The Divorcée makes for a great study in film history. It not only illustrates the liberal sexual subjects able to be portrayed in the time before the Production Code banned anything seemingly indecent, but it shows all too well the double standard of infidelity between men and women in the 1930s. Additionally, Norma Shearer appears in the type of role that she seemed to own during those pre-code days.
The film begins with the intensely enamored couple Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) deciding to get married, much to the chagrin of womanizer Don, a role perfect for Robert Montgomery. Three years later as the couple prepare to celebrate their third anniversary, Jerry learns her husband has been cheating on her. She manages, whether deliberately or not, to sleep with Don, her husband’s best friend. Although she reveals the affair to Ted, she does not say who the man is, and a slimy Don has fled the country to avoid any trouble.
Although Jerry is willing to forgive Ted’s longtime indiscretion with another woman, Ted is appalled by his wife’s behavior and the two divorce. Jerry now lives life to the fullest with all sorts of men, but prepares to settle down with Paul (Conrad Nagel), who had loved her before her marriage. The trouble is Paul is married, and at the last minute his wife begs to retain him. Jerry and Ted manage to find a happy ending, although one might question to the extent either can be happy given the lives they have lived in the meantime.
Although Norma Shearer began her career in nice-girl sorts of roles, she managed to use her marriage to MGM Production Manager Irving Thalberg to land the spicy spots for which she would come to be known. The story goes that Shearer had sexy pictures taken of herself, which she provided to Thalberg as proof she could embody such roles. Specifically she was angling for The Divorcée, the first in a long run of racy flicks and one that garnered her the Best Actress Oscar.
I must add that as much as I love Montgomery and have accepted with open arms the many womanizing and otherwise selfish romantic roles he plays, he was a bit weasly in The Divorcée. As much as I was rooting for Shearer to hook up with him, I hoped it would be permanent, not an awkward day-after situation in which Don had clearly gotten what he desired an now wanted out and away from the danger of an angry husband. I’m sure that was the intention of the role, and he played it well, but I need a redeeming picture to get him back in my good graces.
Source: Robert Osborne