The Divorcee (1930)

While staying at a resort with some friends, Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) decide to get married with one stipulation — that their marriage will be a marriage of equals.  Their friends are thrilled for them  and spend the rest of the night celebrating their good news.  Well, everyone except for Paul (Conrad Nagel), that is.  He’s been carrying a torch for Jerry and spends the evening getting drunk.  When the party’s over, Jerry and Ted leave separately while some others get into a car driven by the now very inebriated Paul.  Of course, this does not end well and he crashes the car and disfigures their friend Dorothy.

Ted and Jerry get married and out of guilt, Paul marries Dorothy.  Ted and Jerry couldn’t be happier together but that all comes to an end the night of their third wedding anniversary.  When some of their friends come over for a party, a woman named Janice (Mary Doran) tags along with one of the guests.  Not only has Janice already met Ted, but they had an affair one night when he was drunk and away on business.  When Janice corners Ted in the kitchen, Jerry catches them and immediately knows what’s going on.  She confronts Ted about it and he tries to brush it off, claiming that it didn’t mean anything, but Jerry is heartbroken.  After Ted leaves for Chicago on business, his best friend Don (Robert Montgomery) keeps her company while he’s out of town.  Since this was supposed to be a marriage of equals, Jerry decides to even the score and have an affair with Don.  After all, they were supposed to be equals, right? But when Ted gets back from his trip, Jerry breaks the news to him and suddenly Ted’s singing a different tune when Jerry says it didn’t mean anything.

As much as Jerry wants to make their marriage work, she can’t deal with Ted and his double standards and divorces him.  Jerry sets out on her new life determined to have plenty of affairs and boy, does she!  But while on a trip for work, she runs into her old friend Paul.  Paul is still married to Dorothy, but has never been able to forget Jerry.  The two of them begin having an affair and travel together all over the place.  Paul and Jerry even talk about getting married, but after Jerry meets with Dorothy, she doesn’t have the heart to take her husband away from her.  Meanwhile, Ted hasn’t been faring so well and has been hitting the bottle pretty hard in Paris.  When New Years Eve rolls around, Jerry decides to spend it in Paris, hoping she would run into Ted.  They meet again at a party and decide to start the new year by giving their marriage another try.

The Divorcee is one of the most essential pre-code movies and rightfully so.  I love the story, actually I think it would still make for an interesting movie if it were made today.  I don’t think it really gets enough credit for what an important movie it is.  The Divorcee is basically the movie that really put the whole pre-code era into high gear.  And if you’re unfamiliar with the pre-code era, then getting to see a woman like Jerry is a very interesting change of pace from how women were often portrayed in movies made under the code.  Norma Shearer is phenomenal in it, easily one of her finest moments.  I love the story about how Norma had to fight Irving Thalberg to get the part.  She desperately wanted the part, but Thalberg didn’t think she was right for it so to prove her point, she went and had some saucy pictures taken.  After seeing the results, he finally saw Norma’s point of view and let her have the part that went on to get her an Oscar.  It’s a great movie and if you have even the slightest interest in the pre-code era, you absolutely must see it.


  1. Good point about this being an essential pre-Code film in its look at issues of marriage, affairs, and divorce. Shearer was also one of the major, if not THE major, pre-Code actress; another of her films to catch is ‘A Free Soul,’ in which she plays a woman determined to live outside the conventions of the time.

  2. I’m not a big fan of remakes but would watch this movie if it were released today…..given the right cast, director and backend support, of course. Still I’m going to try and see if Netflix has this title. If not, there is (thankfully) a little independently owned movie rental store in my town that I could visit to try and find it there. The title alone and key art peaked my interest but your description and review of this film has me wanting to check it out.

  3. Thalberg was something of elitist, and resented the fact that, at that point, Broadway stars garnered significantly more respect than film players. The stage was ‘art,’ and movies were disposable pastimes.

    Of course, that would continuously turn around, but not fast enough to suit Irving. Despite winning the Oscar for The Divorcee, Irving didn’t see characters like Jerry as his Norma. In his mind, she belonged with the Katherine Cornells, Lynn Fontannes and Helen Hayeses of the stage. He wanted Norma to be ‘above the fray’ but Norma knew for an actress of her young years that to be above the fray was the same as being out of the game. She liked the daring sexpot roles of Jerry, Lisbeth (Strangers May Kiss), and Jan Ashe (A Free Soul).

    The ultimate decision was taken out of both their hands when Joseph L. Breen was elevated to head Hollywood’s censorship office in mid-1934. With a phalanx of U.S. Catholic bishops guiding and trusting Breen’s hand, the axe came down and came down hard. Especially for women. From there on, there would no ambiguity about the state of a ‘good’ leading lady’s maidenhood. She would start out a virgin and stay one till a trip to the altar. Infidelity in marriage too extracted draconian payments from women that, typically, cost men a slap on the wrist.

    It would be a long time coming before there again would be dramatizations making the case that a woman could be inarguably moral without being chaste.

Comments are closed.