THE DIVORCEE (1930)

(VOD) When most folks hear Norma Shearer these days, they probably think of THE WOMEN (if they recollect her at all), but while she was a star well before THE DIVORCEE, it’s THE DIVORCEE that turned her from a conventional leading lady into an unconventional one, one proudly willing to tackle sensitive material. (It helps that she won an Oscar for her role.)

THE DIVORCEE is based on a Ursula Parrott’s novel EX-WIFE — it shouldn’t be confused with the lost 1919 silent film THE DIVORCEE, which was based on the 1903 play LADY FREDERICK — and centers around a love triangle between Jerry (Norma Shearer), Ted (Chester Morris), and Paul (Conrad Nagel). Paul loves Jerry, but Jerry marries Ted. Paul gets drunk and, while driving a party of their friends home, gets into an accident, viciously scarring friend Dorothy’s (Helen Johnson) face. Paul feels terrible guilt and marries Dorothy. Ted cheats on Jerry, so Jerry returns the favor by sleeping with Ted’s best friend Don, and informs Ted that they’re even now. Ted becomes outraged and divorces her.

Jerry moves on, living her best life by traveling and partying, while Ted becomes an alcoholic, and Paul re-enters her orbit, still married to Dorothy. Lessons are then learned by all, roll credits.

If it sounds like I’m dismissive about the end of the film, it’s because it’s meant to be dismissed. THE DIVORCEE is a pre-code film, which means that it didn’t have to adhere to the increasingly strict Hays Code of on-screen moral representation that penalized, well, practically every Hollywood production from the mid-1930s into the 1960s. While it’s possible THE DIVORCEE could have been made under early Hays Code regulations, it certainly wouldn’t be so frank about infidelity. That said, the closing is laughably moralistic, and undoes all of the fine progressive groundwork of the prior 80 minutes, but I find it hard to believe audiences of the time would have been fooled by it.

While the film has some clunky visual exposition — specifically the opening shot that looks like they opted to film a high school theater rendition of the novel — a fair amount of Robert Z. Leonard’s work is stellar, especially whenever Jerry and Ted are in a tight two-shot. (The moment when she plots her next step after confronting him about his infidelity, the smoke in the party room rolling behind her head simulating angry steam, is pitch-perfect.)

Not a trailer, but an excerpt: