Jungle Rules and nostalgia for the past

Review: Divorce - 1945

Divorce with Kay Francis and Helen Mack

"I was just playing the rules as they put them down. Jungle rules, if you know what I mean."

Kay Francis stars in and is the producer for Divorce, a Monogram film from 1945 in which an old flame (Kay as Dianne Carter) returns after four lucrative divorces to her old hometown, where she then proceeds to steal her childhood boyfriend Bob (Bruce Cabot) from his wife Martha (Helen Mack).

When Kay's character is first introduced aboard a train headed to her hometown, the camera focuses directly on her long legs then moves up to show us the whole person. When we last see her in Divorce (in both instances she is talking with the same train porter played by Napoleon Simpson), her legs are covered up by her fur coat aboard a train as she flees the town. Director William Nigh shows us that she is no longer "hunting," and her thoughtful (though troubled) demeanor, as the train porter comments on, tells us that Dianne Carter has been changed.

How did she get changed? The film shows us that Dianne Carter is a conqueror who not only captures a man if she wants him, but is a brilliant businesswoman who can outperform anyone she meets. She easily captures Bob Phillips, but she cannot in the end defeat Bob's kids, who perform a mock court martial of their philandering father towards the end of the movie. Dianne Carter is out of the room but witnesses what happens, and then speedily heads for an exit, coming across wife Martha, who is about to order her from the family home when Dianne interrupts:

"Relax, Martha. I'm leaving town on the first train. Tell Bob I don't know anything about children's games."

Of course, Dianne is a classic Hollywood home wrecker, and so is a master at some games, but whether she knows she is no match for Bob's kids, or that she doesn't want to be a match for them, isn't explained.

Divorce had always been a significant subject in Hollywood films, and as America headed towards the conclusion of World War II, the subject of divorce became even more prominent in motion pictures as the overnight marriages of troops heading out to war were turning into fast divorces as the troops returned.

It's not only Dianne Carter who is said to have been changed in Divorce, but also the lead male Bob, played by Bruce Cabot, who has returned from the war ready to forget his military experiences (which adds to the irony of how his two sons chastise him near the end, stripping him of his officer's rank from his uniform). But, as a final judgment on what's happened, the lightning-quick windup and denouement of Divorce is packed into just 58 seconds, putting us back where we started, with Dianne talking with the same train porter just before "the end" rises up on the screen:

Porter: Well, Mrs. Carter, we got you for a passenger again. You didn't stay long in your ol'hometown, did you?

Dianne Carter: Stayed a little too long.

Porter: That's too bad. Did you find the folks and things had changed very much?

Dianne: I thought they had. But I discovered that they hadn't.

Porter: You seem to have changed quite a bit since I saw you last.

Dianne: Yes, I have. And I don't think I'm going to like it very much.

Though Monogram was a "poverty row" studio and Divorce has the telltale signs of an inexpensive and fast production with too many scenes looking stiff and under-rehearsed, the pacing speeding us forward through the plot without variation and the scenes feeling like Lego-blocks stuck together and all the same size, nonetheless Kay Francis was a veteran A-level superstar and she makes her scenes suddenly come to life with some of the flavor of her well-financed melodramas made during her reign as Warner Bros' highest paid star of the 1930s.

Divorce is economical but it isn't without other pluses besides Kay's screen time. Helen Mack (maybe best known for her tortured scenes in Her Girl Friday as a doomed, kind women having her reputation torn apart by headline hungry newsmen) is energized and compelling as the betrayed wife who has to digest her husband's affair with Dianne Carter.

The two female leads on opposite sides of Bruce Cabot are far better explained to us than is Bob Phillips himself. Dianne shows him the effective ways in which to astronomically compound his business deal-making skills, which feeds his need for success, and Divorce shows the two women squaring off for his loyalty with the tall, slender and movie-star accoutered Kay Francis up against the far smaller and plainly clothed Helen Mack, which in Hollywood terms means one is a battleship and the other a honest, sturdy tugboat.

Aside from the classic romance triangle, though, is something unique: did Cabot (and producer Kay Francis) mean to keep Bob so enigmatic or are we simply to accept that this man can be manipulated like a robot toy by the two women? This isn't clear, since though he is the central prize of the movie, he's hardly allowed to do much more than be anxious about his failures/successes in business, and this flatness ends up making him seem like a metaphor for something a lot bigger than one struggling businessman.

In Divorce, Kay is able to uniquely gain control of Bob (for awhile) by simply making sure they talk about the nostalgia of the pre-war world when they originally knew each other, and in that Bob Phillips isn't just a businessman with his eyes on a pretty girl, he is that part of America with eyes clouded with the pre-war past, when he was younger and didn't have family responsibilities and tough war experiences, and it was also where Dianne "knew the rules" and wasn't just finishing with husband number four. Divorce shows us that the money and alcohol they surround themselves with as their deal-making teamwork pays off isn't enough to make the present more palatable in a permanent way.

Divorce is probably better known not for the actual tale of a family being broken and put back together again but by the pontificating and preachy lead section of the film (almost ten minutes of this 71 minute movie) which features a scrolling analysis of divorce in text then followed by many of the sentiments being repeated verbally by the one-man show of Judge Conlon (Jonathan Hale) officiating over a courtroom where applicants for divorce are run through his sometimes cogent, sometimes (unintentionally) hilarious analyses of their situations, dismissing one plaintiff as "a show off" and another couple as "pathetic." Like a weary god confronted by beings too self-absorbed to understand their predicament, he renders judgement calls not based on a thorough understanding of each individual situation, but on his accumulated experience with couples in general and he is very annoyed with the whole lot of them.

Kay Francis made two more Monogram movies Wife Wanted and Allotment Wifes, and she was the co-producer for all three, and is reported to have worked on the scripts, too, bringing her experience as a top-shelf star to the penny-tight studio.

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Original Page June 9, 2022