When Lord Philip Rexford (Herbert Marshall) and Mary (Norma Shearer), a party girl socialite, are invited to a costume party and are given a couple of ridiculous costumes to wear, it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Before the party, the two of them meet and, upon seeing how goofy their costumes are, they decide to skip the party, ditch the costumes, and spend the evening together dressed as normal people. That night leads to a whirlwind romance and an impulsive marriage. Five years later, they are still happily married with a daughter and living in England and Mary’s wilder days seem safely behind her. But when Philip has to take a trip alone, Mary quickly becomes lonely and accepts his Aunt Hetty’s invitation to take a trip to Cannes. The two of them have a swell time, but things start to get out of hand when Mary finds out Tommie Trent (Robert Montgomery) is staying in the same hotel. Tommie has quite a reputation of his own and had a thing for Mary in the past. Unfortunately, Tommie’s hard-living lifestyle has caught up with him and left him nearly suicidal. But when Mary shows up at his hotel room, everything brightens up for him. She brings him down to the party, the two of them get drunk, and have a lot of fun together. But when Tommie gets carried away and kisses Mary, Mary goes back to her room instead of being unfaithful. Tommie tries to follow her back to her hotel room by climbing onto her balcony, but ends up taking a serious fall.
When Mary finds out what happened, she goes to see him in the hospital. But when she is photographed kissing him very innocently, her marriage is torn apart by scandal. Mary swears up and down that nothing happened, but given her past, he won’t believe her. When Tommie was well enough, she had him come and tell the whole story to Philip, but that only makes things worse. Eventually, Philip decides he wants a divorce and Mary begins a real relationship with Tommie. But then Philip does some investigating and finds out Mary was telling the truth the whole time and asks her to come see him. Still in love with him, she gladly goes, but Tommie decides to see Philip, too, to tell him how he feels about Mary.
Riptide was Norma Shearer’s final pre-code and compared to some of her other pre-codes, the story feels relatively tame. It’s not as obviously scandalous as The Divorcee and it’s not like her character is challenging conventional values such as marriage like in Strangers May Kiss. But it still definitely has its pre-code moments. It’s got a former wild party girl trying to put her past behind her, a married woman cavorting with a former lover, and when the divorce papers are drawn up, she even willingly gives up custody of her daughter. Norma’s performance here is one of my favorites out of all her pre-codes. When her character was supposed to be fun, boy was she bubbly, fun, and free. She was quite intoxicating to watch. I also like the fact that she closed the pre-code chapter of her career with her best co-star of that era, Robert Montgomery. I think it’s interesting that the pre-code era of Norma’s career really began and ended with movies both dealing with troubled marriages that also starred Robert Montgomery. Riptide makes for a nice bookend to that era of Norma’s career. And if for no other reason, it’s worth seeing just for Norma’s entrance dressed in her ridiculous insect costume. Best Norma Shearer entrance ever!