Excerpt: Making Marriage Work, by Kristin Celello

In Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States, historian Kristin Celello offers an insightful and wide-ranging account of marriage and divorce in America in the twentieth century, focusing on the development of the idea of marriage as something that requires “work” in order to succeed. Throughout, Celello illuminates the interaction of marriage and divorce over the century and reveals how the idea that marriage requires work became part of Americans’ collective consciousness. The book is now available in a new paperback edition.

In this excerpt, Celello gives cultural context and public response to the 1930 film The Divorcée. From pp. 13-17:

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On May 3, 1930, a large advertisement for Robert Z. Leonard’s film The Divorcée asked the readers of the Washington Post, “Has Love a Chance in Today’s Hot Pursuit of Pleasure?”[1] Loosely based on Ursula Parrott’s 1929 novel Ex-Wife[2], the film starred Norma Shearer, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the title character. From the opening scene in which Jerry, played by Shearer, boldly insists that she and Ted (Chester Morris) get married and “make a go of it” as equals, the filmmakers signaled that Shearer’s character was a quintessential “new woman,” committed to a form of female equality and independence defined by male standards. Jerry’s determination on this point is so strong, in fact, that upon discovering Ted’s affair with another woman three years into their marriage, she promptly retaliates by having an extramarital sexual encounter of her own. Ted, after learning of her infidelity, demands a divorce. Jerry plainly has overestimated the extent of her equality—a sentiment echoed in the advertisement when it teased: “Her sin was no greater than his—but she was a woman!”[3]

Once again single, Jerry vows to enjoy her freedom and to keep her bed open to all men except her ex-husband. She quickly, however, becomes dissatisfied and physically drained by her new life of sexual adventure. Escape presents itself in the form of a married friend named Paul (Conrad Nagel), who proposed to divorce his wife Dorothy (Judith Wood) so that he and Jerry can begin a new life together. Indeed, Dorothy is Jerry’s counterpoint throughout the film. Whereas Jerry is beautiful, Dorothy has been tragically disfigured in a car accident on the night of Jerry and Ted’s engagement. Jerry and Ted married for love, but Paul, who was heavily intoxicated when the accident occurred, married Dorothy only out of guilt. While Jerry accedes to Ted’s insistence of a divorce, Dorothy refuses to concede marital defeat and will not give Paul the divorce he so desperately desires. Comparing herself to Dorothy, Jerry realizes the many ways that she has wronged her own union with Ted. Jerry thus arrives, as one reviewer explained, at “the realization that her own marriage has been a failure because she has not had the same determination [as Dorothy] to see it through.”[4] She resolves to find Ted, and the two have an emotional reunion in which they promise to make their new marriage a success.

By the conclusion of The Divorcée, Jerry—and by extension, the audience—have learned several lessons. First, Jerry’s desire for marital equality is foolish and unrealistic. The film does not criticize a sex-based double standard; rather, its message is that in trying to emulate men, women can lose sight of what is truly important: love and marriage. The pitiful Dorothy is the true female center of the film—she is not beautiful, but she appreciates the value of being married and is willing to fight for Paul. Moreover, the film says, sexual freedom does not ensure happiness, especially for women. Prior to their mutual transgressions, Jerry and Ted plainly enjoy a fulfilling sexual relationship. Jerry’s life as a wanton divorcee, however, is unsatisfying, and only a chance encounter with Paul prevents her from becoming a hardened seductress. Finally, while divorce is sometimes a necessity, it is also frequently the result of easily avoided misunderstandings. Only in reunification—a theme that understandably became a popular Hollywood ending—can Jerry and Ted rediscover their former happiness and lead constructive lives.[5]

The Divorcée quickly became one of the “stand-out hits of the early summer season” of 1930, and popular demand extended its run throughout the nation.[6] The media’s descriptions of the film—press coverage alternately described it as “a chapter out of modern life,” “a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production dealing with a great social problem,” and “the most sophisticated treatment of the question of divorce”—highlighted its varied appeal to audiences.[7] By 1930 divorce had indeed become a reality of everyday American life. At the same time, however, many Americans were deeply anxious about what the escalating divorce rate meant for the family, women, and the very future of the nation. Such fears were fanned by an emergent group of experts who spent the first several decades of the twentieth century identifying a “crisis” in American marriage.[8] These self-appointed experts, some from within the academy and some with little or no formal training in sociology or related fields, came from different parts of the political and ideological spectrum. They agreed, however, that marriage (particularly for the white middle class) was in a period of crucial transition and that married couples could not handle this transition as effectively on their own.[9]

The general belief that marriage was in trouble was hardly new. Social critics and clergymen, in fact, had been decrying a “marriage problem” for most of the nation’s history.[10] But these early critics had focused their efforts on convincing the American public of the indissolubility of the marital union and, if this former effort failed, of the need for uniform divorce laws in order to prevent most divorces. By the 1920s, however, this debate had grown increasingly stale and the arguments ineffective.[11] The ostracism that had once accompanied the decision to divorce had subsided, and the voices of experts began to supplement, and in many cases, replace, those of religious authorities in the national conversation about marriage in the United States.[12]

As the nineteenth-century understanding of marriage as a duty faded, experts worked to convince Americans to take an active interest in the health of their marriages. They focused much of their attention on women, the traditional guardians of the home and the individuals deemed primarily responsible for the continuing changes in family life. Experts believed that if marriage was going to be a “companionate” venture—a relationship based on love and satisfying sexual relationships—divorce was an important safety valve for husbands and wives who were trapped in loveless unions. They hoped, however, that by studying marriage in an objective manner, they could develop strategies that would slow the rising divorce rate and, more important, improve the general quality of American marriages.[13] To this end, experts launched research studies intended to quantify marital success and taught marriage courses at universities. Some even began to experiment with a European technique known as “marriage counseling,” anticipating that they could prevent both ill-advised unions and unnecessary marital breakups. These efforts, in turn, laid the groundwork for a new understanding of what it meant to be married in the United States.

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From Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States, by Kristin Celello. Copyright © 2009 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Kristin Celello is assistant professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York.

  1. [1] Loew’s Columbia, advertisement for The Divorcée, Washington Post, May 3, 1930; The Divorcée, dir. Robert Z. Leonard (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1930).
  2. [2] Parrott, Ex-Wife.
  3. [3] Loew’s Columbia, advertisement for The Divorcée. See also Watson, “Fading Shame,” 142.
  4. [4] R.G., “Norma Shearer’s Film,” Wall Street Journal, May 13, 1930.
  5. [5] Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness.
  6. [6] “‘Divorcée’ to Be Held Over,” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1930; “Miss Shearer Retained for Second Week,” Washington Post, May 11, 1930.
  7. [7] Edwin Schallert, “Shearer Film Ultra in Plot,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1930; “Miss Shearer Retained for Second Week”; “Pantages to Screen ‘Divorcée,’” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1930.
  8. [8] Groves, Marriage Crisis.
  9. [9] Fass, Damned and the Beautiful, chap. 2.
  10. [10] Smith, “Making Marriage a Problem”; Coontz, Marriage, 8.
  11. [11] Riley, Divorce, 134-35, 156-57.
  12. [12] On the general lessening of the “divorce stigma,” see Watson, “Fading Shame.”
  13. [13] Groves, Marriage Crisis, 190.

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