comic relief and constantly on the run from his crazy wife but his almost punch drunk wistfulness sets him apart from the rest of the cast. Maybe it was the effects of the booze but he delivers his lines in an unsteady manner, with a twinkling detachment of a man who has lived life and takes each day as it comes. It could equally be seen as a terrible performance given by a man the shadow of this former self or an actor coming to terms with his mistakes and finally showing a degree of vulnerability. Either way he’s the most memorable thing about the movie, which granted, isn’t saying much.
All in all, I Want a Divorce isn’t a good film, but it’s strangely fascinating for its mismatched mix of genres and tone, the odd lack of chemistry between the married leads and the unexpected charm of a much despised former star. Most of all though the endless moralising and preaching about the sacred vows of marriage and the utter disdain at the mere concept of divorce (and especially those who facilitate it) results in a tone more like the “Red Menace” movies of the late 40s and early 50s. As ever, it was a bit rich for Hollywood to lecture anyone of the sanctity of marriage, but it’s always been a 'do as I say not as I do' type of place. Nonetheless the heavy handedness of the whole enterprise may not particularly unusual for the time but is unintentionally amusing now. Sadly, it's the sort of subject one would expect to see as a short film or perhaps as a programmer produced by one of the Poverty Row studios, not a Paramount movie with two major stars. As such it's a complete waste of Joan Blondell’s talents at a time where she really could have done with a career boost.
However, before I pack my bags and head to Reno there is a curious postscript to this whole affair. Despite the film getting terrible reviews and flopping at the box office, someone, somewhere decided that the general public needed to know even more about the evils of divorce. Thus was born, I Want a Divorce the radio show, starring Joan Blondell! Stay tuned until next time and we shall lift the lid on the sequel of sorts that no one really asked for.