San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Well, That Explains Reno

Note this post does contain spoilers on the 1934 Pre-Code film, This Man is Mine. It's a great film, well worth watching. While I do give away plot details, I don't think it would ruin your enjoyment. It's more how things unfold that make it good rather than what actually happens.

As a classic movie person, I'm well aware of the significance of Reno, Nevada, in old movies. In short, Reno means divorce.  Much of what I know about divorce in the first half of the 20th Century comes from old movies, specifically, The Women. Most of the major characters in The Women go to Reno to get their divorces, and divorce is a major theme in the film.

I honestly don't know what the Hays Office (Motion Picture Production Code) had to say on divorce. Clearly, it was openly mentioned as in The Women. His Girl Friday also refers to Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant being divorced, with Rosalind Russell speaking of spending six weeks in Reno. All I know is that when I'm watching an old movie, if Reno is mentioned, I know that means divorce.

I remember one time watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a non-classic movie friend. At one point, he asked me, "Wait, a second, I thought she was married." I had to explain that she also said she had just got back from Reno (code for divorce). Well, I always assumed that divorce was illegal in most states (it may have been in some states), but obviously not in Nevada. 

This morning, I was watching a Pre-Code film, This Man is Mine, and learned something new about divorce in the 1930s. In the film, Ralph Bellamy is married to Irene Dunne. Bellamy has an affair with an old flame (Constance Cummings) and asks Irene Dunne for a divorce. Irene Dunne says, she will give him the divorce, but only if they wait six months (figuring that Constance Cummings will move on to someone else in that time). 

Toward the end of the movie, Irene Dune changes her mind and decides to get the divorce. But instead of going to Reno, she files for divorce in New York. It is clear from the ensuing dialog that New York divorce is quite a different animal than a Reno divorce. A New York divorce meant a trial and witnesses and proof of infidelity, specifically dragging Constance Cummings character's name through the mud as the other woman. 

I assume that most normal people at the time couldn't afford a Reno divorce. Then again, the newspapers wouldn't care when Joe the plumber got a divorce. However, they would care for a wealthy society person, and the details would be quite a scandal for public figures. Hence, the Reno divorce, not a legal necessity, but a way of ending a marriage without all of the sordid details being made public. This is a nuance that I had never known before. 

Apparently, this was a nuance that my wife was unaware too. "Well, that explains Reno," she said as we were watching it unfold. That explains Reno, indeed.


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